JI weakened by arrests, but could rebound: analysts

JAKARTA, June 16, 2007 (AFP) – Indonesia’s capture of the leader and military boss of Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah has dealt the network a major blow but it still has the ability to bounce back, analysts say.

Indonesia’s anti-terror police announced Friday they were holding in custody Zarkasi, an Indonesian-born veteran of the Afghan conflict, who coolly admitted on a video aired by police that he had headed JI since 2004.

Two days earlier, police revealed they had captured the extremist group’s military chief Abu Dujana, another Afghan veteran, in raids earlier this month on the island of Java. Zarkasi, 45, was caught just hours later.

Bantarto Bandoro, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said despite the netting of the pair, JI members would continue to pursue their goal of creating a regional pan-Islamic state.

The arrests "will disrupt JI’s development for sure, but they won’t stop their activities as long as their objective is not yet achieved," he told AFP.

"In the long term, they will try to find new methods (of operation) so their network won’t be easily detected."

The shadowy organisation has been blamed for a string of atrocities in the region, including the 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali, which left 202 people dead.

Indonesia has been criticised for failing to outlaw JI, a move politically difficult in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, while its court system is widely seen as being open to corruption.

Al-Qaeda and terror expert Rohan Gunaratna noted: "The military wing of JI, and JI as an organisation, has suffered very significantly with the detention of these two individuals."

But he said the group "should have been proscribed, put on a blacklist and criminalised, in order to build a societal norm against support for JI."

"The ideology of JI is still intact and JI remains a legal organisation in Indonesia."

Gunaratna bestowed praise on Detachment 88, the anti-terror unit named for the 88 Australians killed in the 2002 Bali attacks, for its work in tracking down Zarkasi and Dujana.

But he cautioned: "Indonesia must improve both the legislative and judicial systems if the fight against terrorism is to be successful."

In a report last month, the International Crisis Group said JI was probably comprised of more than 900 members across Indonesia and was likely not growing, though it retains deep roots and its vision of creating an Islamic state.

Detachment 88 chief Surya Dharma said Friday that JI members, though failing to launch any serious attacks since October 2005, had been "building a network by recruitment, training and stockpiling weapons and ready-to-use bombs."

Sidney Jones, director of the Southeast Asian chapter of the ICG, agreed that JI retained a capacity to rebuild despite the arrests of Zarkasi and Dujana.

"JI is a large organisation and has many cells throughout Indonesia — as far as we know, now only in Indonesia — but I have every confidence that the organisation itself is going to survive, even though its capacity to undertake its operations has probably been crippled," she told AFP.

Like Gunaratna, Jones noted that the police had done an excellent job but other institutions in Indonesia needed to pull their weight to effectively reduce militant activity.

"The problem is the next two steps — the courts and the prisons. If the Indonesian judicial system and prison system were nearly as competent as the police, we’d be in really good shape."

History of neglect gives East Timor’s coffee an edge

ERMERA – Machete in hand, farmer Nando Santosbaros rests as rain patters on the majestic shade trees sheltering his organic coffee cherries in East Timor. Though he hasn’t heard of them, and their jazz-infused stores are a world away, global coffee chain Starbucks is one of his biggest fans as hip caffeine addicts seek out smooth, chemical-free brews. For better sales, he is grateful.

"I am confident that the future is good for coffee," says 69-year-old Santosbaros, staying dry under a wooden shack with a few other farmers amid the soaring hushed hills of Ermera, a few hours’ drive southwest of Dili.

In a good season, Santosbaros says he harvests about seven sacks of cherries — each containing twin coffee beans — weighing close to 500 kilograms (1200 pounds) from his two-hectare (nine-acre) plot. That will earn him around 500 dollars — a salary not to be sniffed at in Asia’s poorest nation.

The other farmers here concur that their lives are easier these days compared to the years of neighbouring Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, when prices fluctuated wildly and the quality of the beans slid downhill.

"Business is much better now, because maybe the quality is improving," suggests muscled Mateos Francisco.

East Timorese coffee, first planted by Portuguese colonisers in the early 19th century and then controlled by Indonesia’s military who largely neglected its improvement, is coming into its own at last.

Cooperative Cafe Timor, to which nearly 20,000 farm families belong, buys up to 40 percent of East Timor’s production — and most of its green beans end up in Starbucks brews, boasts its enterprise development advisor David J.S. Boyce.

"That’s the sort of quality we’re talking about," he says, adding that the fair-trade certified CCT sells to Starbucks simply because they pay the highest price.

Starbucks introduced an origin brand in April last year called Arabian Mocha Timor "that we’re very proud of", Boyce says.

"They used to blend ours with Colombia but the quality of Colombia went down, so that’s rather a good accolade as well," he notes, adding that it’s the East Timorese beans’ acidity and body which lends it an edge.

The added advantage is a history of eschewing chemicals, which today makes it relatively easy for farmers to obtain international organic certification — although it still costs CCT about 35,000 dollars annually for twice-yearly inspections and paperwork associated with every shipment, Boyce estimates.

"There’s a lot of coffee that’s not classified as organic but effectively it is," Boyce says.

