Global Security Brief #9: Post-Tsunami Aceh: Is the World Watching?

Next month, all eyes should be on Indonesia, as the parliament decides on a key element of the peace agreement between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). One year after the powerful Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Aceh—making peace in the province attainable after 29 years of conflict—a lasting solution seems within grasp. If so, it could provide a model not only for the difficult transition to democratic governance across Indonesia, but also for other conflict-prone areas hit by devastation, such as Sri Lanka and Kashmir.

The world's continued attention is critical not just to reinvigorate the halting reconstruction effort but also to steer through the intricacies of establishing peace and justice in Aceh.

On the morning of December 21, 2005, I witnessed the ceremonial destruction of the last six GAM guns at the Blang Padang sports field in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. Six GAM fighters marched onto the field under a blazing sun and handed their weapons over to Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) personnel, who proceeded to cut the assault weapons with a set of table saws. Comprising monitors from 14 European and 5 Southeast Asian countries, AMM scrutinizes compliance with the peace agreement.

The last of the government troops to be withdrawn from Aceh shipped out of Lhokseumawe harbor eight days later, and the last external police units followed suit on January 4. (Some 14,700 soldiers and 9,100 policemen—"organic" units that were regularly deployed in Aceh before martial law was imposed in 2003—remain, in accordance with the agreement.)

The initial phase of Aceh's peace process amounts to a success story. Beyond decommissionings and troop withdrawals, the peace agreement—known as the "Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement" (the "MOU")—has begun to restore a sense of normalcy to the towns and villages of the province.

Connections and Concerns

I visited Aceh as part of a delegation of researchers and activists from five different countries, organized by the San Francisco-based group Global Exchange. The nine-day visit to this lush, yet crippled, land at the northern tip of Sumatra was a whirlwind tour of meetings with tsunami survivors, villagers emerging from years of repression, grassroots groups, foreign aid agencies, and international peace monitors.

Our discussions revealed not just the hopes but also the remaining fears of many Acehnese. Many expressed lingering concerns that need to be addressed if peace is to take root beyond the silencing of the guns. It will take time to boost confidence among residents that repression and impunity have truly come to an end.

The post-conflict and post-tsunami situations are inextricably linked. On the one hand, the disaster caused suffering that transcended the lines of conflict and generated a new mood of compromise conducive to ending the violence. But the connection does not end there; people need assistance—land, housing, jobs—irrespective of whether they have been struck by disaster or driven out by violence. International aid agencies have eagerly staked their claims to Aceh's post-tsunami landscape. Yet the victims of the 29-year conflict are in danger of comparative neglect.

The Reconstruction Blues

In the district of Meuraxa, time appears to have stood still. Before the killer waves annihilated this coastal stretch on the northwestern outskirts of Aceh's capital, it was relatively well off economically. Given its prominent location and the international community's unprecedented generosity in the wake of the tsunami, reconstruction should have made major strides.

Although much of the debris has been cleared away, large patches of land remain desolate, reminiscent of an abandoned battlefield. Rebuilding seems patchy and painfully slow. Where once there were roads, now there are rutted dirt paths that slow vehicles to a crawl and rattle the bones of their occupants.

Meuraxa is in some ways symbolic of the halting reconstruction efforts across Aceh. Just 16,000 of the 120,000 needed houses have been finished. Some 65,000 Acehnese still live in tents, and some 100,000 dwell in barracks and other modest temporary shelters. Rehabilitation confronts a range of challenges:

  • Along the coast, an entire ribbon of land was devoured by the sea, and some of the most productive rice paddies and fish ponds were demolished or badly polluted. Suitable land for housing and farming is thus at a premium.
  • The tsunami washed away many land deeds along with houses and erased property boundary markers. No permanent housing can be legally built until land disputes are sorted out, but certification efforts may take years.
  • Those who have been displaced either by the tsunami or the conflict are afraid that others may covet and take their land in their absence. Some have pitched rickety tents on the remains of their houses rather than live in the relative comfort of temporary barracks or relatives' houses elsewhere.
  • Thousands of GAM members have come out of their mountain and jungle hideouts, and political prisoners have been released. Their needs add to the pressure on land and job creation.
  • Reconstruction contracts are tendered in Jakarta, prolonging rebuilding efforts and allowing companies there to siphon off part of the money before they subcontract with companies in Aceh that actually do the construction work.
  • Many international aid agencies have engaged in intense turf wars instead of coordinating with one another. Some villages received too much attention, others have seen little or none at all. Aid groups repeatedly promised more than they could deliver, with detrimental results.

The Indonesian government's Bureau of Reconstruction and Rehabilitation (BRR) and foreign aid agencies now proclaim 2006 to be the year when rebuilding will hit its stride. If this turns out to be a hollow promise, resentment is sure to spread. For reconstruction to succeed, strong efforts must be made to empower grassroots groups and to consult with affected communities that have effectively been shut out of the process so far.

Building a New Economy

The challenge of rebuilding can hardly be overstated. Yet it is magnified by the fact that Aceh's natural resource-based economy—reliant on oil and gas, forestry, and fisheries—needs to be put on a broader footing.

