Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Between war and peace

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Otto Syamsuddin Ishak

Dialogue was first discussed late 1999, but the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was reluctant. The great service of the Swiss-based organisation the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HDC) is that they were able to sit the two sides down at one table. The first HDC mission came to Aceh early in 2000. HDC had to decide which Acehnese resistance faction they would deal with - GAM or MP-GAM. Each was led by exiles in Sweden who had fought in Aceh in 1976. Indonesia preferred MP-GAM, but GAM had the biggest presence on the ground. The choice fell on GAM, and they formed a delegation with representatives from the Swedish leadership as well as commanders from Aceh.

It was difficult. GAM feared being deceived by Indonesia, while the Indonesian government thought of GAM as intractable. I went to Geneva for the first meeting on 24 April 2000. The atmosphere was tense. As a resource person, I had to provide information about human rights after 1998 that might help lead to a peaceful resolution.

HDC took a humanitarian approach. GAM accordingly stressed Indonesian human rights abuses. Indonesian representative Hassan Wirayuda, by contrast, said little about the situation on the ground and wanted to discuss a special autonomy solution like the one he helped broker in the southern Philippines. He was accompanied by the military attache from the Paris embassy, so the Indonesian delegation tended to ignore human rights.

However, the agreement signed on 12 May 2000 was fairly good in that it did revolve around humanitarian issues, and it called on both sides to show restraint. A Joint Forum was established in Geneva, to meet once in three months. In Aceh there were two joint committees, for security and for humanitarian action, as well as an independent team to monitor implementation of security aspects - of which I was secretary. Four district monitoring teams were formed in December 2000 as well.

In order to create a conducive sense of security, the agreement stipulated that all troop movements whether GAM or Indonesian should be reported to the joint security committee in Banda Aceh. However, President Wahid was unable to control his military, and the TNI just ignored that provision. After the agreement was signed, Indonesia unilaterally put in place a set of 'permanent procedures' (prosedur tetap, or protap). But GAM rejected them because they made no allowance for reporting troop movements.


For me it was the first time I had met many of the top Acehnese in the resistance. They struck me as chivalrous. They were so committed. But I felt nervous that upon my return to Aceh I might be intimidated by both sides. So I asked HDC to guarantee my security. They produced a letter signed by GAM and by the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Department. Foreign Affairs picked me up at the airport. But the differences between them and TNI Headquarters became obvious when we went out to the field. Foreign Affairs had no authority there. I was often intimidated. Police Colonel Ridwan Karim, Indonesian delegation leader on the joint committee for security, and former commander of the force sent in to Aceh following the troop withdrawal in 1999, said in public that I was pro-GAM.

In Jakarta, President Wahid was under attack. Parliamentary speaker Akbar Tanjung of Golkar blamed Wahid for initiating the Aceh dialogue without consulting parliament. The TNI, meanwhile, made it clear it was not about to acknowledge GAM as an equal negotiating partner because GAM was 'not a state'.

Nevertheless, the 12 May agreement was unprecedented in Indonesian history. Unlike the final resolution of the Darul Islam revolt in 1962, which was a personal affair between Acehnese leader Daud Beureueh and Indonesian military commander LtGen M Jasin, this was an institutional agreement not dependent on personalities.

Its big weakness was that HDC was unable to guarantee the security of its partners in the peace process. For example when Tengku Al Kamal, a member of the monitoring committee for security, was killed by Indonesia in South Aceh on 30 March 2001, HDC did not even do anything for his family. Yet he had been killed while on duty as a partner with HDC.

The HDC negotiations of early 2000 did offer a new alternative for the conflict, but after it was signed HDC was no longer the engine of transformation. Instead, the initiative passed to GAM and the Republic of Indonesia. GAM took advantage of it to recruit new fighters and to establish a new village structure in areas it controlled. Indonesia meanwhile sent in even more troops, who set up new posts and, under the cover of providing humanitarian assistance, conducted counter-insurgency intelligence operations in the villages.

Nor was HDC able to create a new common understanding of the conflict, as its mission statement indicates it wanted to do. HDC used none of the abundant human rights information (which had strong humanitarian relevance) to create a new consensus. Instead, Jakarta dominated the media, leaving HDC with no room to build on the agreement that had been reached. That reduced the credibility of HDC especially within Indonesia. Indeed, HDC's influence declined sharply as one moved from the international to the grassroots level.

For example, the agreement made provision for regular meetings between GAM and TNI field commanders. And these did take place. But GAM was suspicious that TNI would use these meetings to capture senior commanders, so they only sent second or third level commanders. When Indonesia withdrew from the meetings, complaining that GAM was not sending its top commander Abdullah Syafi'ie, HDC again had nothing to say. This was followed by the arrest of the entire GAM negotiating team in Banda Aceh in July 2001. Of course HDC had no troops to enforce any agreement, but it might have been able to save its principles if it had brought in other mediators with more clout such as US-AID.


I thought 12 May was a moment of great hope. I felt excited, but also anxious about attitudes on the two sides - GAM stubborn as Acehnese generally are, and Indonesia cunning and always ready to use violence. Considering the generally negative Indonesian response to the agreement, the enthusiasm with which countries like Norway and the US greeted it was perhaps naive.

We can draw two lessons from the HDC process. The first is that this cannot be resolved as a domestic Indonesian problem. Within Southeast Asia it has a negative impact on Malaysia and Singapore because of the Acehnese refugees. And more globally the massive American investment by Exxon is under threat of insecurity. These concerns should lead to more international involvement.

Second, the loss of HDC's credibility in Indonesian eyes led to a spiral of violence. That is why I am excited about the latest development, in which the United States is supporting the HDC process with an additional initiative known as the Four Wise Men. The American idea, conceived before Megawati became president, is that she can work together better with the military and may be able to control them. One of the four individuals will be an influential American, one a Japanese (they buy a lot of gas from Aceh, but are not keen to be involved), one from Yugoslavia who is a friend of Megawati, and Surin Pitsuwan, former Thai foreign minister who is Muslim.

TNI think they can resolve the Aceh issue alone. Shooting dead top GAM commander Tgk Abdullah Syafi'ie on 22 January 2002 encouraged them. But GAM immediately appointed a replacement, Muzakkir Manaf. They are well organised. And the Acehnese now have two new martyrs - Abdullah Syafi'i and his wife (who died with him). To them he was a model of humanism, unpretentious, simple, and devout. That he will become a legend is obvious even from the Indonesian press reporting of his death, which was positive about him and did not describe the soldiers who shot him as heroes.

Otto Syamsuddin Ishak has published two books on Aceh. The Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue website is: www.hdcentre.org.

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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