CCT is also looking to tap into East Timor’s natural advantage by exporting organic vanilla and cloves as well, with more than 800 vanilla farmers and 142 clove farmers recently being certified as organic as well.

"You’ve got to take advantage of the advantage," Boyce says.

But coffee is the money spinner for now and one of few bright spots for the economy of the world’s youngest nation, which turns four years old later this month. Though it is rich in lucrative oil and gas deposits, the tiny nation is largely undeveloped, both in agriculture and industry.

According to government figures, East Timor’s total exports for 2005 were valued at 8.1 million dollars — of that, coffee comprised 94 percent.

The figure is little changed however from 1974, a year before Indonesia invaded, when 6.9 million dollars worth of coffee was exported, 88 percent of the total, suggesting great potential for improvement.

Boyce says that nothing much has been done with the coffee trees since the Portuguese period — a concern when the normal bearing life of a tree is 30 years.

The Indonesians controlled the coffee industry up until 1993, when the US Agency for International Development stepped in to start CCT.

"Unfortunately (the Indonesians) couldn’t have cared less about quality so the name of East Timor coffee went down in the world’s eyes," Boyce says, adding that they also introduced some bad habits, such as stripping trees for cherries.

And it’s been a long battle, he says, to encourage farmers to boost quality. Pruning trees, for example, would boost production.

"That line of thought and training has been going on at least since the 1990s but they don’t do it — because it’s going to hurt the spirit of the tree," he says of the strong animistic beliefs of many East Timorese.

In effect, he says, most coffee farmers are merely "coffee pickers".

Meanwhile shade trees, whose falling leaves provide nourishment crucial for organic coffee which is not being fertilized, are typically too big now to provide full cover and need replacing.

"We are seeing actually a lot of new land opened up and shade trees being planted with the view of planting coffee underneath a few years down the track. Hopefully then some of the older blocks will be closed and replanted."

Caetano Cristovao, the government’s director of coffee and other state crops, says that changing the attitude of farmers is crucial to boosting production.

He estimates that some 45,000 to 49,000 farms, or more than 200,000 of East Timor’s million-strong population, depend on coffee, "so it’s very important for the country," he says.

"Our plan is number one, to improve the quality … The second is to improve the yield. It could be 700 to 800 kilograms per hectare," he says, adding that educating farmers remains a challenge.

But overall, he’s optimistic.

"The taste, the aroma of East Timor you cannot compare to other countries — even Brazil. Yes, I’m proud. But we have to work hard to maintain, to improve quality so the consumer will always recognise our quality."

In world’s youngest nation, soccer unites

DILI – Eleven-year-old Nuno de Oliveira intently watches a late afternoon football match on a muddy, barely marked field in East Timor’s capital. One day, he hopes to don the red and yellow shirt of his fledgling nation.

"I like to watch them pass the ball around. The way they pass it, it’s cool," says de Oliveira, who started playing when he was six and names England’s David Beckham as his idol.

"Four years after East Timor became the world’s youngest country in the wake of 24 years of Indonesian occupation, soccer is proving a focal point for national pride, its leaders and people say.

"East Timorese people love football from the day they are born. We just need to organise better to play good football. We are just starting out as a nation," says former professional player Almerio Isaac, 37.

The smartly moustachioed Isaac, who says he played for the Indonesian national side for a season during its occupation, gives a pep talk to the players while the sun sets in a glow over Dili’s nearby expanse of beaches.

"I’m not a coach, I’m just trying to be a good role model," he explains.

Emilio Ribeiro da Silva, who wears his national number 10 shirt for the informal skins-and-shirts session, is among those that East Timorese soccer fans are pinning their hopes on.

The 23-year-old player says East Timor needs to devote more money to setting up more competitions so players can get experience.

"We do not have that much funding to set up competitions. We have very few tournaments in East Timor," he complains.

"We need more attention from officials."

East Timor’s national side made its international debut in the 2003 Asian Cup, when it lost 3-2 to Sri Lanka and 3-0 to Chinese Taipei.

In the 2004 Tiger Cup, it lost 5-0 to Malaysia, 8-0 to Thailand, but scored its first goal in a nail-biting match against the Philippines which they narrowly lost 2-1 after taking the lead.

"I felt proud. Although we lost, 2-1 was alright — we didn’t have too much time for preparation," da Silva says. In the next match they scored again, though lost 3-1 to Myanmar.

Amandio de Araujo Sarmento, general secretary of the five-year-old Football Federation of East Timor (FFTL) says that a coach was sent from Portugal — East Timor’s former coloniser — to train the team for six weeks.

"But the language constraint was very difficult. He spoke Portuguese and they couldn’t understand what he said."

East Timor was admitted to the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in September last year — a big step forward for soccer in the tiny nation of one million, Sarmento says at his bungalow-office.

"For almost 500 years we were a colony of Portugal and Indonesia and now, after independence, we have this opportunity," he enthuses.

FIFA provides 250,000 dollars a year in assistance but that amount is still not enough to fund desperately needed infrastructure, along with training and travel expenses of the national side and the needs of local teams, he says.

"Every day invitations come from Brazil, Portugal, Asian nations for us to attend events, like under 17s, under 21s, women’s and others. The problem is in terms of finances," he says.

