The 'Know Your Region' series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It's important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.


Special Issue on the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami of 2004

On this page:

  • The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami of 2004
  • Australia's Humanitarian Response
  • ADF's Operation Sumatra Assist
  • Aftermath


The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami of 2004

The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (also known as the Boxing Day Tsunami or Asian Tsunami) occurred in the early morning on 26 December 2004. It was an undersea megathrust earthquake that registered a 9.1 to 9.3 magnitude. With an epicentre off the west coast of northern Sumatra Indonesia, the earthquake was felt simultaneously across Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Singapore and the Maldives.

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The largest earthquake this century triggered a series of massive tsunami waves which grew up to 30m high once heading inland. The tsunami devastated the coastline of Aceh province about 20 minutes after the underwater seismic activity. Swamping the northern and western coastal areas of Sumatra and smaller outlying islands. In addition to the people killed in Indonesia, more than 500,000 were left homeless. About 800km of coastline was destroyed and more than 3,000 hectares of land was washed away or inundated by seawater. Ports, roads and bridges were ruined. Many of the emergency services for the region had been destroyed and there was no sanitation, food or running water. Aceh's main hospital, Zainoel Abidin Hospital, was completely unusable, filled with mud, and the equipment rendered useless.

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The Indian Ocean tsunami is one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. The death toll reached 250,000 people, with Indonesia the hardest-hit country – followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. Nearly all of Indonesia's estimated 170,000 casualties and environmental damage were within the province of Aceh. Twenty-three Australians died in Thailand (18 Australian nationals and five permanent residents) and three Australians died in Sri Lanka. International efforts to coordinate humanitarian aid were immediately launched.


Australia's Humanitarian Response

The Australian Government's emergency relief effort was the largest peacetime operation Australia has ever launched overseas. Immediately after the tsunami struck, the Australian Government activated its emergency response mechanisms and contributed in total AU$69.6 million for humanitarian assistance, with $34.4 million for Indonesia. The $1 billion package of assistance to Indonesia announced by the Australian Government on 05 January 2005 provided for large-scale social and economic development programs across Aceh and elsewhere in Indonesia.

With one announcement, Australia came to be considered as the world’s most generous post-tsunami donor at the time.

The Australian Government's support in Indonesia helped reconstruct schools, village halls and health facilities. It helped Indonesians rebuild livelihoods and helped many Acehnese to develop skills to improve government service delivery. Australia's assistance transformed relations with Indonesia, as the close cooperation in reconstruction and rehabilitation linked people and institutions in a way they had never been connected before. Australia's assistance helped Indonesia by:

  • training more than 230 hospital workers and awarding more than 3,700 scholarships to nurses, midwives and healthcare students
  • restoring emergency health care at Aceh's main hospital, Zainoel Abidin Hospital
  • establishing modern medical laboratories at Syiah Kuala University and Zainoel Abidin Hospital
  • supporting teacher training in areas hit hard by the tsunami
  • training almost 3,000 small business clients throughout Aceh and Nias in business planning, marketing and financial management
  • rebuilding Aceh's main hatchery which supplied the ponds of local fish farmers
  • providing Acehnese construction workers, builders, plumbers and electricians with training in housing construction
  • giving communities better access to water and sanitation facilities, roads and bridges, schools, government services, emergency services and markets
  • providing survey and mapping data for managing and maintaining more than 20,000 schools, hospitals and other public assets built in Aceh since the 2004 tsunami, and
  • training 2300 people as community leaders, more than half of whom were women, in 204 villages.


I bring Indonesia's message of heartfelt thanks and gratitude, especially from the people of Aceh and North Sumatra, for the generous contribution and acts of compassion and solidarity shown by the people and Government of Australia immediately after the tsunami.

I salute the soldiers of the Australian Defence Forces and the Australian relief workers, who worked tirelessly side by side with the Indonesian military, during the emergency relief operations.

His Excellency Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
President of the Republic of Indonesia
Parliament House, Canberra
04 April 2005


ADF's Operation Sumatra Assist

As part of disaster relief, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) worked extensively on Operation Sumatra Assist. Within 36 hours of hearing the news of the impact of the tsunami, Defence had dispatched initial personnel and emergency supplies to Indonesia. In consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AusAid, also working with the TNI and other foreign forces in Sumatra, advisers were sent to assist local commanders, and various local command centres were established. This was a complex but very successful whole-of-Defence operation. See the Department of Defence's Annul Report 2004-05 special feature on the Operation for more detail.

Banda Aceh and surrounds were one of the worst affected areas and this is where upwards of 900 unarmed ADF personnel worked. Medical and engineering staff were prominent, with 15 air-traffic controllers overseeing the helicopters and cargo aircraft. Within days ADF Army engineers had established a clean water supply, which worked around the clock to supply the thousands of survivors with limited clean water.

