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Jakarta puts own interests first in tale of two disasters

On May 27 last year, 6,650 people died and 450,000 homes were damaged or destroyed when an earthquake struck near the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta.

Two days later, mud started gushing from the ground 280km to the east after a mishap near the town of Sidoharjo at an exploratory drilling well. More than 11,000 homes and two dozen businesses have since been buried under 20m-deep mud flows that are still spewing at a rate of 130,000 cubic m a day. Rail, road and gas links to a large section of east Java have been severely disrupted, sending reconstruction costs and estimated economic losses soaring to billions of dollars, more than that of the earthquake.

A year on, the Indonesian government’s contrasting responses to these two separate disasters demonstrate the significance of decisive political leadership and the continuing power of well- connected businesspeople.

Only 1 per cent of people who lost their homes in Yogyakarta lack temporary shelter or a permanent new home. More than 90 per cent of markets, schools and health centres have been rebuilt and more than 80 per cent of damaged irrigation networks are functioning properly.

“In the 10 years that I’ve been doing this, this (recovery) has gone the most smoothly,” says Peter Manfield, of the United Nations’ co-ordination office.

Bill Marsden, recovery co-ordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Yogyakarta, says the reconstruction process could be finished next year, a year earlier than expected.

“The crucial thing was the speed with which the government mobilised the money and the system that was used,” he says. “It wrong-footed everyone. No one thought it would be possible to disburse so much money so quickly. It has shown what can be done with the right political will.”

The local government in Bantul, the worst-affected district, received its 2007 reconstruction funds in April; regular central government budget allocations are unlikely to be disbursed for another month.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had good reason to act so efficiently. “Yogyakarta is the heartland of the nation,” says a diplomat. “The president could not afford to neglect millions of people on his doorstep.”

The situation in Sidoharjo could not be more different. Lapindo Brantas, the company doing the drilling that police say triggered the mudflow, is owned by the family of Aburizal Bakrie. Mr Bakrie is the senior welfare minister and a prominent member of Golkar, which as the largest party in parliament provides key support to Mr Yudhoyono. This has cast a dark shadow across the whole relief operation.

“If Bakrie hadn’t been involved, the situation would not have been like it is now,” says Anton Soedjarwo, director of Dian Desa, a relief organisation. “The response would have been more pragmatic.” Mr Bakrie has denied that Lapindo employees’ negligence caused the disaster but he has agreed to buy all the victims’ destroyed property and pay some of the clean-up cost.

Lapindo has been ordered to pay for much of the clean-up but no one in the government is willing to say that the company was responsible for causing the mudflow. Political analysts and government officials say the dilemma facing Mr Yudhoyono is that he does not want to alienate a crucial supporter but he cannot afford to let Mr Bakrie off the hook.

“The result is that he has been indecisive and the people on the ground are suffering the consequences,” says an official involved in disaster management. “When elite interests are involved, they always seem to take priority over tackling the core of the problem.”

Virtually all affected residents have received money for rent and monthly allowances from Lapindo. But only a few dozen have begun to receive compensation promised by Lapindo.

Khairul Huda, a university lecturer who has helped co-ordinate the response in one village, says the frustration over the slow disbursement of money has grown to a point where demonstrations have become regular.

“The problem is the political will of the government and Lapindo. It’s just not there,” he says. “We don’t know whether there’s an elite conspiracy or not. We just know we’re not getting our money.”

Despite the scale of the destruction, Mr Yudhoyono has yet officially to declare the mudflow a disaster. Central government aid has been limited and non-governmental organisations have established only token presences. There has also been little progress in the prosecution of those responsible for the drilling mishap. It took the police nine months to complete their investigation but the case has yet to go to trial. Conspicuously, only individual employees and contractors, not the company, are being probed as suspects.

 John Aglionby 

© Financial Times

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