"We need a lot of money to build football in East Timor. As a new country we have to build not only the national but the district level as well," he says. East Timor’s 13 districts do not yet have a league.

Just fixing Dili’s main stadium, with a capacity of some 25,000, would cost about one million dollars, he says.

"Soccer is not only a normal sport — it’s a big business. For them, our kids, our boys, if we can train and develop them … who knows whether they could play in Europe, or somewhere else?"

Aniceto Berielo, secretary general of East Timor’s Referee Association, says soccer is popular because "if you are good at playing soccer, you can have a future".

"Football can help rebuild the country. I hope that some companies can help football develop further, like through sponsorship, and give hope to young players, give them a brighter future," the 29-year-old says.

Foreign minister Jose Ramos-Horta says he is not a fan himself but still gets "very worked up when Portugal play".

He says an agreement is about to be signed with the Barcelona Football Foundation which would see coaches sent here in an integrated approach to train young players, though the details are yet to finalised.

Football fan and President Xanana Gusmao says that soccer is "very, very important" for the East Timorese, gesturing to an array of gleaming silver cups nestled on a bureau at his office won by the national under-12 team.

"You know, soccer is something that brings together people. The last world cup in Korea and Japan, it could be called a peace gathering," he says.

"Maybe in the next five years we can have a team to be proud of, a team that raises our flag in other places of the world."

East Timor’s first couple: from rebels to royals

DILI – He was a political prisoner. She was an activist. Together they sought to end the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Now Xanana Gusmao is free and president of the worlds newest nation while Kirsty Sword is his wife and the countrys First Lady. They talk to Jakarta News Editor Samantha Brown about how they made the transition from rebels to East Timor’s equivalent of royals.
When East Timorese guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao languished in an Indonesian jail, Australian activist and English teacher Kirsty Sword was a crucial link to his fighters and the outside world.

Sword helped smuggle illicit letters and tapes — along with paints and brushes that allowed the charismatic poet-warrior to pursue an art passion — and through their own correspondence, the pair began an unconventional love affair.

Today, Gusmao is president of the world’s youngest nation, which was freed from the shackles of Indonesian occupation four years ago, and he jokingly complains that his wife gets home from work later than he does.

At his sparsely decorated office in an unlikely beige bungalow in beach-swept Dili, trim-bearded Gusmao shrugs off the significance of his place at the helm of East Timor.

"I feel myself I’m still an ordinary person. The fact of being president is only a duty, a job," he says of his largely ceremonial position, speaking in Portuguese-accented English, the language taught to him by his wife.

His wife, Sword Gusmao, has taken a break from her hectic schedule as founding director of the Alola Foundation, a women’s advocacy organisation, to join him, and similarly plays down her role in the former Portuguese colony.

East Timor has no budget or office for its First Lady — despite Sword Gusmao lobbying hard to get both in 2002 — but she concedes considerable expectations do come with being married to Gusmao from the East Timorese.

"Essentially you’re the mother of the nation — I mean that’s what people have said to me, which is a scary thing when you’re finding it difficult to be a mother to three children, let alone to a whole nation," the 40-year-old says, referring to the Gusmaos’ three young sons.

Despite their modesty, the unassuming couple, who trade playful banter while also ending each other’s sentences, have travelled an arduous road both to be in their marriage and their "ordinary" jobs today in East Timor.

Indonesia’s iron grip on East Timor, today Asia’s poorest nation, began with a United States and Australia-condoned invasion in 1975, which triggered a resistance movement that Gusmao, who turns 60 this year, quickly came to lead.

The independence movement had become active "even before the war" when Dili fell under Lisbon’s rule, Gusmao points out, but the toughest times came when he spent his years in the jungle with his men, "when we were a handful of guerrillas and we tried to tell ourselves that we would win".

Gusmao achieved legendary status among his men and ordinary East Timorese in the ensuing decades when with few resources they battled Indonesia’s military from East Timor’s rugged hills and proved a constant thorn in their side with small-scale attacks, forcing them to be deployed right across the territory.

He was eventually captured by the Indonesian military in 1992 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he painted, wrote poetry and continued to help the resistance through a clandestine network with tentacles in Jakarta.

Melbourne-born Sword Gusmao, who studied Indonesian and Italian at university in her home town — where "like most young Australians" she says she first became politicised — first travelled to East Timor in 1991 as a researcher and interpreter.

Soon afterwards she based herself in Jakarta, where she worked as a teacher and began clandestine work for the East Timorese resistance.

In April 1994, she received her first letter from incarcerated Gusmao — addressed to ‘Ruby Blade’, her pseudonym — that led to an unconventional courtship of smuggled letters and tapes, and eventually brief face-to-face prison encounters.

But in her book, Sword Gusmao describes receiving the first letter where Gusmao told her he loved her.

"I smiled to myself, feeling my cheeks flush red with the blood of pure happiness. Xanana Gusmao in love with ME? Disbelief, relief and a dull ache of longing competed for space in my brain."

