Learning from Aceh

About the author
Michael Renner is director of the Global Security Project at the Worldwatch Institute, and a board member of the Global Policy Forum. He is the author of two books and several monographs including Small Arms, Big Impact: The Next Challenge of Disarmament (1997), and The Anatomy of Resource Wars (2002).

There was a tragic anniversary in December 2005, when the tsunami in Indonesia’s Aceh province was commemorated. But alongside the grief there was good news: the successful conclusion of phase one of the peace agreement between the Indonesian government and the Gerekan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement / Gam). A year that had begun in tragedy in this still crippled land at the northern tip of Sumatra ended on a high note.

Decommissioning rebel weapons and withdrawing part of Jakarta’s security forces has been a smooth process. Now the tasks – securing passage of autonomy legislation, accounting for past human-rights violations, and invigorating a sluggish reconstruction effort – are more challenging. The world’s attention continues to be needed.

Also in openDemocracy on conflict resolution in divided territories:

Robin Wilson, “Northern Ireland’s peace by peace” (October 2005)

Alan Keenan, “Sri Lanka’s election choice” (November 2005)

TK Vogel, “Dayton’s ambiguous legacy” (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable, please consider donating to openDemocracy to help our work for democracy

Aceh’s experience raises the question: to what extent may the shared suffering of disasters offer divided societies elsewhere an opportunity to resolve long-standing conflicts? Sri Lanka, for instance, was hit by the same monster waves as Aceh, and has also been plagued by a debilitating civil war. In Kashmir, the deadly October 2005 earthquake cut through a faultline of conflict more than half a century old; the tremor gave rise to hopes that a political earthquake would follow and bury decades of enmity between India and Pakistan.

After the guns fall silent

2006 will be pivotal for peace in Aceh. The next milestone is the passage of a new governing law for Aceh, as prescribed by the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU, pdf) between the Indonesian government and Gam. The law is to give the province greater autonomy and pave the way for provincial elections.

A draft was drawn up in Aceh after extensive discussions and public consultations, and has been forwarded to Jakarta. But parliament, which is to give the final stamp of approval, may turn out to be an obstacle. If opponents among Indonesia’s lawmakers prevent the law’s adoption, or significantly alter its provisions, the peace process could still be derailed.

A key provision in the memorandum calls for the establishment of local parties in Aceh to contest provincial elections. This represents a dramatic departure from Indonesian law, which mandates that all political parties be organised nationwide – a measure intended to discourage the rise of secessionist political forces. But it is essential in Aceh because it allows Gam to transform itself into a political force.

The MOU stipulates that legislation be passed by mid-March 2006 and that provincial elections be held by the end of April. This tight timeline looks increasingly unrealistic. It takes time to set up genuine political parties, draw up programmatic platforms, and run election campaigns, especially for an organisation like Gam that knows more about military tactics than about electoral strategies, and for civil-society groups that have long been viciously oppressed.

Postponing the elections would not necessarily be a bad thing, though this is uncharted political territory. It is essential that outside observers continue to keep close watch over this process.

An end to impunity

The same applies to the human-rights situation. The Acehnese are slowly growing more confident that peace is here to stay. Some of the most abusive forces have now been withdrawn, but Indonesia’s military and police have long brutalised Acehnese civilians with impunity. Understandably, many activists are still reluctant to reveal their identities; the point of no return clearly has not yet been reached.

During my visit to Aceh as part of a Global Exchange-organised delegation in December, I heard many people express a strong desire that the mandate of the international Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) be extended beyond the current March deadline.

As the lead force behind the AMM, the European Union is a crucial guarantor of peace and the indications are that the EU would like to see the AMM’s mandate extended. But beyond continuing to scrutinize developments in Aceh, the EU should also provide human-rights training to security forces in Indonesia as it did in the Balkans – far preferable to conventional military training, which the United States resumed in 2005 after a period of intermittent suspension.

After the tsunami

2006 will also be critical in terms of reviving Aceh’s tsunami- and conflict-battered economy. House construction got off to a late start. In Meuraxa, on the northwestern outskirts of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, it seems as though time has stood still: though much of the debris has been cleared away, the area remains largely desolate, with reconstruction activities patchy and slow.

