BANDA ACEH: The image of the United States in tsunami-hit parts of Asia may have enjoyed a boost thanks to its massive aid donations, but one year on, residents say US policy speaks louder than dollars.

The US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, along with Washington’s pro-Israeli stance, have incensed Muslims across the region, and no amount of aid — even in tsunami-ravaged Indonesia — has soothed their anger.

“I don’t like the leader of the American people. I don’t mind the people, I just don’t like their leader,” says Yan, a 35-year-old Acehnese dried fish trader who bears deep scars on each arm from injuries sustained in the tsunami.

“We saw how the US is an arrogant nation. They think they are a superpower and the international police, that they rule everything,” says the merchant, who lost his parents, grandparents and three brothers in the catastrophe.

“We don’t hate the people — we just don’t understand the way the American government thinks.”

Two weeks after the devastating Indian Ocean disaster, US President George W. Bush said US aid to tsunami victims would help defeat Muslim extremists who had convinced Muslims around the world that Washington was the enemy.

“People are seeing the concrete actions of a compassionate country,” he told ABC television.

A few months later, former US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton — appointed to head US private fundraising efforts after the tsunami — insisted the aid was helping America’s image in the countries hit by the massive waves.

“They see a country which of course will defend our security, but a country which also cares deeply about suffering people, regardless of their religion,” Clinton said.

Din Syamsuddin, the secretary general of the Indonesian Council of Ulema — the highest Muslim authority in the world’s most populous Muslim nation — said the US aid campaign had little changed attitudes in the country.

“I think the Muslim perception is very much dependent on American foreign policy in the Muslim world, not only in Aceh but also in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan,” he said.

“Foreign aid to Aceh was not only peculiar to America — all countries supported Indonesia.”

Beyond the region’s mainly Muslim countries, US aid work also failed to sway public opinion in Sri Lanka, where 1,500 Marines were deployed to help lead international efforts to clean up the island’s tsunami-ravaged coasts.

Sunanda Deshapriya, director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think-tank, said Washington had failed to capitalize on the initial praise it had earned for its relief efforts.

“There was no visible campaign to carry that forward,” he told AFP.

As a result, Sri Lanka’s leftist parties, including the Marxist JVP, which is part of the ruling coalition, continue to view the United States with suspicion.

Washington is not the bete noire of all countries in the tsunami zone. Its high-profile aid campaign served to strengthen its position in India and Thailand, US allies which are not predominantly Muslim.

The US Navy worked closely with India’s fleet on relief operations, and Washington invited India to be part of a core group of four nations coordinating the UN aid effort, a move welcomed in New Delhi.

Relations between the two countries have continued to deepen, as evidenced by the landmark bilateral agreement to cooperate on nuclear technology reached in July.

Thailand also worked side-by-side with the United States in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, and the two states are now collaborating to develop a regional tsunami early warning system.

For Washington, Indonesia remains the key stumbling block in the region, a fact not lost on US officials. They sent Bush confidante and State Department imagemaker Karen Hughes to the country on a goodwill tour in October.—AFP

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