Aceh: Peacemaking after the Tsunami

In the Meuraxa section of Banda Aceh, tents are a common sight as post-tsunami house construction is sluggish. Peace depends in part on reconstruction that is both swift and fair.
The December 2004 tsunami that devastated Aceh kick-started negotiations to end a conflict that has lasted for almost 30 years and led to widespread violence and displacement. (See Table 1.)

After Aceh—located at the northern tip of Sumatra—was incorporated into the newly established Republic of Indonesia in 1945, a disagreement developed between Jakarta’s insistence on strong central control and Acehnese longings for independence. Promises of special autonomy for the province remained unfulfilled. Rebellion broke out as early as 1953, but the current conflict dates to 1976, when the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) was founded with the express goal of seceding from Indonesia.

Origins of Conflict

Aceh is rich in natural resources, including oil, natural gas, timber, and minerals, and provides 15–20 percent of Indonesia’s oil and gas output. But this wealth benefited mostly multinational companies and cronies of the long-reigning Suharto dictatorship. Aceh today remains one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces. Unemployment is rampant and about 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared with about 10 percent in 1996 and 20 percent in 1999. In 2002, 48 percent of the population had no access to clean water, 36 percent of children under the age of five were undernourished, and 38 percent of the Acehnese had no access to health facilities.

Excessive political centralization and unjust exploitation of Aceh’s natural resources lie at the heart of the conflict. Military repression, massive human rights violations, and a high degree of impunity enjoyed by the security forces have additionally fueled discontent and resentment among the Acehnese. With membership surging in the late 1980s and 1990s, GAM was transformed into a genuine popular movement, posing an increasingly serious challenge to Jakarta in an escalating conflict.

Table 1.  Impacts of Civil War and the 2004 Tsunami on Aceh’s 4.2 Million People1

Impacts

People or Housing Affected (number)

Civil war
Killed 15,000
Displaced in 1992–2002 1.4 million
Displaced in 2003–04 120,000–150,000
   
Tsunami  
Killed 131,000
Missing 37,000
Displaced or homeless, initial estimates 500,000–1 million
Displaced or homeless, remaining2 more than 500,000
Dependent on food aid3 800,000
Damaged and destroyed houses 116,880
1 2003 census.
2 As of August 2005.
3 World Food Programme food recipients; food aid expected to continue through 2006.
 

Military Business

The Indonesian military has long been opposed to resolving the Aceh conflict through negotiations and appears at times to have undermined the fledgling peace efforts undertaken between 2000 and 2003. Economic interests explain this attitude. Since the 1950s, the business dealings of the security forces have grown substantially in all of Indonesia. Profits from legal and illegal ventures have supplemented the official defense budget and enriched military and police commanders.

Some elements of the military in Aceh are involved in marijuana production and trafficking, prostitution, and extortion from individuals and businesses. Fishers have been forced to sell part of their catch, and coffee growers part of their harvest, at below market rates to the military, who in turn sell these at vastly inflated prices.

One of the most lucrative sources of income for the military and police is illegal logging. (See Box.) Conflict has been a convenient cover for those plundering the region’s natural resources, and elements of the security forces have not shied away from orchestrating violence to justify a continued military presence in Aceh.

BOX. ILLEGAL LOGGING IN ACEH

Aceh’s natural treasures are under threat of rapid depletion. The Leuser Ecosystem—at 2.6 million hectares, almost the size of Belgium—is the largest remaining forest on Sumatra, straddling Aceh and North Sumatra provinces. At its heart is the 800,000-hectare Gunung Leuser National Park, part of a World Heritage Site since July 2004.The Leuser Ecosystem is a biodiversity hotspot, with some 700 different animal species and about 4,500 plant species. It is home to some 4 percent of all known bird species worldwide and to a rich range of wildlife, including endangered Sumatran tigers and rhinos, elephants, orangutans, hornbills, and cloud leopards. Leuser also has the world’s largest flower (Rafflesia arnoldi) and the tallest one (Amorphophallus tatinum).

Aceh is rich in tropical hardwood trees like semaram, merbau, kruing, and meranti, which fetch a high price on international markets and make logging very lucrative.

Of Aceh’s 5 million hectares of land, 2.7 million hectares are forested, with another 640,000 ha in tree plantations. The World Bank and the Indonesian government estimated in the late 1990s that 69 percent of Aceh’s total land area remained forested. This has declined to 62 percent since, however. Greenomics, an Indonesian environmental NGO, estimates that between 2002 and 2004, some 350,000 ha of forests have been lost, mostly due to illegal logging. Most of the deforestation has occurred in designated conservation zones.

Deforestation continues also in Gunung Leuser Park. By 2002, 26 percent of Gunung Leuser Park had been destroyed, and a major planned road project could increase the portion of affected forest to 40 percent by 2010.

Logging has caused a growing number of flash floods and landslides, sweeping away homes and destroying nearby rice fields. Since 2000, a total of 143 such incidents have been documented.

Both the military and the police have been involved in illegal logging in Aceh,working in partnership with private entrepreneurs and levying fees on trucks that carry logs out of Aceh. Loggers pay the security forces for protection against prosecution. Rivalries among different units of security forces have at times apparently led to armed turf battles. The security forces also have a stake in oil palm and other plantations that are being set up on cleared forest areas.