Across Aceh, only about 16,000 of the 120,000 houses needed had been completed by the end of last year. More than 60,000 people still live in tents, and some 100,000 in frugal temporary shelters. The pace is slow in part because no permanent housing can be legally built until land disputes are sorted out. With land titles washed away, many property boundary markers erased, suitable land for housing and farming scarce, and ex-combatants and the internally displaced returning in search of land, numerous disputes have broken out. It is estimated that it will take two to three years to sort out the claims.

Resentment is also building because the big international aid agencies kept promising more than they could deliver, or got involved in areas outside their core competence, with detrimental results. The government’s bureau of reconstruction and rehabilitation and foreign-aid groups now proclaim 2006 to be the year when rebuilding will gather momentum. But better consultation with affected communities is a must.

Reconstruction offers many thousands of temporary jobs but in the longer run some of Aceh’s economic mainstays face an uncertain future:

  • natural-gas reserves may be depleted in a few years (though the industry never offered much employment or other benefits to most Acehnese)
  • logging, much of it illegal, is decimating Aceh’s tropical hardwoods
  • the rebuilding of the fishing fleet will expand the number of boats significantly beyond pre-tsunami numbers, and may lead to overfishing

To capture a larger share of the economic benefits, and to create more jobs, Aceh needs more industries like wood processing and fish canning, as well as international support for training young people in modern skills such as computers.

These tasks assume special importance now that Gam members have come out of mountain and jungle hideouts. Many fighters lack the skills needed for civilian life. Providing new jobs and training is critical to avoid ex-combatants turning to crime for survival, and hence to political stability.

Aceh and the world

These challenges notwithstanding, Aceh has an excellent chance of emerging as a success story. It holds important lessons for other areas that face similar challenges, in particular Sri Lanka and Kashmir. Goodwill in the aftermath of disasters can be a powerful psychological catalyst for changing the dynamics of conflict. But humanitarian impulse needs to be translated into political change. Aceh’s experience suggests the following “scorecard” for successful peacemaking:

  • translate a groundswell of solidarity in the aftermath of a disaster into firm steps toward peace. In Aceh, peace negotiations started almost immediately. In Sri Lanka, the opportunity was frittered away, and the basic rifts reemerged. In Kashmir, initial overtures between India and Pakistan bogged down in ingrained patterns of rigidity.

  • demonstrate a serious commitment to peace. The leaders of Indonesia and of Gam were prepared to take substantial risks. Sri Lanka’s opposing sides, by contrast, proved averse to compromise. Indian and Pakistani leaders have wavered in their commitment to peace.

  • allow disaster aid to flow across conflict lines. In Sri Lanka, wrangling over how international tsunami aid was to be distributed ended up sharpening tensions. In Kashmir, suspicion between India and Pakistan curtailed rescue cooperation; the opening of five crossing points along the ceasefire line could have brought a political breakthrough, but the opportunity was missed.

  • address core grievances. In Aceh, negotiations proceeded even as low-level violence continued. In Sri Lanka, a ceasefire was adopted, but the underlying issues were not resolved. India and Pakistan have begun to thaw their relationship, but key issues surrounding the Kashmir conflict remain un-addressed.

  • take verifiable steps toward demilitarisation. In Aceh, clear targets were adopted and supervised internationally. In Sri Lanka, no comparable steps were taken and international ceasefire monitors are in a weak position. India and Pakistan keep trading demands for troop withdrawals and an end to attacks across the ceasefire line, but no such steps have been taken.

  • confront spoilers who – politically or materially – benefit from a continuation of conflict. Indonesia’s civilian leadership kept military opposition to peace at bay. In Sri Lanka, however, the new president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, panders to political hardliners. And in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, militant anti-India groups have played a major role in assisting earthquake survivors and may gain fresh legitimacy and support as a result.

Progress is difficult, if not impossible, in the absence of committed leadership, whether on the part of governments or the international community. The sentiments of affected populations are quite clear. Driving around Aceh, for example, one comes across many banners with a simple message: Kami sangat rindu Kedamaiun – “We really desire peace.”