They were not freely united until Gusmao was released from house arrest on September 7, 1999, three days after it was announced that more than three-quarters of the East Timorese had voted for independence in a UN-backed referendum sanctioned by Jakarta.

The result unleashed a murderous wave of violence across East Timor by the Indonesian military and the militias they backed. Some 1,400 people were murdered and 70 percent of East Timor’s buildings destroyed before order began to be restored by a UN-led force.

The couple arrived in East Timor in October 1999 to begin their new life among the rubble after whirlwind diplomatic trips to Australia, the United States and Portugal teasing out the details of what independence would mean.

"Together we have faced many new challenges," Gusmao recalls of their homecoming to East Timor.

"Just imagine the destruction, not only the physical destruction but mental trauma, psychological feelings. And she was what actually I needed at that time — my lover, my assistant, my everything," he recalls.

"Everything back in 2000 because we didn’t have anything!" pony-tailed Sword Gusmao interrupts. "It was multi-tasking at every level because there was no infrastructure, no human resources, no money, nothing."

"Nothing," Gusmao echoes. "She with a pair of clothes, and me with another pair of clothes…"

"… moving every month from house to house living out of suitcases," she completes the picture.

After a period of United Nations stewardship, East Timor finally became the world’s newest nation on May 20, 2002. A month earlier, Gusmao had been overwhelmingly elected as president, eschewing the pumpkin farming he had long said he wanted to take up in peace time.

Sword Gusmao says that their lives today now have a greater semblance of normality than back during the transitional phase.

"But to some extent also, not much has changed," she says, referring to the many competing demands on her husband’s time.

"I suppose I’ve come, within myself, to terms with that more and I accept it more and it doesn’t cause me as much anxiety as it did back in 2000."

Asked about what might cause strain in their high-profile relationship these days, Sword Gusmao is pleased to say things are much easier now she is not effectively acting as his unpaid personal assistant.

"There’s not so much that annoys me about him any more because I don’t have to work with him directly!" she exlaims.

Gusmao’s complaint these days is that his wife often works longer hours than he does.

"Sometimes I arrive at home at seven and she…

"And I’m not at home yet!" she finishes, as they both laugh.

But she adds: "I suppose still he’s very unable to say no to people, which is both a good and a bad quality."

In her 2003 autobiography about their relationship and move to East Timor, Sword Gusmao tells of her minor frustration over him falling asleep in front of the television watching late night soccer matches.

"Oh, he still does," she says. "And this is something actually that’s quite annoying, watching the soccer."

For Gusmao — and East Timor as a nation — however, soccer is "very, very important", he says, gesturing to an array of gleaming silver cups nestled on a bureau won by the national under-12 team.

"You know, soccer is something that brings together people. The last world cup in Korea and Japan, it could be called a peace gathering," he says.

East Timor’s team is struggling on the international circuit but, Gusmao says, "maybe in the next five years we can have a team to be proud of, a team that raises our flag in other places of the world."

As Gusmao has transitioned from being a rebel to a statesman, a recurring theme in his work has been — like South African leader Nelson Mandela who visited him while he was in prison — reconciliation and forgiveness.

The stance has earned him some criticism from activists who argue East Timor must see those responsible for the bloodshed during Indonesia’s occupation brought to justice.

A recent independent report found that at least 102,800 Timorese died as a result of the occupation, mostly of hunger and illness that resulted from policies of the Indonesian military.

Forgiveness "is important, because nobody paid us to fight for our ideas," he says. "Because we needed to be independent, we accepted all sacrifices."

He argues that looking backwards will not appropriately honour those who suffered and that justice has already been achieved with independence itself.

"The real big, great justice that we achieved was the international community recognising finally our right to self-determination," he says, adding that a Joint Commission on Truth and Friendship set up with Indonesia should provide catharsis.

"The justice that we wanted to establish is by revealing the truth," he says. Those who committed crimes "must acknowledge that it happened, and of course I believe they must apologise".

Still, progress over the past four years has been "extraordinary" in the half-island nation, he argues.

"People now accept each other. What people demand is to get jobs, to get better conditions of life."

Meanwhile for Sword Gusmao, the shift from being an activist who spoke out on such issues as Indonesia’s independence-minded Papua province to a First Lady could not have been easy.

"It’s a lot of weighing up of the value of speaking out on things as opposed to the damage that it might cause," she explains of her position.

As for the future careers of their three sons, Gusmao is certain he would prefer not to see them become politicians.

"Oh no!" he exclaims when confronted with the suggestion. "Soccer players. Or tennis players. Or businessmen — to get money!"

Sword Gusmao says it will be up to them to follow their hearts’ desire but adds: "I think it may be difficult, having the life that they have and the father that they have, that at least one of them doesn’t go into politics."

Gusmao’s presidency wraps up in May next year, five years after East Timor was born, and he insists he will not run again.

"How can I be a pumpkin farmer if I run again?" he asks.

Indonesia faces more disasters unless government reforests: activists

JAKARTA – Landslides and flash floods which may have killed hundreds on the Indonesian island of Java this week will be repeated unless the government reforests denuded areas, activists warned Wednesday.

Sixteen people were confirmed dead but up to 200 were feared killed after tons of mud slammed into a village in Central Java Wednesday, while at least 57 lives were lost in floods that swept through four East Java villages Monday.