The military had been the dominant institution in Indonesia since the mid-1960s—a virtual state within a state. After the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1997, political reformers began the difficult task of loosening the military’s grip on Indonesian society. Reducing its power and making it more accountable is of great importance to the outcome of the Aceh peace process.

A 2004 law requires the military to end its lucrative business ventures within five years, and Army chief General Endriarto Sutarto pledged to comply by 2007. Efforts have also been made to reduce the military’s direct political influence. The number of parliamentary seats allocated to representatives of the armed forces was first reduced from 75 to 38 in January 1999, then was abolished altogether. But in Indonesia’s restive provinces, the armed forces still hold considerable sway.

Opening Aceh

Disarmament is completed as GAM rebels hand the last six assault guns over to the Aceh Monitoring Mission AMM in Banda Aceh, December 21, 2005.
The humanitarian emergency triggered by the tsunami provided a critical opportunity for change in Aceh—prying open the province, which was under martial law, to international scrutiny, promising an end to the security forces’ human rights violations and freedom from prosecution, and offering an avenue for ending the conflict.

The military’s tight grip over Aceh slipped in the aftermath of the tsunami. For one, its system of control was largely washed away—military and police stations were destroyed or damaged, and many documents relating to martial law, including mandatory identity cards, were lost. Although hardliners were pressing to bar foreign relief personnel from Aceh, the huge scale of the catastrophe made the need for massive international assistance irrefutable.

The tsunami shifted the political dynamic quite decisively, as Richard Baker of the East-West Center explains: “It provided a powerful and catalyzing shock; it produced a focus on common goals of relief, recovery and reconstruction; and it brought increased international attention.” With the eyes of the world trained on Aceh, both the government and the rebels were anxious to seize the high moral ground and not to be seen as sabotaging the peace process.

Negotiating Peace

President Yudhoyono came to power in 2004 committed to resolving the Aceh conflict. His government saw an opportunity to repair Indonesia’s international credibility, sullied by endemic corruption and the military’s reputation for brutality. For their part, the rebels had suffered significant military setbacks during martial law and they realized that negotiations were the only way to gain international legitimacy for their struggle. While not making aid directly conditional on conflict resolution, several donors, including Germany and Japan, made it clear to both sides that they expected progress in the peace negotiations so that reconstruction could proceed unimpeded.

From January to July 2005, five negotiation rounds took place in Helsinki, mediated by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. Low-level violence between the Indonesian army and GAM continued throughout the talks but did not derail them. But once GAM dropped its demand for Aceh independence in favor of autonomy, an agreement was reached fairly quickly and signed on August 15, 2005.  Table 2 summarizes its major provisions.

Both sides have so far fulfilled their responsibilities under the agreement, raising optimism among observers who were concerned that the peace deal might fall apart. There is genuine commitment on both sides, but some elements—military units, rebel warlords, pro-government militias, and criminals pretending to be rebels—would rather see the conflict continue due to ideological reasons or to maintain opportunities for lucrative drug smuggling, illegal logging, and protection rackets.

Table 2. Selected Provisions of the Aceh Peace Agreement

Issue

Provision

Human rights

  • A Human Rights Court and a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation will be established.

Amnesty

  • GAM members receive amnesty and political prisoners will be released.

Reintegration

  • Former combatants, pardoned prisoners, and affected civilians are to receive farmland, jobs, or other compensation.

Security

  • GAM is to demobilize its 3,000 fighters and relinquish 840 weapons between 15 September and 31 December 2005.
  • Simultaneously, non-local government military forces are to be reduced to 14,700 and non-local police forces to 9,100.

Political participation

  • Free and fair elections are to be held in April 2006 (for Aceh governor) and in 2009 (for Aceh legislature).
  • The government is to facilitate the establishment of local political parties (by amending the national election law) no later than January 2007.

Economy

  • Aceh is entitled to retain 70 percent of its natural resource revenues.
  • GAM representatives will participate in the post-tsunami Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Commission.

Monitoring

  • The European Union and ASEAN contributing countries establish an Aceh Monitoring Mission.  It will monitor human rights, demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration progress and will rule on disputes.

The Challenge in the Longer Run

AMM personnel cut a GAM weapon during the decommissioning ceremony in Banda Aceh, December 21, 2005.
Ultimately, the peace deal will need to deliver tangible benefits to members of GAM and anti-GAM militias, many of whom are unskilled and unemployed young men. Aceh’s unemployment rate stands at 27 percent. To provide livelihoods that can sustain peace, the economy will have to undergo a transition not only from short-term emergency aid to long-term recovery and from demobilizing combatants to reintegrating them into society, but also from the unsustainable exploitation of resources to a broader mix of economic activities. Aceh’s oil reserves are expected to be depleted by 2011, and its forests are rapidly being decimated. Given these pressures, the local economy must be transformed into one less dependent on the province’s natural resources and at the same time better able to provide secure livelihoods.

Adapted from Michael Renner and Zoë Chafe, “Turning Disasters Into Peacemaking Opportunities,” in Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2006 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006).  Readers interested in sources for this text should consult the book chapter. All photographs courtesy of Michael Renner.