Vol. 2, No. 2, BOOK REVIEWS, LOH Kah Seng

Contents>> Vol. 2, No. 2

From the Ground Up: Perspectives on Post-Tsunami and Post-Conflict Aceh

Patrick Daly, R. Michael Feener, and Anthony Reid, eds.

Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012, xxxi+262p.

On the book cover, the words “Lebih baik disini kampung kita sendiri” are scrawled on a wall of a disaster-hit house in Aceh. “It is better to stay here in our village.” As its title suggests, From the Ground Up explores the country’s recovery from natural disaster and military conflict from the perspectives of various participants, including scholars, practitioners, and ordinary Acehnese. Across the chapters, there is a sensitivity to Acehnese views, interests, and agency. This is ­buttressed by the inclusion of several Acehnese authors and a sustained inquiry, based on extensive fieldwork or personal engagement, into a society’s recovery at the intersection of international, national, and local action.

The book begins with a geological study of the Sunda megathrust and considers the likely timing and site of the next great earthquake and/or tsunami to strike Sumatra. The bulk of the volume is divided into two sections. The first, by far the more substantial, examines the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which devastated Aceh, among other places in Southeast and South Asia. It critically addresses issues like the role of NGOs in relief work, the autonomous ways in which survivors responded to loss and trauma, the experiences and rights of women, reconstruction finance, and the need to rebuild Aceh’s cultural heritage.

The second part surveys the resolution of Aceh’s separatist struggle. The landmark event here, as a counterpoint to the disaster, is the Helsinki Peace Accords brokered the following year between the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka movement and the Indonesian government which ended the long-running, low-intensity conflict. The tone in this section differs from the first with an emphasis on success and moving out of crisis. Although the authors generally acknowledge that more demanding challenges of truth and reconciliation and peace building lay beyond the end of the conflict, there is a lack of criticality present in the first section. The papers provide useful insights into the roles played by “external” parties in ending the conflict, such as the Indonesian leaders and the Aceh Monitoring Mission, but they sit rather awkwardly alongside the first group of papers.

I shall examine several chapters in greater detail. The contributions on international NGOs crucially reveal a disjuncture in relief and rehabilitation work between the international and local levels. John Telford, drawing upon the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition reports, points to the failure of large, powerful international NGOs to be respectful towards local perspectives and traditions. He shows how the post-disaster operation focused excessively on relief work to the detriment of tackling long-term problems such as disaster risk, poverty, and under-development. Ian Christoplos and Treena Wu reiterate this point in highlighting the need for international NGOs to devolve the task of LRRD (linking relief, rehabilitation, and development) to local communities. Both papers underline the tension in post-disaster work between responding to the effects of a calamitous event and addressing long-term processes which have contributed to these effects. The work of various scholars (Blaikie et al. 1994; Pelling 2003; Nowak and Caulfield 2008) suggests that the two issues cannot be divorced: a disaster’s impact falls hardest on those people who have been rendered particularly vulnerable by political, economic, demographic, and environmental developments. This point alludes to the book’s failure to properly contextualize the history, politics and society of pre-tsunami Aceh.

The shortcomings of post-tsunami rebuilding are also evident in the chapter on cultural heritage. Patrick Daly and Yenny Rahmayati highlight the failure to take into account the “intangi­ble” cultural aspects of reconstruction. The power of international NGOs and the emphasis on “expertise” have hindered Acehnese’s efforts to rebuild their society. Imposed from above, the rehousing program has alienated women and created jealousy among villagers. The paper underscores a recurring theme in the book that any form of reconstruction must be meaningful to the survivors.

Saiful Mahdi’s chapter on migration provides valuable insight into the socio-cultural resources of ordinary Acehnese and how they have been undermined by the “double disaster” of the tsunami and subsequent relief operation. Here again, the distinction between acute and chronic forms of disaster and deprivation blurs, as Saiful discusses how Acehnese have customarily moved between areas in search of livelihood opportunities, aided by social contacts based at the destination site. He notes that the rehousing program has created forced mobility and immobility by moving survivors to inferior barrack housing or splitting up members of communities, in effect weakening their social capital. Saiful’s insights are a welcome addition to a growing body of literature on “cultures of disaster” and the coping mechanisms of communities that may differ from the ration­alist, expertise-driven approaches of international humanitarian groups (Bankoff 2003; Aldrich 2011).

As a sum of two parts, the book does not adequately conceptualize the link between disaster response and conflict resolution. Whether the connection is more than temporal is worth exploring. The editors suggest (p. viii) that the scale of the tsunami contributed to the Helsinki agreement, and that humanitarian assistance needs to embrace the survivors of both the disaster and conflict. However, there is some evidence that the two issues are not necessarily aligned. Michael Morfit’s chapter warns against exaggerating the “tsunami factor,” as the Indonesian government’s efforts at conflict resolution had begun before the disaster. There is also evidence (see the contribution by Rizal Sukma; Zeccola 2011) that by prioritizing disaster relief, humanitarian assistance has alienated Acehnese affected by the conflict.

The book raises important questions about recovery from disaster and conflict. There is increasing recognition of the failings of transnational or privately-organized reconstruction efforts (see also Gotham and Greenberg 2008, on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina) and of the need to be attentive to context. That the problems persist despite the experiences of recent disasters says ­something about the fraught network which connects international NGOs, states, and survivors. To restructure the network is beyond the means of the book, but From the Ground Up does suggest what scholars and practitioners may accomplish when they base the recovery program on the perspectives and resources of the survivors.

Loh Kah Seng 罗家成
Institute for East Asian Studies, Sogang University


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DOI: doi.org/10.20495/seas.2.2_411