Rising Aceh Tensions Reflect Ongoing Challenges

Indonesia’s Aceh province has enjoyed peace for close to two years—a remarkable transformation from three decades of civil war facilitated by the ruinous December 2004 tsunami. In December 2006, milestone democratic elections swept a former rebel leader, Irwandi Yusuf, into the Governor’s mansion. But Aceh still faces a number of serious political and economic challenges. While there have been no reports of violence between the Indonesian military and former GAM pro-independence rebels (the civil war’s two principal protagonists), other forms of tensions are on the rise.

According to an analysis of conflict trends in Aceh after the 2005 peace agreement, violent incidents rose to a new peak of 23 during April 2007. The monthly “Aceh Conflict Monitoring Update”—based on a newspaper conflict mapping methodology—is undertaken by the World Bank Office Indonesia. Violent incidents in April included a number grenade attacks against the homes and offices of government officials, mob beatings of thieves, revenge attacks, and riots. Grenade attacks were also carried out in May, although the total number of violent incidents fell to 18.

The analysis offers a number of possible motivations, including intended destabilization, retaliation among armed groups, political power struggles, and access to resources such as lucrative construction contracts, reintegration funds for former combatants, and extortion.

The update report concludes that “the increase in violence does not at present threaten the peace process or the reconstruction effort.” But it warns that “continued efforts need to be made to build sustainable peace in Aceh.”

Apart from the need to reintegrate ex-fighters, reinvigorate the economy and continue with post-conflict and post-tsunami reconstruction, another challenge is to address the lingering fear and trauma among conflict-charred Acehnese. A survey conducted by the International Organisation for Migration and sponsored by the World Bank found that:

  • 35 percent of nearly 2,000 people interviewed appeared to suffer from depression,
  • 10 percent showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and
  • 39 percent showed signs of anxiety.

Tsunami reconstruction aid is set to run until 2009. Most aid workers are likely to leave then. They had brought a welcome international presence to a province that had been largely cut off from the outside world during the conflict. The European and Southeast Asian monitors that were deployed to observe the implementation of Aceh’s peace deal (in the so-called Aceh Monitoring Mission, AMM) already left in December 2006. The question is what will happen after the international presence is sharply reduced.

As The Economist points out, 2009 is also the year when fresh elections will be contested in Aceh. In a major departure from Indonesian electoral law (which allows only parties that are organized nationwide), the Aceh peace agreement stipulated that local political parties can be organized in Aceh. This was a key demand by the GAM movement in return for giving up its goal of independence.

If they go smoothly, these elections will usher Indonesia—whose nationalists fear that several parts of the country might break away—into a new political era. Pieter Feith, the head of AMM, writes that “there is a growing understanding that decentralization does not mean separatism.” Aceh can be a model for the devolution of political power that other regions within Indonesia have demanded.