Indonesia's Latest Tsunami: Why Is the Country Resisting Foreign Aid?

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On Monday, an undersea earthquake shook Indonesia's remote Mentawai Islands and triggered a 10-foot tsunami: It has killed at least 272 people, and left 412 missing. The first cargo plane with humanitarian supplies arrived today. Hundreds of miles away in eastern Java, the volcanic Mount Merapi erupted Tuesday and killed at least 30 people.

That's two disasters in less than 24 hours.

 Indonesia is no stranger to catastrophe. It is located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is one of the most seismically and volcanically volatile areas in the world. Its last sizeable earthquake and tsunami duo struck in December of 2004, killing more than 225,000 people in 14 countries.

But despite the death and destruction of the last 48 hours, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said today that he doesn't yet see a need for foreign aid or rescue assistance.
So far, only the Philippines and the United States have offered to help Indonesia. But Natalegawa's behavior seems counter-intuitive. In the face of disaster, why would any country preemptively say no to aid?

A look into Indonesia's history reveals latent political sensitivities that may have influenced Natalegawa's decision. Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization of countries who are not aligned with or against any major world power.

Indonesia prides itself on its "independent and active" foreign policy, which was first developed by then Vice President Mohammad Hatta on September 2, 1948 in Central Java. "Do we, Indonesians, in the struggle for the freedom of our people and our country, only have to choose between Russia and America?" he asked. "Is not there any other stand that we can take in the pursuit of our ideals?"

The "other stand" became known as "mendayung antara dua karang" or "rowing between two reefs."

Indonesia doesn't want to appear incompetent, or weak, to outside governments, and may also be wary to accept aid for fear of undermining its national legitimacy.
 
In 2004, Indonesia's acceptance of aid had an arguably negative effect on its citizens. "Though the post-tsunami reconstruction efforts in Aceh were generally successful, the amount of aid did engender some resentment in Jakarta over whether the national government had lost control of the reconstruction, and also potentially altered the economy in Aceh," explains Josh Kurlantzick a fellow for southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "So people remember that."

Donald Emmerson, the director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, cites several reasons for Natalegawa's response. First, he says, if the Indonesian government solicited foreign aid, it would be inundated with offers. Coordinating offers of assistance right now would be a severe burden on the government.
 
Then there's the question of scale: so far, the destruction seems manageable in comparison to the 2004 disaster. Still, it's unclear whether Indonesia will be able to adequately respond on its own. "Indonesia is a large country, and its infrastructure is overstretched," Emmerson says. "Its capacity to respond effectively to domestic disasters is not as good as it might be."

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Elizabeth Weingarten is an editorial assistant at the New America Foundation. A former Slate editorial assistant, she also previously wrote for and produced the Atlantic's International Channel.

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