Indonesia's Year of Living Dangerously

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Pentak Lanud Adisucipto / Reuters

Smoke pours from the wreckage of a plane in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, March 7, 2007.

Disasters are becoming standard fare on Indonesia's TV screens. On Tuesday, it was shattered homes and buildings in and around Padang, the capital of west Sumatra, struck by two earthquakes in quick succession that killed at least 70 people. On Wednesday, it was scenes of the charred fuselage of a Garuda Airlines jet at Yogyakarta's airport. The Boeing 737-400 apparently made a hard landing and then overshot the runway, exploding into flames after it came to a halt in a rice field. At least 21 of the 140 passengers and crew were confirmed dead.

Indonesia's latest aviation tragedy comes just two months after 102 people were killed on New Year's Day, when an Adam Air jet disappeared into the seas off Sulawesi island. And it marks the 30th accident involving a domestic carrier since 2001. Adam Air alone has suffered two incidents in the space of two months — a second jet cracked in half during a hard landing in Surabaya last month, although no one was injured. The accidents are special cause for concern in a country made up of 17,000 islands, where flying is often the only way to travel. "This is crazy," says Diva Singh, a banker in Jakarta. "These airlines aren't safe."

Confidence has hardly been boosted by the fact that the results of investigations into some of the recent disasters by Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Board have not been released. By law, the Board can present its findings only to Transportation Minister Hatta Radjasa, who has yet to make the findings public. "Our job is just to give recommendations," NTSB head Setio Rahardjo told Indonesia's Tempo magazine. "Some are accepted, others are not." Despite calls by legislators for him to resign over the growing numbers of incidents, Radjasa refuses to step down, saying he will do so only if asked by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But the latest accident could bring considerably more pressure on Radjasa. "This [Garuda] crash is especially worrying because most accidents of late have involved budget carriers," explains Danang Parikesit, secretary-general of the Indonesian Transportation Society, an independent think tank. "This is a state-owned airline, so someone in the government needs to be held accountable."

President Yudhoyono has promised an investigation into the Garuda crash, although the President may be feeling a measure of crisis fatigue. Tens of thousands of Indonesians have perished in disasters — mostly natural, a few man-made — during his two and a half years in office. In the past year alone, the country has been struck by an erupting volcano, several earthquakes, a tsunami (in west Java last summer, causing nearly 600 deaths), a devastating flood in the capital, and an eruption of volcanic mud that blanketed a large swath of east Java in putrid sludge and displaced more than 12,000 people. The latest earthquake "is another warning from God," says Juniwati Masjchun Sofwan, a former legislator representing a province in Sumatra. "It is a result of how we are managing the environment and must force us to ask what we are doing wrong."

Indeed, there may be more than superstition to the idea that environmental damage has some part in causing Indonesia's plight. The monsoon rains that inundated Jakarta in early February were exacerbated by the city's inability to control rampant overdevelopment, which critics say is eating up catchment areas necessary for controlling floods. And officials in eastern Indonesia say logging and deforestation may be to blame for the landslides that killed 38 people on March 3 on Flores island. But situated as it is in one of the most seismically active regions in the world, Indonesia can do only so much to avoid natural disasters. The early warning system put in place after the devastating December 2004 tsunami did nothing, for example, to protect the residents of west Sumatra, as the earthquakes that struck there happened well inland.

More worrying are the man-made calamities — air crashes and ferry disasters — because they are potentially more avoidable. "The situation in Indonesia is getting worse in all modes of transportation," says the Indonesian Transportation Society's Danang. "This is a disaster-prone nation."