We can do it alone, says military chief

Indonesian general responds to criticism from some tsunami aid groups.

INDONESIA can go it alone if foreign aid groups are not comfortable with how it carries out relief efforts in Aceh.

That was the view of Major-General Bambang Darmono, the Indonesian general directing humanitarian operations in the tsunami-hit province.

Responding to criticisms by some private aid groups of curbs on their movements, he told The Straits Times: ‘Bear in mind that we still have a sovereign and functioning government. No one has the right to dictate to us. If they don’t want to help us, then we can do it ourselves.’

Maj-Gen Bambang’s comments take place against a backdrop of complaints about the restrictions, which Jakarta said were needed as a safety measure in an area noted for a long-running separatist insurgency.

The TNI has said foreign relief workers need official approval and possible military escorts if they plan to work outside the two main cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. Some aid agencies say this would hamper efforts to reach out to victims in remote areas.

Many refugees now live in clusters of tent colonies, many lacking proper sanitation. But taking a broad overview of the relief efforts so far, Maj-Gen Bambang said ‘everything is under control’ and ‘going according to plan’.

The TNI, which was tasked with coordinating evacuation and aid distribution, has almost completed ‘the most difficult stage’ of the operations in Aceh, he said.

The first two weeks after the Dec 26 tsunami struck, his men faced huge problems as communications were down and roads impassable. But roads and at least three bridges have been built along the west coast of Aceh, and this has allowed supplies of food and water to be sent from Medan to Meulaboh.

‘I don’t think you will find many people starving now,’ he noted.

He added that the TNI was moving into the next phase of operations. Over the next two months, its soldiers will help build camps for some 350,000 displaced people. Each of the 24 designated camp sites will have its own markets, prayer centres and field hospitals.

Major-Gen Bambang said he expected these colonies of temporary wood-and-attap shelters to last two years while work is under way to put up permanent housing and rebuild devastated towns.

He said that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) along with other foreign military teams from the United States, Australia and Malaysia had been critical in providing help during this first phase of operations.

‘Singapore has helped us a great deal in this crisis. There is this special synergy between both the TNI and SAF in the field. We appreciate what they have done so far.’

He said Indonesia continued to welcome foreign help, but aid groups had to ‘play ball’ and work with the government. Otherwise, they should leave.

‘They must remember that we share a common objective of helping the people of Aceh. They should not try to politicise this issue.’

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