There were eight Royal Australian Air Force C-130 Hercules dispatched to assist in the massive clean-up in Indonesia. A Royal Australian Navy amphibious transport ship HMAS Kanimbla arrived in Indonesia on 13 January, with two H-3 Sea King helicopters on board. Another four Australian Army UH-1 Iroquois helicopters worked in Aceh. The ADF's achievements during Operation Sumatra Assist included:

  • distributing 1,200 tonnes of humanitarian aid by air
  • undertaking 70 aero-medical evacuations
  • providing air transport for 2,530 people
  • providing 3,700 medical treatments
  • producing 4.7 million litres of clean water
  • clearing 9,000 cubic metres of debris and 1,700 large drains, and
  • salvaging six large fishing boats.

Nias Island suffered the dual impact of another massive earthquake and tsunami on 28 March 2005. After another earthquake in March, two C-130 aircraft were dispatched with medical supplies, bottled water, tarpaulins, rations, and water purification tablets. This was followed by a 43-strong medical team to provide surgery, intensive care, X-ray, pathology, and post-operative care. HMAS Kanimbla, an amphibious transport ship with a well-equipped medical facility, was also diverted from Singapore en route to Australia, to aid the earthquake victims. Under trying circumstances, during Operation Sumatra Assist Phase II, the ADF:

  • delivered 133 tonnes of rice
  • provided 5,000 litres of water
  • provided medical treatment to 570 people
  • conducted 13 Surgical and further treatments on board HMAS Kanimbla
  • undertook seven Sea King aero-medical evacuations
  • repaired the Lahewa town water pump and generator, and
  • moved over 138 tonnes of stores by C-130 Hercules.

For more details on ADF planning, deployment and airlift missions read the chapter on 'The road to Banda Aceh'. In an interview on 31 December 2004, General Peter Cosgrove said of the ADF response: 'This operation will call from us our endurance, ingenuity and compassion in abundance. Our neighbour is in trouble. We must help.' Sadly, nine ADF members lost their lives on the island of Nias in a tragic helicopter accident on the 02 April 2005 during Operation Sumatra Assist Phase II. For more information see an overview of Logistic Support at the Sharp End in Banda Aceh written by Captain Sean Darbyshire a few months after the Operation ended.

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Aftermath and Legacy

Peace Deal

Since the 1970s the Indonesian Republic has faced two main separatist movements in opposite edges of the archipelagic realm: a separatist movement in Aceh on the western front, and a small-scale separatist movement in Papua on the eastern front. The rebellion in Aceh was fought by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) between 1976 and 2005, with the goal of making the province of Aceh independent from Indonesia.

The widespread devastation caused by the tsunami led GAM to declare a cease-fire on 28 December 2004 followed by the Indonesian Government. The two groups resumed long-stalled peace talks which resulted in the Memorandum of Understanding signed 15 August 2005. The agreement explicitly cites the tsunami as a justification: a combination of the severe destruction and global attention on reconstruction efforts in the Aceh province. Along with a measure of independence for the Aceh province: receiving special autonomy status.

Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System

Global efforts focused on establishing an Indian Ocean Tsunami warning system, organised by the Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (ICG/IOTWS), was formed in response to the tsunami in which over 250,000 lives were lost and 1.7 million displaced around the Indian Ocean region. The only way to effectively mitigate the impact of a tsunami is through an early warning system.

The system was not yet operational during the Pangandaran earthquake and tsunami on 17 July 2006. The Indonesian Government did receive tsunami warnings from the warning centres but did not have a system to relay the alert to its citizens. At least 23,000 people did evacuate the coast after the quake, either fearing a tsunami or because their homes had been destroyed. Waves as high as 7.39m still resulted in about 700 fatalities and 9,000 injuries.

Of the 28 countries that ring the Indian Ocean; now Australia, Indonesia and India are responsible for spearheading tsunami warnings in the area with the IOTIC headquarters in Jakarta.

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Discussion Questions:

  1. The relationship between Indonesia and Australia was very tense in the aftermath of the INTERFET intervention, and in some quarters of Indonesia Australia is viewed suspiciously. If separatist groups in West Papua start to come into greater conflict with Indonesian forces, would Australia have an obligation to intervene? How would this be received regionally?
  2. Australia provided a significant response to the Aceh tsunami, providing ADF personnel in a predominantly medical and humanitarian capacity. Did the two nations do enough to capitalise on this support in order to improve the bilateral relationship, especially in the light of the death of ADF personnel on these operations?
  3. Both Australia and Indonesia frequently experience natural disasters, ranging from devastating floods to disastrous fires. Should the ADF and TNI look to develop a regional response force to assist each other in times of natural and humanitarian crisis? What might this look like? What other nations should be included?