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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June 2005, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
The mystery of Malaysia's tsunami aid
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

When the 26 December tsunami struck countries around the Indian Ocean rim, Malaysia escaped largely unscathed.

Protected from the main waves by the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the country's death toll reached only 68.
Temporary houses in Kota Kuala Muda
There is temporary housing, but nothing permanent yet
Yet six months on, some Malaysian villages hit by the tsunami are still struggling to get back on their feet.

Some villagers say help has been slow in coming, others say they have yet to receive any aid at all. And in some cases, aid appears to have simply disappeared into a black hole.

Kampung Sungai Muda, in the state of Kedah, was one of the worst affected villages. Twelve people died there.

"The village was celebrating a festival when the waves came," said fisherman Badaruddin bin Hamid, in the once modestly prosperous settlement that now lies in ruins.

The people ran, but some were trapped in their houses and drowned. Malaysia was not overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster. Fewer than 10,000 people are believed to have been affected.

And by the standards of the region, Malaysia is well off. Its income per capita is almost five times that of Indonesia, and four times that of Sri Lanka.

Abu Hassan
They promised me just over $6,000 to help put things right, but that's a loan. I don't know how much of it I'm going to have to pay back and it hasn't even all reached me yet
Abu Hassan, fisherman, Penang

Yet many are still waiting for help.

"The government promised us two things," said Badaruddin: "$6,500 for those who lost fibreglass boats, and $18,000 for those who lost wooden ones.

"But all we've been given is $250 for fibreglass boats, and $800 for wooden boats."

Many of the villagers have left, moved 1-2km inland to temporary accommodation provided by the government.

At the new settlement in Kota Kuala Muda, gratitude is mixed with frustration.

Village headman Yusof Awang said that many of the 600 people now living in the white painted plywood dwellings had been worried the buildings might fall down.

"I'm glad to have a home but there have been some structural problems and we were worried that it wasn't safe. After we told the government, they did send some people to inspect the building and they made some repairs - so we're feeling a bit happier now."

To be fair, to Acehnese or Sri Lankan eyes, these temporary homes - with power, water and telephones - might appear to be the answer to a prayer.

But the inhabitants want to know when work on permanent housing will start, and there is no sign of it yet.

Just the other side of the Muda Estuary, over the state boundary in Penang, there are more fishermen waiting for help.

Two hundred petitioned the state government for aid, but according to their representatives, were told to apologise for their temerity. For its part the state says it investigated the claims and found that some had already received help.

Abu Hassan gets by mending nets. When the tsunami swept up the Muda River it smashed his boat and left him on crutches.

Zainun Jainul, receiving bags of rice from local volunteers
Locals were quick to help out those affected by the tsunami
But despite the generosity of ordinary Malaysians who rushed to donate money, Abu Hassan said none had been given to him. He has only been offered a loan, and he has not even received all of that.

"I have already lost my boat and the engine is under repair," he said. "They promised me just over $6,000 to help put things right, but that's a loan. I don't know how much of it I'm going to have to pay back and it hasn't even all reached me yet."

GS Soma, who operates a local legal advice centre and who has been giving support to fishermen still seeking help, said the authorities simply have not been taking charge of the situation.

"The government thinks it's already helped the people adequately as far as the tsunami disaster is concerned," he said.

"But the problem is the people who have been affected are not getting the aid. Somebody along the middle line is not able to make that aid reach them."

Lost in the system

That hints at what people privately tell visitors over and over again, that somewhere along the line middlemen are helping themselves to money meant for tsunami victims.

The BBC put these complaints to the man in charge of Malaysia's tsunami relief operation, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. However he remains confident the relief effort is largely going well.

"Generally we have been very pleased of the outcome of all the efforts we have undertaken to help the tsunami victims," he said. "But I do accept that there could be individuals who have not been able to get the kind of help that they're supposed to get."

Mr Najib explained that it was not always an easy process to identify genuine claimants, and to underscore the government's good work he pointed to new houses already built for those who lost their homes on Malaysia's showcase holiday island of Langkawi.

We know full well that when we took along gifts donated by viewers and readers to the villages, very often they went no further than the headman. But what can you do?
Media executive

Questions, though, remain about what has happened to the fruits of Malaysia's generosity.

Where it was given by one person to another the impact is obvious - as on Penang Island. In the village of Pulau Betong life is already almost back to normal. Zainun Jainul, a Muslim, said she got help direct from charities and even from Buddhist and Taoist groups.

"I'm very proud of everyone because they came so fast and helped everyone regardless of their race or religion," she said. "They were here much faster than the government and they really made a difference."

But it is less clear how the millions of dollars raised by media and entertainment campaigns - money handed over to the government to distribute - has been spent.

One media executive told the BBC: "We know full well that when we took along gifts donated by viewers and readers to the villages, very often they went no further than the headman. But what can you do?"

The tsunami clearly brought out the best in millions of Malaysians, but it also bought out the worst in a few. But few in authority seem to want to confront the issue.


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