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When Yudhoyono became President three months ago on the back of a landslide election victory, his priorities were clearand myriad: tackle widespread corruption, track down terrorists, solidify civilian supremacy over the military, rebuild confidence in the legal system, and restore investor confidence. Then the tsunami hit, sidelining most of the objectives that Yudhoyono had set out for his first 100 days in office. Now, Aceh is the President's biggest test, and it could well be the barometer by which his entire five-year term is judged. "In any tragedy there is an opportunity for a President to show his leadership ability," says political columnist Bara Hasibuan. "But unlike Bush after 9/11 or [Thai Prime Minister] Thaksin during this crisis, [Yudhoyono] has not been able to boost his mandate because it has taken him too long to set up a clear line of command."
That perception is not entirely fair, but it's partly fed by how long it took Yudhoyono to get to Aceh once the earthquake and tsunami hit. The President was at the other end of the country, two time zones away visiting the Papuan town of Nabire, itself stricken by another earlier quake, when he was told about a tremorbut not a tsunamihitting Aceh. "We thought, 'Oh, no, not again,'" recalls presidential spokesman Dino Djalal. Yudhoyono held a conference that night in Jayapura; at the time, all he and his aides knew was that the death toll was about 600. "We had to scramble to get information because there were no phone lines in Aceh," says Djalal. Yudhoyono tried to fly directly to Banda Aceh the next morning, but couldn't because the airport was in no state to allow planes to land. Instead, he had to hop across the archipelago. By the time he arrived in the Acehnese capital after having to make two stops for refueling, it was already Dec. 28, two days after the disaster. "At each stop the news kept getting worse," recalls Djalal. "At our last stop in Batam, we started getting visuals. The First Lady started crying when she saw the images. The President went to see her and hugged her for a long time."
But it wasn't just the delay in reaching the disaster zone. In the first few days, relief efforts were supervised purely at the local levelby General Endang Suwarya, Aceh's military commander, and Aswar Abubakar, the province's deputy governor. They couldn't cope. Says Djalal: "People were demoralized, troops were missing, and we only had one helicopter in all of Aceh. They needed outside help." It wasn't until Yudhoyono named a Cabinet member, Alwi Shihab, to take charge of coordinating the relief efforts that aid began to flow.
Yet with all the attention on Aceh, there's a danger that Yudhoyono may become too preoccupied with the province and neglect the country's many other pressing problems. "In terms of pushing through promised reforms, he's been lacking," says Kevin O'Rourke, author of Reformasi: The Struggle for Power in Post-Soeharto Indonesia. "Now, there's the risk that the crisis will be a serious distraction." Plans to audit the military's businesses, the creation of commissions to oversee the judiciary and the attorney general's office, and an investigation into the murder of noted human-rights campaigner Munir have all been put on hold. "These were all part of a plan to deal with corruption and legal reform," says O'Rourke. "The President not only needs to outline a vision for rebuilding Aceh but also Indonesia."
As for the insurgency, Yudhoyono has repeatedly called for a fresh approach to peace in the wake of the tsunami, and there certainly hasn't been a better opportunity to achieve that in years. Whether he is able to enforce his wishes on the ground in Aceh, where the military has forged a reputation for ruthlessness and independence from Jakarta, is hard to say. But for the moment, with the eyes of the world on Aceh, the military seems to be on its best behavior.
Meunasah Lheuk, a fishing village on Aceh's strife-torn eastern coast, lost 30 people to the tsunami, and almost all the wooden houses built among coconut trees on a white-sand beach were flattened by the waves. Now the cleanup has begun, and numerous bonfires have been lit to dispose of piled-up timber, cloaking the village in heavy smoke. Flitting in and out of the fumes and flames are scores of soldiers assigned to help clear debris. The villagers help too, but many simply stand and watch. These are no ordinary grunts, after all, but members of the infamous Raider Battalion, a special-forces unit that has been widely accused by human-rights advocates of torture and extrajudicial killings. The Raiders have been reassigned from their camp in the mountains where they have been fighting insurgents, says the battalion's operational officer Lieut. Amrul Huda, and they will stay in Meunasah Lheuk for as long as they are needed. "This is a different mission for us from fighting, but just as important, like a religious duty," says the 29-year-old soldier. "We hope people will appreciate the humanitarian work."
Even so, it's not easy for the troops to gain the trust of the Acehnese. Zul, a 30-year-old fisherman, looks around carefully before murmuring: "This is the first time I've seen a soldier lift a hand to help us. And it comes late as well. They were too scared to come down near the water at first like everyone else. They ..." Zul breaks off abruptly as a pair of Raiders emerge from the smoke. Both are carrying piles of splintered wood in their arms but their automatic rifles swing from their necks within easy reach.
For now, those guns are silent. The cease-fire is holding. "We are not attacking the soldiers," says Syaifudin, deputy rebel commander for Indrapuri district near Banda Aceh. "The world knows that we want peace, and this is a good time for foreigners to see who really wants peace in Aceh and who doesn't." The young commander pauses, then adds a thought: "Of course, if they come near our bases, we will shoot them." Tragically, for hundreds of thousands of homelessand millions of war-weary Acehnesethat sounds more like an excuse to fight than a strategy for peace.