Java is one of the world’s most densely-populated islands. Rampant illegal logging as well as conversion of land for farming has left its forest cover area, both natural and plantation, at just 11 percent, activists say.

Togu Manurung, from Forest Watch Indonesia, said he expects similar disasters to occur more frequently on Java, as about 30 percent coverage is required for ecosystems to function normally.

He said heavy rainfall on land that has been largely deforested meant that its ecosystem lacked capacity to regulate the water, particularly on a mountainous island like Java which is home to many volcanoes.

"I’m foreseeing that this same kind of problem potentially will happen more and more in Java, and also outside Java, due to the heavy forest degradation that has happened in Indonesia in the last 25 years," he told AFP.

Indonesia loses about 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) of forests each year — among the highest rates in the world — and a government program aimed at replanting three million hectares in five years was neither enough, nor being carried out properly, he cautioned.

"In my opinion it should be the government’s top priority to do reforestation, replanting and the rehabilitation of degraded land and deforested areas," Manurung said.

The long-running involvement of corrupt military and government officials was "the root cause" of ongoing deforestation, with big-time financiers paying impoverished farmers to clear land, he said.

Manurung said overcapacity in Indonesia’s wood processing industry created insatiable demand, with the gap between capacity and legal wood production at about 40 million cubic metres each year.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a decree earlier this year ordering 18 government institutions to work together, which was a start but still not enough, he added.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia forestry campaigner Hapsoro also called on the government to take swift action, labelling both of the latest disasters man-made.

"We can look forward to another disaster if they don’t stop (deforestation) and if they don’t reforest areas with original species to make new natural forests," he told AFP.

"This is a sign for the Indonesian government to be more serious… this island needs to recover."

Earlier this week Chalid Muhammad, chairman of prominent Indonesian environmental group Walhi, blamed deforestation for the flash flood tragedy at Jember, an area surrounded by coffee, tobacco and tea plantations.

"Floods on Java are closely linked to the worsening condition of forests on the island," he told AFP.

"Unless action is taken to address the problem, we can imagine what will happen to Java in the future. The government must make a breakthrough to save Java island, where 65 percent of Indonesia’s population live."

Indonesia, home to more than 220 million people, has already endured numerous tragedies blamed by environmentalists on deforestation.

In 2003 more than 200 people were killed when flash floods tore through Bahorok, a popular riverside resort in North Sumatra. Some officials denied deforestation was the cause of that tragedy.

In February last year, more than 140 Indonesians died when a garbage slide buried more than 60 houses in a village southwest of Jakarta after days of heavy rains.

In two separate landslides on Java in 2002 and 2003, a total of 44 people were killed. Deforestation was blamed for one of them and cited as a possible cause in the other.

Acehnese community’s ties help it start over one year after tsunami

KEUDE PANGA, Indonesia – Baby banana palms and papaya trees nudge through the sandy earth at this coastal village in Aceh flattened by last year’s tsunami. Nature springs back to life quickly in the Indonesian tropics, but people here are only gradually clawing back their decimated lives.

"It will take a generation, maybe longer," says Murdani, a 33-year-old who lost his wife, child, parents — and his rice processing plant — in the fury of the walls of water that smashed into Keude Panga on December 26, 2004.

"There are only a few of us left, and only some of us have remarried. It takes time to have children. And from the economic perspective, it’s going to take time to recover."

Nobody is really sure, but local officials say that just 489 people out of 1,233 residents managed to scramble to safety when the tsunami struck this village of mostly fishermen and farmers.

It took a month to collect the bodies and entomb them in three mass graves, but most were never found.

All 401 houses, six schools and the village mosque were obliterated, with the mosque’s cleansing pool alone managing to withstand the waves’ onslaught, residents say.

"From every aspect, we are starting from zero again," Murdani, who uses only one name, says as he perches on one of the shabby car seats placed outside the shack serving as the office for the temporary mosque nearby.

Nearby the wave-battered hulk of a van, their likely source, lies upturned.

Keude Panga is located some 200 kilometres (125 miles) along Aceh’s west coast from the provincial capital Banda Aceh, a bleak stretch of murky abandoned rice paddies, still strewn by the sun-bleached trunks of coconut palms.

Like many here, Murdani, who was swept from his home to the hills three kilometres away, has yet to recover his livelihood.

"I want to reopen my business, but I don’t have the cash," he says.

The village’s imam, Teungku Ismail Hussein, 54, was elsewhere when the tsunami hit, and returned a month afterwards to survey the devastation.

"I encouraged people to start praying because some were not. They said there was no azan," he says, referring to the Muslim call-to-prayer that typically echoes through Acehnese — and most Indonesian — communities five times a day.

"They were so traumatised then they didn’t want to think about the mosque."

Now, chimes in 33-year-old Nassir Amin, more people are praying at the mosque than before — a refrain heard often in the staunchly Muslim province, where more than 168,000 people were killed or remain missing after the disaster.

"Maybe it’s because it was a warning from god," he says soberly.

Dozens of outsiders who had moved away from the village have come back to help, Amin adds.

