Erhard Haubold:

Australia takes charge in Indonesia” titles the daily Sydney Morning Herald. That surely is something the Indonesians do not want to hear from their southern neighbour whose military intervention in East Timor four years ago many did not like. They have similar apprehensions now with the large presence of Australian and US troops aiding tsunami-victims in Sumatra.

There is no doubt that Canberra sees its aid operation as a welcome opportunity to make new friends in Indonesia, making forget “Operation East Timor” and statements by Prime Minister John Howard to the extent that he would authorise “pre-emptive” military strikes in Southeast Asian countries if there was a terrorist threat from their soil. Being a leading partner in the “coalition of the willing”, Australia wants to improve its image in the world’s largest Muslim nation. By pledging one billion Australian dollars in tsunami aid, Howard played his cards well.

This will re-engage the US with Southeast Asia on a broader front than just the war on terrorism. Muslims in Indonesia and elsewhere might continue to feel that America in Iraq and elsewhere is fighting a war against Islam. But US aid in one of the great natural disasters in human history is welcome nonetheless. With aircraft carriers, helicopters and 6000 men stationed off the coast of Sumatra, America shows it is the only power willing and able to organise a timely and large scale relief effort anywhere in Asia. TNI, Jakarta’s defence forces, is corrupt and so the latest news alleging that it is selling food aid given by Western donors to needy people in Aceh is not surprising. Equally alarming is the news that TNI are transporting members of radical Muslim groups to Aceh to help in distributing aid but more likely to create trouble by threatening foreign aid workers and linking Acehnese freedom fighters to Al Qaida with which they had nothing to do so far.

Western countries that have donated money to the tsunami-affected countries may one day have to read shocking stories about corruption, misappropriation and inefficiency in regard to the use of foreign aid. As the case of Indonesia shows: the major organisation for aid distribution will be the Armed Forces. In Aceh “more than enough aid” has arrived, private helpers say. Yet the aid keeps coming, clogging airports warehouses and destined to rot. Yet the donation drives are going on. Why is there so much more enthusiasm for the tsunami victims than there was for much larger disasters in Africa, in Bangladesh or in Indian Orissa? Maybe, some people speculate, because the tsunami was sudden and dramatic, it occurred over Christmas, a time when many in the West contemplate more than their own life. Western governments may have altogether different motivations. The US tries to make new friends in the Muslim world where its illegitimate invasion of Iraq has sent its reputation to a disastrous all-time low. Australia may have similar motives, but also wants to put a gloss on the harsh way it treats asylum seekers who are detained behind barbed wire in hot desert locations. There is also an Australian desire to play a leading political and strategic role in a region that still refuses to consider the Fifth Continent as part of the Asian family. And there is plain nationalistic jingoism that half of that generous Australian donation consists of interest-free loans that Indonesia and other countries have to repay.

Haubold, a freelancer, writes for THT from Berlin