If Indonesia can provide us with democracy and justice, then what do we need independence for? We just have to wait and see.’ This was the response of my activist friend to a query about his former interest in an independent Aceh. Many may view the response as cynicism. Do former pro-independence guerrillas and activists really trust the Indonesian government to fulfil its part of the peace accord, let alone put in place the ideals of democracy and justice? After all, one of the major weaknesses of the peace accord signed between GAM (Free Aceh Movement) and the Indonesian government in August 2005 is that there is no mechanism for justice or reconciliation for past abuses.
Given this, it is surprising not that there is scepticism in Aceh, but that the Acehnese retain any trust at all in the national government. Aceh has been on the receiving end of a stream of broken promises, symbolic gestures, rights abuses and economic exploitation dating back to the formation of the Indonesian state in 1949. The peace accord and the reconstruction of Aceh following the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami, both provide prospects for healing these old wounds. However, with these opportunities also come challenges — the complexity of the conflict and the fragility of any peace process pose enormous risks. Failure to rebuild a better Aceh will only entrench cynicism and mistrust.
While there is still a culture of distrust in Aceh towards the central government and many hazards on the road to peace and reconstruction, there is reason for optimism. People are tired of the immense suffering they have endured during the many periods of intense fighting over the last 16 years. People close to GAM admit that the trauma experienced as a result of the tsunami, on top of the years of war, was a determining factor in persuading the movement to put the conflict to rest.
Compared to the unnerving and paranoiac atmosphere during the 2003 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, there is now a sense of confidence and hope in Aceh. Many signs of faith and commitment to the current peace process are to be seen. Acehnese who fled the conflict are now confident to return from other parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Europe and the US. People feel safe to do things considered highly risky in the past, such as hold bonfires on the beach until late at night and go trekking in the mountains.
There are also strong visible manifestations of openness. It is striking how the word ‘GAM’ is now mentioned without people having to whisper or use codes. There is no fear and paranoia about who may be listening. People talk openly about injustices, GAM and the conflict without taking sides. A new humorous interpretation of the AMM (Aceh Monitoring Mission) acronym has even emerged — Aceh Mau Merdeka (Aceh Wants Freedom). People were seen crying at the live telecast of the signing of the peace accord, and soon after I saw a man in a wheel-chair singing in public about the history of the conflict.
The TV news has shown the former GAM negotiator, Teungku Kamaruzzaman, embracing the TNI (Indonesian army) commander Bambang Darmono after the former’s release from prison. Newly surrendered GAM rebels can be seen sitting in rural coffee shops with their former enemy, the TNI. Some activist friends of mine in a hotel lobby exclaimed ‘Rebel sudah masuk kota’ (the rebels have come to town) upon recognising the charismatic GAM spokesman Sofyan Daud arrive with a group of supporters. GAM now has a prominent office in Banda Aceh. Friends who returned to their villages for the Ramadan holidays in November also told of stories of former separatists, the TNI and other members of the community interacting on good terms.
These positive trends have allowed the government of President Yudhoyono to develop significant trust in the province. Although many of the younger generation of Acehnese activists told me before his election in 2004 that they were strongly against another former military man as president, some older religious leaders have expressed confidence in him. His government is perceived as honest, in control of the armed forces, and committed to resolving the Aceh issue through peaceful means. This is in stark contrast to all previous presidents from Suharto to Megawati, who are despised in Aceh for their broken promises, corruption, lack of control and use of violent means to resolve the conflict.
Challenges to peace
Despite the growing sense of hope and openness in Aceh, the path to peace still contains formidable obstacles. A critical phase lies ahead with the formulation of a new law for governing Aceh, which will be based on the peace accord between GAM and the national government. A draft bill was prepared and examined by Acehnese legislators, the intelligentsia, civil society and GAM members in late 2005. However, the Ministry of Home Affairs has since erased 37 key articles of this Acehnese version. Some of the decisive points in danger of being lost in the new law include allowing Aceh to have independent political candidates, greater control over natural resources, and a higher level of economic independence regarding international trade. The final version of the bill will be determined by the legislators in Jakarta alone. No decision had been made as Inside Indonesia went to press. The danger is that the Acehnese draft will be so diluted it will become just another notch on the list of broken promises from Jakarta. Without these key points, the law will hardly differ from the previous autonomy packages offered to the Acehnese.
There is much agitation in Aceh over the new law, and the aspirations of most people remain high. Hundreds of students have protested against the central government’s attempts to water it down, with slogans pleading ‘Central Government, Don’t Betray the Aspirations of the Acehnese’. Many Acehnese activists and others involved in drafting the new law have been regularly visiting Jakarta, to garner support from the government and civil society there, and to lobby lawmakers.
There are other challenges to the smooth flow of the peace process, such as reintegrating former GAM combatants into society and providing them and their families with a living. Ensuring the needs of women are met is also a big issue — the peace accord, the draft autonomy law and tsunami reconstruction all ignore women. Developing a mechanism for justice and reconciliation for human rights violations that took place prior to the signing of the accord is an obstacle too.
Rebuilding a better Aceh?
The tsunami devastated Aceh, but even prior to that, many government services were not functioning at full capacity because of the conflict. This, combined with endemic corruption and a perceived lack of concern by the government for the people’s welfare, makes the challenge of building trust all the more formidable. Hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced and dependent on aid. Progress in building houses, roads and schools is slow, and people are not receiving the promised monthly living allowance from the government. All of this will either confirm or exacerbate mistrust of the government in Aceh.
In addition there are still thousands of people displaced by the conflict, some for over five years, who are receiving little support. International aid organisations have divided Aceh into ‘tsunami-affected’ and ‘conflict-affected’ geographical areas and communities. Conflict-affected communities, unless they live in tsunami-affected areas, have hardly been touched by the humanitarian assistance effort.
Seven months have now passed since the signing of the peace accord. All GAM members and sympathisers have been released from prison, received amnesty, and are no longer hunted down. GAM has surrendered its quota of weapons to the European Union-led Aceh Monitoring Mission and 30,000 TNI and police have been removed from Aceh by the national government. Yet the international agencies now in Aceh to deal with the devastation caused by the tsunami have still not adjusted their programs to this new environment. While there are signs of trust between the conflicting parties, the international aid groups are silent, and not contributing at all to the peace process. Excuses of donor requirements, or a lack of courage on the part of international agencies to engage with this problem, are in stark contrast to the brave and daring efforts by the Indonesian government and GAM for a holistic recovery of Aceh. Many expatriates working for international agencies, and all the Acehnese I know, agree that a response to the humanitarian needs of conflict victims and other peace-building initiatives are long overdue. Risman A Rahman, a civil society leader from the Saleum Institute, captures this sentiment well with his motto, ‘Peace for Reconstruction, Reconstruction for Peace’.
The challenges for the government to build trust with the Acehnese community remain formidable, but it is still possible, particularly if there is holistic support from the international community. The astonishing level of trust between GAM and the peacemakers in Aceh must now be matched by the legislators in Jakarta. Will they support a governing law for Aceh that reflects the expectations of the Acehnese, or is history about to be repeated?
Daniel Burdock (not his real name) is an aid worker in Aceh who has regularly visited and worked there since 1997.