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The Sumatra tsunami - why wasn't Indonesia ready?

By Duncan Graham - posted Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Why wasn't Indonesia better prepared for the tsunami that hit the Mentawai Islands?

It's not as though the 7.5 scale earthquake and three-metre wave came as a total surprise. The west coast of Sumatra has long been known as one of the world's most unstable zones where the tectonic plates kilometres below the earth slip and slide creating chaos on the surface. It was hit badly in 2004 and again in 2005.

With this experience it's extraordinary that the Indonesian government hadn't got a system in place ready to cope with tragedy.


Yes, the islands are remote. That's not an excuse - they've always been remote.

Yes, the villages are poor and don't have infrastructure like airports and emergency centres. Why not? Quite simply, power has long been centralised in Jakarta; as the kilometres from the capital increase, so the cash available for public services shrinks.

The nation's administration was decentralised following the fall of military dictator Soeharto in 1998. However in reality few provinces have had the courage or ability to run their regions without support or approval from the capital.

The other excuse for the bloated and malfunctioning bureaucracy has been the mantra that Indonesia is a poor and developing nation. Both claims are rubbish. The country is rich in minerals, oil and gas but the wealth has not been distributed evenly. Much has been plundered for personal gain by officials and Soeharto cronies.

Indonesia ranks 111 on Transparency International's list of perceived corrupt countries, alongside Egypt. Australia is number eight. NZ is ranked top, along with Singapore and Denmark, as the least corrupt.

The government collects only a third of the taxes it's legally entitled to gather. This year Gayus Tambunan, a low-ranking tax official, was found to have amassed more than US$3 million from bribes.


The rot continues in the Parliament. This year it planned to deal with 80 pieces of legislation, but has addressed only seven.

Indonesia's Constitution includes the Pancasila (five principles) philosophy. Number Five upholds social justice for all Indonesians. It does not state these rights are just for city folk.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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