Battered image

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

The Indonesian leadership suffers a loss of face in its failure to set up a tsunami warning system.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

TSUNAMI, for long a phenomenon that was familiar only to the Japanese among the communities along the East Asian coastline, became a household name in many parts of the continent after December 2004. While several countries, including India and Sri Lanka, were hit on that occasion, the first `landfall' of that tsunami was felt along Indonesia's Aceh province. In the event, Aceh, on the northernmost tip of Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago-state, turned out to be the worst theatre of that tsunami tragedy.

Being a totally alien phenomenon in the living memory of Indonesians, the catastrophe of December 2004 was dealt with by their political leaders in a trial-and-error fashion. Understandably, the affected survivors were not the least amused by the response then. Apparently, all concerned, learnt a lesson.

But the latest tsunami, which struck the southern parts of western Java and the adjoining areas of central Java, also seem to have caught the Indonesian leaders unawares. Java is the most sensitive island in the country's politics. So, Indonesian leaders now find themselves battered much more than in 2004.

The July 17 tsunami was caused by an earthquake that measured 7.7 on the Richter scale. It has unleashed a humanitarian crisis in the worst-hit areas. Unofficial estimates by July 22 were that nearly 550 persons were killed, while over 300 others were injured. The homeless numbered tens of thousands.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla sheepishly faced the wounded survivors in the disaster zone, most of whom were rendered homeless. The judgment against these leaders is, surely, not about the failure to anticipate the earthquake, a matter beyond the scientific realm of even professional geologists, and the resultant tsunami.

Instead, they are blamed for not having set up a tsunami alert system that could have saved many lives.

Given Indonesia's vast maritime zone and its geological setting atop a subterranean "ring of fire", the complexity of erecting a countrywide tsunami warning network could not be disputed. Yudhoyono and Kalla now say that it might take at least another three years to put into operation a viable tsunami warning system for the archipelago. Their concerted pleas for the people's understanding and patience, in the context of the July 17 tsunami, have now acquired the overtones of "politics of preparedness".

Significantly, Yudhoyono and Kalla had indulged in "humanitarian politics" to win the affection of the survivors of the earthquake that rocked the Yogyakarta region and the adjoining areas in Java in May. Yudhoyono also announced that Indonesia's radio and television networks as also cellular service-providers would be asked to educate people, from now on, about the responses to an actual tsunami alert.

Since the initial death toll was grossly underestimated, Jakarta did not really make a determined pitch for immediate foreign assistance to tide over the July 17 crisis, unlike at the time of the 2004 tsunami.

Some East Asian countries, notably Japan with its tsunami-related expertise, did evince interest in helping Indonesia this time too.

However, unlike after the 2004 tsunami, no international coalition, like the initial core group consisting of the navies of the U.S. and Australia as also India and Japan, was formed to help Indonesia meet the crisis.

While these two crises obviously differed vastly in their magnitudes, political reasons too played some part in shaping the international community's responses this time.

India, which too briefly faced the possible prospect of a tsunami on July 17, was still coming to grips with the terror strikes on Mumbai's suburban trains on July 11. Australia, which had in recent years begun to give importance to Indonesia's status as the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, was preoccupied with a military mission to neighbouring East Timor, which was actually an Indonesian province until seven years ago. Australia's Christmas Island, too, had come under a tsunami alert this time.

The U.S., which quickly grabbed the chance to stamp its maritime presence in the Aceh sector in 2004, was distracted this time round by the crises in Iraq and Iran and also the North Korean missile issue and Israel's new military offensive in West Asia.

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