Kuntoro Mangkusubroto: I threw out the Aceh Master Plan

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  • Kuntoro Mangkusubroto. Image: TEMPO/Aditia Noviansyah

    Kuntoro Mangkusubroto. Image: TEMPO/Aditia Noviansyah

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The December 26, 2004, tsunami not only destroyed much of Aceh, it landed Kuntoro Mangkusubroto on the shores of Indonesia's westernmost province. Between 2005 and 2009, the Purwokerto-born graduate of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), took on the monumental job of heading the Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Board (BRR). "You only live once, why not take the chance," Kuntoro told Tempo, in an interview at the ITB School of Business and Management in South Jakarta, two weeks ago.

    Under Kuntoro, BRR succeeded in building more than 140,000 new homes for victims of the tsunami, 1,000 health clinics, some 2,000 schools and 3,000 mosques. More than US$7 billion had been donated from governments around the world to the recovery process. The BRR programs is acknowledged as the most successful post-natural disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation program in the world.

    Kuntoro, 67, recently chief of the Presidential Monitoring and Oversight Unit (UKP4), spoke openly on the government's lack of understanding of the real conditions in Aceh and its subsequent missteps. "I held the remote control over there," said Kuntoro. Excerpts:

    How do you see Aceh today, 10 years after the tsunami?

    I see that Aceh has revived. Life has returned, streets and schools have been repaired and economic activities seem to be functioning well. The international airport something we never imagined before is now up and running. So, I can say that I am happy and proud that physical reconstruction has been achieved according to expectations. In fact in some sectors, beyond expectation.

    But what about the non-physical aspects?

    Happily, the horizontal conflict ended. This is important, because horizontal conflicts can be easily set off in post-disaster areas where many legal and official documents have been lost. The most important papers are those pertaining to land [ownership]. People can be easily provoked over the issue of land borders, the size of their rice fields, their plantations and so on. In this case, we succeeded. But I have a big concern, and that is over the infrastructure that was supposed to be built, like the ports, docks, warehouses and bridges. Apparently, all those activities have been non-economic in nature. We have not seen economic growth based on significant new investments. So, what have been built are people-based activities, not those for economic growth. This is very worrying.

    How did that happen?

    Actually, that was not BRR's business. That had to do with an imperfect bureaucracy, bad relations between the provincial and district administrations and the application of Sharia, for example. All those factors have worried many people. I think there are good reasons why we are not quite happy with Aceh's progress so far.

    When were you last in Aceh?

    I forget, either six months or a year ago, when Banda Aceh Mayor Mawardi passed away. He was my deputy before he was elected mayor, which is why I went to his funeral. (Mawardi died on February 8, at the age of 59.)

    Some Acehnese have been seen going back to living in coastal areas. Is this wise?

    This is not unplanned. I did allow people to rebuild close to the sea. Don't think that we can ever save people from such a massive tsunami. What we had (10 years ago) was a mega-tsunami. The difference with Fukushima is that they had a nuclear power plant there and we had none here. So we should not debate over the feasibility of people wanting to live near or away from the shore.

    Even if they did live away from the shore, how far should that be? Because in Aceh, those waves would still get you as far away as five kilometers inland. Does that mean that areas five kilometers from the coast should be evacuated? That doesn't make sense. More importantly, it's how people who became fearful of the sea six months after the tsunami, are now coping. They are now asking, "Can we build our homes by the sea?"

    What was your answer?

    That question showed that they are coming to terms with the sea. During the second year, I asked them: "If I allowed you to build there, what would happen?" They replied, "It's the will of Allah." So this attitude towards the sea is always there, and they easily forget their previous suffering. They even said, "Allow us to rebuild our homes there. If something happens, it's between us and Allah." That's what happened and that's the psychology that we should be concerned about.

    Actually, I knew early on that rezoning lands would not be easy. Why? Because in a corrupt society, no one trusts the bureaucracy. And when that happens, people will not believe when they are told that the land is not to be used again because of safety reasons.

    Are you saying the bureaucracy in Aceh is not ready?

    I am saying that if an area is declared off-limits, in two years time, there will be a hotel there, and the people who originally wanted to build a home there but were prohibited from doing so, will have lost their rights to the land. They will be sidelined, forced to live far from their beloved sea and watch how their land has now become a resort hotel. So, we must deal with that kind of psychology. People [in Aceh] are those who have suffered most. They lost families and their land. There is no point in arguing about who owns the land. That's the situation today.

    Compare our case with that in Sri Lanka. There, the government has fenced the shore, as far as 300 meters inland. Behind that fence, people have built shacks and temporary homes, virtually becoming a shanty town. The residents are waiting for the fence to be taken down, so they can occupy their lands again. But 10 years have passed and the fence is still there. If I did that [in Aceh], my problems would never cease. (*)

    Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine