Nov 17, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

The life and death of Aceh's peace process

Published: Jul 27, 2007


Michelle Ann Miller

The declaration of martial law in Aceh on 18 May 2003 unravelled all progress that had been made during three years of peace talks between Jakarta and GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, Free Aceh Movement). A Joint Council Meeting between the two sides on 17-18 May in Tokyo failed to agree on revisions to the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities [Framework] Agreement (CoHA) that was signed on 9 December 2002. This resulted in President Megawati Sukarnoputri issuing Presidential Decree No. 28 of 2003, which imposed military emergency status.

The collapse of the peace process has seen Aceh return to a cycle of violence that began escalating in 1989 when the troubled province was first subjected to martial law. This emergency status was lifted in August 1998. Since then, the problems which initially gave rise to calls for independence, such as grave human rights violations, socio-economic inequities and demands for justice, have persisted. The Indonesian state infrastructure in Aceh has visibly deteriorated, with more than 13,000 buildings destroyed since 1999. At least 850 schools have been incinerated by unknown arsonists and more than 135 teachers have become victims of violence, disrupting the education of tens of thousands of students. Most courts have been rendered inoperable, being served by only 20 per cent of Aceh's normal contingent of 126 judges. Poverty levels have risen dramatically. From an estimated 890,000 Acehnese living below the poverty line in 1999, about 60 per cent of Aceh's 4.2 million population, or 2,500,000 people, were living in poverty by early 2003. Unemployment has risen from approximately 30 per cent of the labour force in 2001 to 40 per cent in 2003. Less than half the province has access to safe drinking water and electricity. Health levels, which strongly correlate with poverty, are significantly worse amongst the poor in Aceh than in other Indonesian provinces due to inadequate access to health centres and medical treatment. The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) has fluctuated significantly depending on the intensity of security operations. In April 2003, there were 20,238 registered IDPs in Aceh. Following the imposition of martial law, this number was expected to skyrocket after the government announced plans to evacuate up to 200,000 civilians from the worst conflict areas.

Even amidst the prolonged suffering of Acehnese society, hopes for stability and security in Aceh's future continued while the peace process remained alive. From the start of the internationally facilitated negotiations between Jakarta and GAM in late 1999, small successes were achieved that brought periods of relative peace to Aceh. There were also considerable setbacks as deep mistrust and fundamental differences between the two sides frequently resulted in outbreaks of war. Throughout the uncertain and difficult peace process, neither party shifted from its end goal. The government remained committed to its objective of upholding Aceh's place within the territorial boundaries of the Indonesian unitary state. GAM remained equally determined to 'liberate' the Acehnese from 'Javanese neo-colonialism' by establishing an independent Aceh sultanate. At least while peaceful negotiations continued, however, so did the potential for non-violent compromises to eventually be made.

The imposition of martial law has also involved a shift of emphasis in the Indonesian government's Aceh strategy. Previously, its stated policy priority was implementing 'special autonomy' in Aceh. In August 2002, President Megawati described the Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD) legislation (Law No.18/2001), that was ratified by the national parliament on 19 July 2001, as 'the main pillar for conflict resolution' in Aceh. The so-called NAD law aimed to create an attractive alternative to secession by granting the Acehnese greater self-governance and an increased share of their natural resource revenue. The three major tenets of this legislation include the return of 70 per cent of Aceh's oil and gas revenues for eight years, the imposition of aspects of Syari'ah (Islamic) law and direct democratic local elections from 2005. In reality, however, few efforts have so far been made to implement this political strategy. Instead, the government's primary Aceh policy focus has been military operations aimed at forcing GAM to accept special autonomy as a precursor to peace. The main beneficiaries of Aceh's new revenue sharing arrangements have been a handful of local and national politicians, and elements within the Indonesian security apparatus. GAM has also benefited by imposing 'war taxes' on businesses, government officials and the local population. In two separate Indonesian studies Aceh has been labelled the 'most corrupt' province in the archipelago.

The Megawati administration hopes that if it can eliminate GAM militarily, then Acehnese society will accept special autonomy as a lasting political solution to the conflict. Since January 1999, however, at least 12 separate security operations have been conducted in Aceh, which have neither curbed secessionist demands nor facilitated the restoration of law and order. The imposition of martial law has made Aceh�s prospects for peace even more remote. Under these conditions, any short to medium term autonomy initiatives to improve the lives of ordinary Acehnese are unlikely to succeed.

Michelle Ann Miller is completing a PhD on Aceh at Northern Territory University. She can be contacted at Michelle.Miller@ntu.edu.au

Inside Indonesia 75: Jul - Sep 2003

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