One returnee is teacher Marzalinta, 39, who has replaced one of the six out of eight teachers killed at her school. Of the 130 students, 37 were killed, with most survivors hailing from other villages.

Sitting on the floor of her recently-finished home, which her family built themselves, she says the children have trouble concentrating in their makeshift schools.

"Before we could control the students to study seriously but now because we are under tents, they get distracted," she says, adding that they still get nervous when it rains or another quake hits.

Budin Muhi, 45, and Nurdin Sharif, 35, are two of the village’s 70 surviving fishermen, who now rely on catching shrimp for most of their income.

In one of the rebuilt houses here, a stark concrete affair furnished with plastic chairs and little else, they explain that donors have given the village five two-man boats.

In a show of the community’s strong ties, Sharif says that the profits from this season, which begins this month and runs until May, will be ploughed straight back into buying more boats.

"We will fish and if we catch fish, we will sell them. And with the money we make, we plan to buy new boats. If we can buy a new boat, that’s two more fishermen who will have work," he explains.

Outside, the village’s winding paths still scattered with tsunami debris are buzzing with activity, as workers scurry to and from construction sites and the thudding of hand-held hammers rings out.

About 300 houses are planned for the village but only about two dozen are finished so far, completed by one of the many non-government organisations working in Aceh.

Villagers are grateful, but complain that rebuilding has been slow and house quality substandard.

"All of the tents are almost broken now so we need to move quickly," the imam says.

And life does move on. Of about 100 widowed men, 20 have remarried, including the village chief, 65-year-old Ibrahim Haji, who lost his wife, child and grandchild to the waves.

"A month after I came back, the older people in the village told me that I had to marry this woman, as she would be best for me," the spiky-haired chief says at his rebuilt coffee-shop, where men sip steaming glasses of Aceh’s famed coffee.

They prepared a feast for the day he wed, to another tsunami widow.

Back near the mosque, Murdani says that the spirit of the village has returned: "If one is sick, we are all sick. If one eats, we all eat."

And it’s stronger than before.

"It’s better, in every way, because we are all the same now — there are no rich people and poor people. For sure, we are all poor now."

Indonesian women key to new Aceh: reconstruction boss

JAKARTA, Dec 5 – Women will be the key to a new Aceh that is open and progressive, the head of the agency tasked with overseeing the rebuilding in the tsunami-hit Indonesian province said Monday as he defended the speed of reconstruction there.

Some 16,500 houses out of a 120,000 targetted for Aceh’s 570,000 displaced people have been completed to date, with a further 15,500 slated to be finished this year, said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh (BRR).

More than a total of 30,000 houses is "a big achievement", he told a press briefing in Jakarta, "because the national capacity of Indonesia to build public houses is not more than 60,000 houses. So if you compare with the capacity, it’s up to or close to capacity.

"But if you compare to the demand or the need, then it’s only one quarter of it. So we need some time to finish it… We have to try, we have to try hard."

Some 67,000 people remain in tents and 30,000 live in barracks in the staunchly Muslim province, with the rest staying with relatives, but the BRR aims to have everyone in permanent houses by mid-2007.

Next year 78,000 houses are targeted to be built, said Mangkusubroto, who has been praised for his no-nonsense approach and tough anti-corruption stance in graft-prone Indonesia.

"The challenges are huge. How do you distribute materials to the western part of Aceh? Roads destroyed, harbours destroyed and the monsoon is coming. Well, let’s work hard," he said.

The tsunami last December destroyed more than 800 kilometres (500 miles) of coastline, killing or leaving missing more than 168,000 people in Aceh, destroying livelihoods and flattening crucial infrastructure and houses.

Responding to complaints by many survivors that NGOs had promised them homes they have failed to deliver, Mangkusubroto said that he had surveyed who was doing what, and planned to name and shame those not pulling their weight.

"I just got the list of NGOs. I’m still finalising it," he said.

"I can say that in general the smaller NGOs that pledged houses, less than 500 — on the average 100 or 200 — they actually are the performers… Those who pledge more than 1,000, they don’t deliver."

Some 480 NGOs are operating in the province, "locals and internationals, the big ones and small ones, the serious ones and not-so serious ones," he said.

But rebuilding, Mangkusubroto said, was not just about infrastructure.

"We want to transform Aceh to become an open, aggressive, progressive society — not isolated and not only looking to the past," he said.

"So our concept in transforming the society is through women and children… Every village should have a women’s centre, a physical thing."

The BRR chief said that the content of the centres would be "anything that will open women’s vision towards the future of Aceh", adding that when it comes to change, "women are much more strategic than men."

One way to help them tap into their own power would be for microfinance projects to favour them when they approach with ideas for cottage industries they can run themselves, but he said no formal quota was planned.

Aceh is entering a new era of peace, after separatist rebels signed a deal with the government in August after nearly three decades of conflict that left some 15,000 people dead, mostly civilians. The tsunami was a key catalyst in getting both sides to the negotiating table.

The BRR has a 7.1 billion-dollar budget to spend throughout its five-year mandate.