  • The peace agreement stipulates that Aceh gets to keep 70 percent of its natural resource revenues. For decades, the exploitation of natural gas deposits has been a boon to ExxonMobil, which operates the Arun fields and an adjacent liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility; ordinary Acehnese harvested only the bitter fruits of pollution and repression. Yet future prospects are no brighter: absent new discoveries, the once-ample deposits will likely be depleted in a few years.
  • Aceh is rich in tropical hardwood trees that fetch a high price on international markets. Conflict has long been a convenient cover for plundering the region's forests, and military and police units are still involved in such ventures. In 2002-04 alone, 350,000 of Aceh's 2.7 million hectares of forests were cut. At the current pace of logging, the province's forest cover will soon be depleted.
  • Ironically, the post-tsunami rehabilitation effort may result in over-fishing, as Aceh's fleet of fishing boats is rebuilt at higher numbers than before. This may well hasten the depletion of already dwindling fish stocks.

Aceh's economy needs not just revival but also diversification. Boosting education and skills training is therefore critical for Aceh's future.

Milestones to Peace

Political and human rights issues are as important to peace as economics. In this regard, too, 2006 will bring important milestones and challenges.

The peace agreement stipulates the promulgation of a new law governing Aceh, giving the province greater autonomy and paving the way for democratic provincial elections. Based on a draft law formulated in Aceh, the Indonesian government has submitted legislation to parliament for approval. Several provisions are critical to cementing peace:

  • The most controversial issue concerns the establishment of local political parties, called for in the MOU. This represents a dramatic break with Indonesian law, which requires that all parties be organized nationwide. Opposed by many parliamentarians, the move is critical for transforming GAM into a political actor and giving voice to Aceh's civil society.
  • Provincial elections are to be held in April 2006. Because political parties cannot be set up until Aceh's new governing law is adopted, elections may have to be postponed. Alternatively, individuals might run as independent candidates, but the draft law does not allow this. How well the various actors navigate this uncharted territory remains to be seen.
  • The government's draft law opens the possibility that Aceh might be divided into two or more provinces—in direct contravention of the peace agreement. Opponents of Aceh's freedom movement demand that several southern districts be allowed to break away, in an obvious (if unstated) attempt to torpedo the peace deal.
  • The MOU stipulates the establishment of a Human Rights Court and a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. Due to strenuous opposition by parts of parliament and by the military, no steps have been taken to create these important institutions. But it is critical that past abuses be investigated.

The mandate of the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) expires on March 15, 2006. The Acehnese are well aware that it was the massive influx of foreigners after the tsunami that opened Aceh to global scrutiny and curbed the security forces' human rights violations. The Acehnese want an extended AMM presence as insurance that there will be no return to the old days. (Indications are that the Indonesian government may agree to a 3-month extension, but that may not be enough.)

The Finer Tools of Peace

Many Acehnese are reluctantly abandoning their dream of an independent state. But as one long-time activist explained to me, achieving political democracy, respect for human rights, and economic justice may ultimately be more important than Aceh's formal status.

A number of obstacles have yet to be overcome. There are many people who have benefited from the conflict and may thus be averse to peace. The military's attitude is particularly critical. Military units have long acted with impunity vis-à-vis civilians and have been involved in illegal logging, marijuana trafficking, and extortion. Such behavior must end.

Major General Bambang Darmono is a critical figure. He once pursued an iron-fist policy in a failed effort to subdue East Timor and was the operational military commander in Aceh, but now serves as the government's special representative for the peace process. His speech and demeanor at the December 21 decommissioning ceremony in Banda Aceh was characterized by a tough law-and-order approach. But seasoned observers say he appears to have been somewhat changed by his involvement in the peace process. The degree to which he and other military leaders have come to terms with a more autonomous Aceh will make a critical difference.

Irwandi Yusuf, representing GAM at the ceremony, compared the task ahead to fashioning a chair out of a tree. At first, the chain saw—a metaphor for guns—is an indispensable tool to cut the tree into chunks, he said. But then, finer tools are needed to carve the delicate parts of the chair and to turn it into a work of art. Finer tools—democratic rules and a functioning civil society—are what Aceh now needs to develop.

One year ago, the world got to know the Acehnese as the victims of an unprecedented natural disaster. It is equally critical to assist Aceh in overcoming the human-made calamity of conflict and repression. A sign along the road from Banda Aceh to Sigli conveys the most fundamental wish of many Acehnese: "Kami sangat rindu Kedamaiun"—"We really desire peace."

To support a just peace, the international community should:

  • Ensure that survivors of the tsunami and of the conflict receive equal assistance in rebuilding their lives.
  • Insist that affected communities have greater say in the reconstruction process.
  • Make it clear to Indonesia's parliament that the terms of the peace agreement need to be fully implemented.
  • Demand a full accounting for past human rights violations, and encourage Indonesia to learn from the truth and reconciliation experience of countries such as South Africa.
  • Suspend collaboration with the Indonesian military until its behavior is in accordance with human rights norms—not just in Aceh, but across the far-flung Indonesian archipelago.

Selected Resources on the Web:

Peace Agreement and Political Process:

Post-Tsunami Recovery:

Environmental and Human Rights Issues:

Global Exchange:

About the author: Michael Renner is Director of the Global Security Project at the Worldwatch Institute. He studies the connections between natural disasters and peacemaking, and visited Aceh from December 15-23, 2005.