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Mar'ie Muhammad, chairman of the Indonesian Red Cross

by Jean-François Berger

Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world with 210 million inhabitants, is coping with constant threats to its stability from socio-economic crises, internal violence and devastating natural disasters. Red Cross, Red Crescent asked Mar'ie Muhammad, president of the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), about the country's and the National Society's current challenges and changes.

What is the main constraint on the activities of the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) today?
Our biggest constraint is human resources. We are working to strengthen and to modernize our National Society in order to improve our capacity-building efforts in all areas. That has been at the core of all of our programmes since 1999. At present, we are developing our human resources both in headquarters and the branches, as well as with the volunteers. We must be honest and admit that the Indonesian Red Cross is far behind in tackling the many challenges facing our country today. And frankly speaking, we do not have a sustainable income to pay for our routine activities, which is another serious constraint.

But you do have some assets?
Yes, our biggest asset is our volunteer. The Red Cross is nothing without its volunteers, particularly youth. But there is a challenge here too: how can the Red Cross better serve the people helping it on a voluntary basis? Most of our volunteers are between 15 and 25 years old. Many of them are students or go to secondary school and generally they do not belong to well-off families. So we have to give them certain honoraria, otherwise they cannot pay for transportation and meals.

What do you consider the most important change that has occurred within the National Society since your election as chairman three years ago?
Our National Society has over 300 branches. Three years ago less than 40 per cent were really active branches while the others were more or less dormant. Now we can say that 60 per cent of the branches are active.

If you want to develop the capacity building of the PMI, you must rely on public support.
One of our priorities is to improve our image throughout Indonesia and the international community. For instance during the major floods in Jakarta and after the earthquake in Bengkulu, we opened several field kitchens and provided shelter to victims of these disasters. These actions generated sympathy and spontaneous support from the Indonesian public as well as from international organizations, namely the ICRC and the Federation.

The PMI plays an important role in organizing blood services nationwide. How are things going in this area?
The PMI is still the only institution mandated by the government to oversee the country's blood transfusion service. We supply blood to hospitals, but here too we face a major challenge. Unfortunately, our equipment is for the most part out of date and inadequate. I am very concerned about the quality of our blood transfusion service. I have approached the Japanese Red Cross for help in this area because they manage almost 100 hospitals. We are also discussing a possible commercial relationship with the Australian Red Cross related to blood transfusion.

What is the PMI's strategy for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country and caring for those already infected with the virus?
The focus is on ensuring a safe blood supply, screening blood donors, providing home care to people living with HIV/AIDS and undertaking youth and women peer education initiatives as well as promoting anti-discrimination. Today, it is estimated that 60 per cent of those infected with the HIV/AIDS virus in Indonesia are intravenous drug users. To combat this, we have trained our volunteers to disseminate throughout their communities the many dangers related to drug abuse, in particular the sharing of needles.

The PMI works actively in several internal conflicts and violent areas, such as in Aceh, in Maluku and in Irian Jaya. How can you work in these delicate contexts and to what extent are you accepted by all parties to the conflict?
It is indeed a delicate task. In Aceh, the PMI is accepted so far by both parties to the conflict, that means by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and by the government. In Maluku, in early 2000 it was even more delicate. Today, the situation there is much better with all parties, Muslims and Christians, accepting us.


The PMI is actively involved on the humanitarian front in Aceh. It is monitoring casualties. What are the limits of such an involvement, especially with regard to security?
As long as the GAM and the government accept our services and our presence we will do everything we can. You know that many victims are unidentified, so our teams are going to the field to identify the victims of the violence. We have had some problems, but since we have established standard operation procedures it's safer. Together with the ICRC, we also disseminate humanitarian law to the armed forces and to the police. It's an intensive process involving all branches and volunteers in Aceh. The motivation of these volunteers is a key factor in the field.

Boat people keep arriving in Indonesia. What role does the PMI play in this context?
Boat people come mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia. They seek asylum in third countries through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Following an agreement we made with UNHCR, PMI assists those who have been granted refugee status to get appropriate medical treatment.

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and its National Society bears a Red Cross emblem. Isn't it difficult sometimes?
This is not a problem! But there are some minority groups in Indonesia, not within the PMI, that ask why a country with a majority of Muslims uses the Red Cross rather than the Red Crescent. I keep telling them that the most important point is not the emblem but our capacity to serve. So far government rules stipulate that the PMI must use the emblem of the Red Cross and that this emblem will be protected. I have spoken with several ministers involved in this issue and I know that the government has no intention of changing our emblem.

What kind of cooperation do you entertain within the Movement?
We have a good cooperation with all components of the Movement. We have joint projects with the Singapore Red Cross, the Dutch Red Cross, the Japanese Red Cross, the Australian Red Cross and some others. Collaboration is fine with both the ICRC and the Federation. In fact there is no Great Wall of China between the Federation and ICRC here! I hope one does not exist in Geneva between the two organizations!

What future do you see for the Movement?
Fifty years ago, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement had more or less a monopoly in the field of humanitarian assistance. Today, there are thousands of non-governmental organizations doing the same work, thus putting us globally in an extremely competitive environment. So what to do? Just serve better and cut costs. Geneva is indeed a very expensive place!

What do you value most on this planet today?
In this country, we never imagined one day there would be so many displaced people and such terrible conflicts in Aceh, Maluku and earlier in Kalimantan. Now, we value and support any initiative for a peaceful settlement to the conflicts and will back it up with our humanitarian activities. This is a good beginning!

Are you an optimist?
I am a conscious optimist.

Interview by Jean-François Berger.

Blast in Bali

Immediately after the bomb attacks in Bali on 12 October which killed over 180 people and injured more than 300, the PMI moved into action, with chairman Mar'ie Muhammad coordinating this emergency operation. Eighty-eight PMI volunteers provided first aid, transferred casualties to the hospitals, assisted in identification of dead bodies and made contact with relatives of victims. The Federation, the ICRC and the Australian Red Cross supported this swift operation.

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