Indonesia on cusp of AIDS epidemic: UNAIDS chief

JAKARTA, Nov 28, 2005 – Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is on the brink of an AIDS epidemic and must act quickly to fight its spread, UNAIDS chief Peter Piot said Monday as he began a four-day visit here.

Piot, who will spend World AIDS day here on Thursday, said that Indonesia needed every layer of society to join the battle against HIV, the virus causing AIDS, as it was now the "new frontline of the AIDS epidemic".

"When I look at Indonesia from the perspective globally I would say that there’s no doubt that Indonesia is in the early stages of an AIDS epidemic," he told a press briefing after meeting with coordinating minister for social welfare, Alwi Shihab.

Indonesia estimates it has 90,000 to 130,000 people infected with HIV.

But other statistics show at least 600,000 intravenous drug users are in the sprawling archipelago country, with around half believed to be infected, the minister said.

Piot said that besides drug users, sex workers and their clients were clocking in "alarmingly high and increasing" infection rates, while in the eastern province of Papua, the virus was spreading speedily through the heterosexual population.

"We have these three different epidemics going on and we know from experience that once it starts like that it’s only a matter of time before HIV spreads outside these fairly defined populations," he said.

He said that while President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made his commitment to fighting AIDS clear, "we need that same level of commitment of all levels of society… We know from experience that’s how you make progress in AIDS."

The promotion of condom use in Indonesia, a Muslim nation, is extremely sensitive but Shihab said that his ministry was talking to religious leaders to emphasise the disastrous consequences of not doing so.

"We are giving the other perspective of religious understanding," he said, noting that under Islamic law it was also necessary to prevent death, and that maintaining life was the responsibility of all individual Muslims.

Piot said he chose to spend World AIDS day in Asia because he wanted to see attention focused on the region, where 10 years ago one person in 10 infected globally was from here. Now one in five new infections are in Asia.

"I wanted to highlight the situation in Asia, the fact that the epidemic is entering its globalisation phase and that I think it’s at high risk," he said.

He picked Indonesia in particular because the country "is the new frontline of the AIDS epidemic… all the elements are here for a rapid spread of HIV so it’s to express concern, to highlight the opportunities that are there.

"The opportunities are enormous to really stop the epidemic, to nip it in the bud."

Access to drugs is another challenge in Indonesia. Last year, the government pledged to increase its spending on subsidising drugs for HIV/AIDS patients here to 24 billion rupiah (2.49 million dollars), up from 10 billion rupiah the previous year.

However AIDS activists said that many Indonesians infected with the virus had not been able to get affordable access to the drugs.

Cracks in Cambodia’s courts prised further open ahead of KR trial

PHNOM PENH – Two recent high-profile Cambodian court rulings condemned by activists heighten fears the judiciary is ill-equipped to deliver a trial of ex-Khmer Rouge leaders free of political influence.

The UN-backed tribunal, which has been delayed for years due to negotiations over its set up, was given a green light to proceed with staffing in April but wrangling over funding continues and senior appointments are yet to be made.

Critics have long charged that Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt judiciary is also politically influenced and should not be handed the task of trying the surviving henchmen of tyrant Pol Pot, who seized power in 1975.

When his Khmer Rouge regime was ousted three years later, up to two million Cambodians were dead as a result of their ultra-Maoist policies, but no one has ever been punished for the crimes they perpetuated as Cambodia struggled to emerge from decades of conflict that only ended in 1998.

Under the agreement for the so-called Extraordinary Chambers (EC), mostly Cambodian but also foreign judges are expected to try at least six of the most culpable top members of the Khmer Rouge.

The EC’s decisions require a majority vote and must include at least one foreign vote, but human rights groups have argued this exposes the tribunal to stalemates as well as political influence via the appointment of the judges.

They say two recent cases to be tried by Cambodian courts argue their point.

On Tuesday, Cambodia’s military court found an opposition lawmaker guilty of attempting to form a rebel army plotting to overthrow the government and handed him a seven-year sentence, sparking uproar among human rights groups.

They complained about flimsy evidence, irregular court proceedings and alleged that the court was operating outside its jurisdiction by trying a civilian in the first place.

The United States also condemned the outcome, saying it "raises again questions about the competence and independence of Cambodia’s judiciary".

Last week, a similar outcry was provoked by the convictions and 20-year sentences handed to two men accused of the January 2004 murder of a prominent unionist. No eyewitness testimony or forensic evidence was shown to the court.

The men, Sok Sam Oeun and Born Samnang, are seen even by the victim’s family as being the scapegoats of a government under intense pressure to convict.

"In both cases the allegations were either fabricated or spurious," Steve Heder, Phnom Penh-based University of London legal scholar closely following tribunal preparations, told AFP.

"The problem here is the real criminals were those who conspired to misuse the law and the courts to suppress political and social dissent in violation of domestic Cambodian legislation and Cambodia’s international legal obligations.

"So obviously this bodes very badly for prospects that the Cambodian law and judiciary can be relied upon to do its part of the Khmer Rouge tribunal job properly. I agree with those who see things going from bad to worse."

Kek Galabru, president of Cambodian rights watchdog Licadho, said the blatant bias in both cases deepened her pessimism about the tribunal.

