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Indonesians in America Wonder if God Has Forsaken their Homeland

New America Media, News Report, Peter Micek & Julia Harte Posted: Aug 08, 2006

Editors Note: Indonesia has suffered from a string of natural disasters tsunamis, earthquakes, bird flu, volcano eruptions such that many Indonesians in America are now looking for answers both from God and government. Peter Micek is a media monitor and writer for NAM and Julia Harte is an intern from Wellesley College.

SAN FRANCISCO - A plethora of natural disasters and public health threats in their home country leaves Indonesians in the United States looking for answers, from both God and government.

IndonesiaSince a tsunami struck Indonesian coasts on Dec. 26, 2004, two volcanic eruptions, six earthquakes exceeding magnitude 6.2, and nine flood-triggered landslides have left more than 7,640 dead in the worlds fourth most populous nation. The 2004 wave killed around 170,000 people. Most people think this is a punishment from God, said Indra Rica, chairman of the Islamic Society of San Francisco (ISSF).

Last month, a 7.7 magnitude undersea earthquake launched a tsunami into Indonesias main island, Java, killing more than 600 people.

This week two teenagers died of the bird flu virus, Indonesian health officials say, upping the total number of deaths in the country this year to 44, more than in any other nation. The virus has now spread into Bantul regions, Jogjakarta province, the area most damaged by a massive earthquake last May. Barely recovered from the shock of that disaster, locals are now watching their chickens die en masse.

ISSFs Rica hails from West Sumatra, about an hour and a half drive south of Banda Aceh, the area worst hit by the 2004 tsunami, where over 130,000 people were killed. His mother still lives there, and he last visited in the summer of 2004.

Ive read so many of these rumors that say, People have been bad so Allah is punishing them, he said.

But the rumor is hard to prove.

When an epic natural disaster is mentioned in the holy books, the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah, said Rica, its the word of God. Unfortunately, the Koran is the last book that he sent to human beings. There will be no other book saying, That tsunami, the one in Aceh? I sent that.

Fellow San Franciscan Hediana Utarti said a dichotomy between modern lives and ancient beliefs exists in Indonesia. Her mother lives on Java, in the capital city Jakarta.

In the midst of the islands very modern people and western education, she said, sits a sort of old Javanese belief that the universe is punishing the powers that be. The universe would let kings and queens know they are not taking care of their people. Disasters means the end of the reign is coming.

Utarti received a Ph. D in political science when she came to the United States 20 years ago at the age of 27.

The political instability following the fall of Indonesias military dictatorship in 1998, added to the recent environmental problems, creates a sad situation, Utarti said. Indonesia is relearning democracy, learning how to be in conflict with each other without physically fighting. She visits every year, she said. I feel a lot of apathy. People dont want to care about politics, and feel angry.

At the age of 44, Utartis father lost his job as vice minister of defense for opposing the ruling Suharto regime. After that, she said, he would receive threatening calls from the security department, sometimes demanding he cancel public speeches just 24 hours before the event. She remembers a more tolerant society, religiously, at least, when she grew up in the 1960s and 70s. Her family, part Catholic, part Muslim, celebrated holidays together.

They sent money to the disaster area after the recent tsunami, she said.

However, Ibrahim Irawan, chief editor of Indonesia Media, a magazine based in Southern California, said Indonesias vice president told people not to donate to the latest relief effort. The people can handle themselves, Irawan remembered the official saying. According to the 2000 Census, there are 63,000 Indonesians living in the United States.

Despite the huge outpouring of international relief for the 2004 tsunamiapproximately $13.5 billion, to address damages estimated at $9.9 billionaid agencies squabbled over donations and competed for maximum PR, according to a report by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC).

The report, released July 14, 2006, three days before the most recent tsunami struck, asserted that humanitarian groups worldwide must shift their focus from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities own relief and recovery priorities.

The efforts of local aid units to respond to the disaster were often smothered by much larger agencies, who deemed the local aid providers incapable of properly handling relief resources, according to the report. Irawan concurred that the government lacks an appropriate response to disasters and other events. Some say the country is condemned by God because theyre doing a bad thing.

For instance, riots in 1998 targeted Chinese Indonesians, many of whom had to flee overseas and had their shops burned, and the government still has not investigated the crimes, he said.

Were just saying the minister or government has to take care of the country better, be better prepared for disaster. Here, we have FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). They dont have anything there." Relief money does not reach the people in need, he said. It goes, for example, to the mayor. The system is different than here: The village has a community leader, but a lot of them are just corrupt.

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