May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Acehnese voices

Published: Jul 22, 2007

As reconstruction moves into high gear, it’s time to listen to tsunami victims

Andrew Thornley

Politics and aid are awkward bedfellows, but in Aceh they collide unavoidably. The tsunami has focused everyone’s attention on humanitarian assistance. But we also need to see rebuilding and development as a way to resolve the decades-old conflict. To what extent are the Acehnese themselves participating in debates about peace and conflict in their province? And can the Acehnese have their say in the planning of reconstruction?

In January 2005, Search for Common Ground in Indonesia spent a week in Aceh with a film crew interviewing residents about their perceptions of peace and conflict after the tsunami. We asked them about their expectations and concerns for the future. We also interviewed Acehnese in Jakarta and Medan.

This article includes just a sample of the many voices in our film. They do not give definitive policy pronouncements, but instead offer a candid snapshot of opinion — albeit from a limited period of time and a limited sample of people. They capture a rare moment when Acehnese people felt less restricted in publicly speaking their minds.

What emerges is a clear consensus: ordinary Acehnese want peace. They hold strong and informed views, yet they remain suspicious of the authorities and feel that their own voices are often ignored. The post-tsunami reconstruction effort and a new peace process should be an opportunity to involve them in determining their own fate.

The conflict

We want permanent peace, not conflict. We really hope that conflict doesn’t return. We are already too exhausted; too tired. We can’t say anything more.’

This comment, from a woman we interviewed in Banda Aceh, was typical. Overwhelmingly, the people we interviewed wanted peace. They hoped that after the tsunami there was now an opportunity to resolve the conflict between the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, and the Indonesian military.

Yet despite this widespread view, fighting resumed soon after the waves receded. Further conflict between the military and GAM in the months ahead could deepen social cleavages, divert resources away from rehabilitation and add to collective trauma. Conf{ict may also lead to limited access to Aceh by international and Indonesian non-governmental organisations and the media.

Yet one of the problems that our interviews revealed was that there is a crisis of confidence in the government amongst ordinary Acehnese. As one of the people we interviewed expressed it: ‘There is a very significant distance between the government and the people, or between local government and their constituents. As far as the people are concerned, as long as the government or anything associated with it does not disturb them, as long as they have what they need to eat [and] to sleep, that’s already more than enough … I don’t know if we can call this distrust — I think it is more than that.’

Commentators have suggested that conflict in Aceh may be transformed irrevocably as a result of the tsunami. In fact, the future remains unclear. In January 2005, a formal peace process once more got under way. The talks involve representatives of the Indonesian government and GAM. These talks may prove to be part of a solution. But alone, they are not enough. Meaningful transformation of the conflict will require identification of, and attention to, underlying causes. That means listening to the people’s voices.

Participants in the formal peace process don’t necessarily represent the majority of people who live amidst the conflict and suffer most from its consequences. In Aceh, there are multiple shades of grey: those in favour of independence may or may not ally themselves with GAM, and those supporting integration with Indonesia may not support the military’s tactics.

æalks between these two groups thus might not end up addressing the people’s real concerns or their sense of alienation. High-level diplomacy among combatants should be coupled with a broader dialogue involving ordinary Acehnese.

Aid and peace

The flow of assistance after the tsunami might support peace-building, if it addresses basic needs. But it might also bring new conflicts. As one young man told us, ‘There is a lot of aid coming in and there are people who are suspicious of one another … There will definitely be conflicts between them.’ Another woman told us ‘humanitarian aid has the potential to become a new conflict.’

Such views reflect more than just the trauma of persistent conflict. In Aceh, foreign Christian relief workers now mingle with Muslim Acehnese within sight of groups like the Islamic Defenders’ Front, who decry what they say is Western proselytising and advocate stricter adherence to Islamic law. Meanwhile, unequal access to assistance and employment opportunities, and disputes over land title in areas destroyed by the tsunami, could threaten peace in the months ahead.

So too could corruption in aid provision. This issue ranked highly as a concern among the Acehnese we spoke to, not surprising given the frequent and sometimes ironic reminders of the problem: in late January an anti-graft activist, Farid Faqih, was beaten by soldiers in Banda Aceh. The soldiers accused him of stealing aid. Meanwhile, Aceh’s top official, Governor Abdullah Puteh, languishes in jail in Jakarta on charges of corruption leveled prior to the tsunami.

Almost everyone we spoke to had a lot to say about corruption. As one teacher expressed it: ‘We want a clean government that is free from corruption. Because we know what is really going on here in Aceh. As an educator, I know very well that corruption is widespread in this country, from the lowest level to the highest level. They are all corrupt. If I may say so, they are ‘licensed thieves’… If God made Mount Seulawah from gold, it would be gone, stolen.’

Corruption in Indonesia is so widespread that ordinary people often say they tolerate it because it is inevitable. However, fraud in the delivery of reconstruction aid will draw powerful condemnation, not least because many locals view the tsunami as God’s retribution for insidious corruption in the province. And many people see a link between corruption and conflict. In the words of one interviewee: ‘If we hear later that there have been people in the system abusing the situation [the post-tsunami relief efforts], we are worried that this might cause more conflict.’

But the people we talked to didn’t just complain about corruption. They also knew what needed to be done to prevent it. In the words of one respondent: ‘To reduce the conflict or stop it returning, Aceh has to become a ‘glass house’ so that everyone can see what goes on — transparency.’

Keeping the discussion going

Ordinary Acehnese should be brought into the peace process, so that any solution will reflect the will of the people and enjoy popular support. Aceh’s rehabilitation provides a window of free expression. It should be an opportunity for public dialogue to agree on broadly-shared priorities about security and reconstruction. Our film is one of numerous tools that can be used to facilitate such locally-driven discussions, raise awareness and prompt action. Such measures can give voice to those who may otherwise remain unheard.

One of our interviewees, an NGO activist, was insistent on this point: ‘My hopes are that women will be more involved in every decision-making process. This almost never happens. Usually at decision-making levels men are more dominant. For example, women are almost never involved in decisions concerning the master plan for Aceh.’ Without opening the space for wider dialogue, it might not be possible to sufficiently represent women’s voices in the peace process.

Other Indonesians, many of whom have contributed unprecedented amounts of time, money and attention to Aceh in past months, should also be encouraged to remain engaged in debating Aceh’s future, since many policies critical to the province are made by politicians at the national level. One problem in the past has been that Indonesians outside of Aceh have had limited information — and thus understanding — about developments there.

Wishful thinking will not transform conflict in Aceh. Solutions will require commitment and action from the Indonesian government, GAM and the international community. They will also require the broader involvement of Indonesians, in Aceh and beyond.

Andrew Thornley ( was the country director of Search for Common Ground in Indonesia (SFCGI) until May 2005. SFCGI is an NGO that cooperates with local groups, government, media, conflict survivors and others to develop innovative conflict transformation programs. Check its website at A copy of the film mentioned in this article can be obtained by emailing

Inside Indonesia 83: Jul-Sep 2005

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.