"How can we hope to get a credible, independent trial that can provide justice to the victims? This is my question," she told AFP.

New York-based Human Rights Watch also questioned the tribunal’s capacity.

"These two trials, within a week of each other, bode extremely badly for the upcoming Khmer Rouge tribunal, in which Cambodian judges will play a key role alongside foreign ones," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

"The current state of the judiciary simply does not justify any faith that Cambodian judges involved in the Khmer Rouge tribunal will be able to act professionally and independently of the government."

But the agreement thrashed out between the government and United Nations for the 56-million-dollar, three-year proceedings is unlikely to be wound back now, Heder said.

"It’s too late. The political and diplomatic deal is done. The donors don’t want the can of worms reopened," he said.

"There of course has been some human rights and diplomatic kerfuffle about the trials but the reality is they’ve got away with this."

One diplomat from a donor country told AFP the international judges would safeguard against any political influence on Cambodia’s judiciary.

"If we are trying to help reform their judiciary, then the inclusion of Cambodian judges and prosecutors is essential," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bounceback for Cambodia’s textiles but sparkling labour image not enough

PHNOM PENH – Cambodia’s crucial garment sector has bounced back after the end of a global quota system saw orders dip due to competition from China, but experts warn the industry’s socially responsible image will not ensure its long-term survival.

The 1.9-billion-dollar sector, which provides the destitute kingdom with more than 80 percent of its export earnings and employed 270,000 workers at the end of 2004, feared the fallout from the end of the quota system in January.

Under the 30-year-old multi-fibre arrangement (MFA), Cambodia was given special access to the US market through a 1999 trade deal that granted quotas in return for improved labour conditions monitored by the UN’s labour agency.

The arrangement was hailed by international buyers, such as US company Gap Inc., which helped local manufacturers to mould an image of themselves as responsible corporate citizens who eschewed sweatshop labour.

With the end of the system, the industry hoped its labour-friendly image would help it stand the onslaught of competition from Asian giants China and India, but sector employment spiralled about 10 percent lower to less than 250,000.

"In the first four or five months, orders shifted to China because they were able to export freely," said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia.

In May, the United States, which buys more than three-quarters of Cambodia’s exports, invoked safeguards contained in China’s WTO accession agreement, which allowed it to impose quotas on seven types of textiles from China.

The European Union, which purchases most of the rest of Cambodia’s production, took similar action in June.

"Now that the safeguards have been reimposed, orders are slowly coming back to Cambodia," Loo said.

Employment is back up to about 268,000 and of the more than 200 factories in the kingdom, 25 have closed but 24 new ones opened.

The International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia Project continues to carry out independent monitoring — factories must agree to be monitored to get an export licence — in a bid to help the industry survive.

"What we’re increasingly doing is looking at how do we provide industry, both unions and employers, with support services to help them improve working conditions," Ros Harvey, chief technical adviser to the project, told AFP.

Improved conditions — which growing evidence suggests helps to also improve productivity and quality and therefore bottom lines — are however just one of a slew of issues Cambodia needs to work on to remain competitive.

"Labour standards are obviously a component but other pressing issues to deal with include things like trade facilitation, business environment, backward linkages, improving productivity and improving quality," she said.

"Improving labour standards contributes to the industry strategy but it needs to be part of a holistic policy response."

GMAC’s Loo described the project as "important" but not enough on its own to lure extremely price-sensitive manufacturers to the kingdom, arguing rampant corruption must be reined in.

"I wouldn’t say we’re upbeat but I think the industry will still be around for the next couple of years because of the safeguards," Loo said.

"But we see certain difficulties along the way, (such as) the reduction in the cost of doing business in Cambodia not going down as quickly as we had hoped. In fact, in certain areas it’s gone up."

GMAC is up in arms over government plans to implement outbound scanning of all containers by a private company which will add up to three million dollars a year to the industry’s costs — or 100,000 dollars a year for a big factory.

"A factory in Cambodia would be good if it can make a couple hundred thousand dollars. So taking 100,000 dollars for scanning would erode what, 20, 30 or 40 percent of its profits?"

GMAC is negotiating with the company to lower the price.

Cambodian unions said their conditions have worsened this year with the government cracking down more harshly on strikes. They estimate 47,000 workers have lost jobs without receiving compensation.

Chea Mony, president of the prominent Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, supports the monitoring system but said buyers should be more proactive in improving conditions.

"The ILO can report but not enforce, and the ministries are corrupt. To help the labour law in practice, the buyers should work closely with the unions," said the unionist.

The ILO’s Harvey said the industry was undergoing a structural adjustment.

"I don’t think we should gloss over that — there is a genuine structural adjustment happening in the industry that is hurting people," she said.

Sok Siphana, who attributed the bounceback in employment primarily to the safeguard measures kicking in, said they had bought Cambodia time to reform.

"We have until the end of 2007 for the end of the US and EU safeguards, meaning that we have two and a half years’ more breathing space. We have to work on costs," he said.

But he described Cambodia’s labour-friendly image as the top ace up its sleeve.

"It will put us one step ahead of the game. The safeguards are of benefit to everyone across the world producing, but here we are one step ahead of the game."