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Unexpected promise: disaster creates an opening for peace in a conflict-riven land.

Aceh--For centuries, this territory at the northern tip of Sumatra was at the crossroads of several of the world's major cultures and trade routes, leading some to say that Aceh really stands for Arabia-China-Europe-Hindustan. It was there that Islam was first introduced to the vast Indonesian archipelago in the 8th century. Later, an independent sultanate emerged that lasted for some five centuries.


Open to foreign influences, the Acehnese have nonetheless been fiercely independent-minded. This was as true when a Portuguese fleet was defeated in 1614 as it was during Dutch efforts to impose colonial rule between 1873 and 1942. After World War II, Aceh became part of Indonesia. But excessive centralization and unjust exploitation of its resources by Jakarta led to the founding of the separatist Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, or Free Aceh Movement) in 1976. Although the initial rebellion was quickly crushed, atrocities committed by government troops fueled resentment among the Acehnese and ensured a prolonged struggle. During the 1990s and again in 2003, the province was put under martial law (see sidebar, "Conflict and Peacemaking," opposite page.)


It took the enormous devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, to break Aceh's punitive isolation. In a matter of mere minutes, close to 170,000 people perished--more than ten times as many as had been killed during the 29 years of secessionist conflict. Against the wishes of military hardliners, newly elected Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono accepted international emergency assistance. An intense global spotlight was trained on Aceh as foreign aid workers and reporters flooded in.

Yudhoyono had pledged during his election campaign to bring peace to Aceh, and there were secret efforts just prior to the tsunami to resolve the conflict. But the tsunami's killer waves triggered a more decisive mood of reconciliation. Facilitated by the Crisis Management Initiative headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, five rounds of talks led to a peace agreement, known as the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which was signed in August 2005. In a nutshell, GAM abandoned its goal of independence in return for assurances of human rights, amnesty, reintegration of combatants, and a greater degree of self-government and democratization.

Silencing the Guns

On a sweltering morning in December 2005, I watched six proud young men march onto Blang Padang sports field in the heart of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Former GAM fighters, they were clad in black uniforms and matching berets and held assault rifles across their chests. They were met by six other men in white baseball caps emblazoned with the initials AMM--Aceh Monitoring Mission. The AMM monitors, drawn from European and Southeast Asian nations, were in Aceh to oversee the implementation of the peace deal. On cue, the guerrillas handed over their guns, and the monitors proceeded to cut the weapons apart with power saws.

The six guns were the last of 840 weapons handed over by GAM fighters emerging from their mountain and jungle redoubts. In parallel, Jakarta withdrew thousands of soldiers and policemen from the province--non-local units that had been brought in to enforce martial law and that had distinguished themselves mostly by their brutality toward civilians. Given failed earlier peace efforts, some observers doubted that the terms of the peace agreement would be honored by the protagonists. But the first phase of Aceh's peace process, from September to December 2005, was an outstanding success.

GAM's official representative at the decommissioning ceremony was Irwandi Yusuf. A small man with an intense gaze, Yusuf was a political prisoner when the tsunami hit and only narrowly escaped drowning. He referred to the weapons as "our friends," but went on to say that the time had come to rely on "finer tools" to build a free and flourishing society. A year later, he is now GAM's candidate for Aceh governor.

His government counterpart in overseeing the weapons decommissioning and troop withdrawal, Major General Bambang Darmono, was grim-faced throughout the Banda Aceh ceremony, flashing a smile only when he triumphantly hoisted a plaque on which the last cut-up gun was mounted. Once the operational military commander in Aceh and a proponent of a merciless iron-fist policy, he was put in charge of the military's relief efforts after the tsunami before becoming the government's point man in the disarmament process. GAM spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah told me that Darmono's involvement in the peace process had in fact eased his hardline views--a softening of attitudes that is critical for peace.

Silencing the guns and taming the military's opposition to peace have been major achievements. But multiple challenges remain on the road to lasting peace. Physical rebuilding and peace-building are closely intertwined challenges. The political process has barely started. Economic revival is essential for giving people a stake in peace.

Politics and Accountability

Around nightfall one evening the group I traveled with, organized by San Francisco-based Global Exchange, pulled up at a humble village cafe not far from the industrial town of Lhokseumawe. Word of foreign visitors spread fast, and we were quickly surrounded by a few dozen men, women, and children. When they realized that we wanted to hear about their experience during the conflict, everyone pressed even closer. The villagers eagerly took turns relating tales of abuse they had suffered--beatings, kidnappings, killings, as well as theft and extortion, at the hands of Indonesian military and police.


Their stories opened a window into the deep emotional scars left by the years of conflict. In Aceh's villages and towns, a sense of normality has returned. The peace agreement lifted a heavy shroud from Acehnese society. People who were forced to go into hiding have returned; others feel they can now speak up without fear of retribution. But a March 2006 poll showed half the population still worried about the possibility of arbitrary arrests by security forces. Two dozen young activists in Bireuen regency we met late one night told us they'd feel safer not revealing their names and not having any pictures taken.

Following the disarmament and troop withdrawal, the peace process has entered a more challenging stage: granting greater autonomy to Aceh, building a democratic political system, and establishing accountability for past human rights violations. The peace agreement requires that a new governing law for Aceh be promulgated, incorporating key provisions of the MOU. An initial draft for the governing law was drawn up with broad popular consultation in Aceh, then forwarded to the Indonesian government. The version subsequently submitted by the government to parliament for final approval was much weaker. Parliamentary deliberations were exceedingly slow--marked by a tug of war with hardline lawmakers displeased with what they regard as unwarranted concessions to Aceh.

Parliament finally passed the governing law on July 11, 2006--four months late. The delay meant that elections had to be postponed repeatedly, from an initial April 2006 target to December. More important, GAM and many Acehnese NGOs charge that the law falls short of the autonomy provisions in the peace accord (see sidebar, "Aceh's Peace Accord," opposite page). Its passage was greeted by repeated protests and a one-day general strike in Aceh.

GAM leaders have said they have no intention of taking up arms again, but they are demanding an immediate revision of a number of articles that are not in compliance with the spirit of the peace accord. The government says the law can be amended in a year or two. But given Jakarta's long track record of broken promises, that's not an answer reassuring to the Acehnese.

In fact, there are already reasons to doubt the government's commitment to an open and democratic Aceh. In June, Aceh's acting governor issued a decree declaring 16 Acehnese groups illegal. Most of them were militia groups allied with the Indonesian military, but the decree also included the Aceh chapter of the respected environmental group Walhi and the Aceh Referendum Information Center, which has denounced aspects of the governance bill.

In mid-July, two community radio stations--Seha Radio in Jantho, the capital of Aceh Besar regency, and Suara Perempuan (Women's Voice) in Banda Aceh--were closed down by military police even though both had an application for a license pending. In contrast, several other radio stations that had been banned by the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, including a military-run radio station in Lhokseumawe, remain on the air.

The European Union-led Aceh Monitoring Mission has played an important role in overseeing the implementation of the peace agreement and the presence of the monitors has boosted Acehnese confidence. Initially, AMM was expected to stay until mid-May. However, in line with the delays in passing the governing law, its mandate has been repeatedly extended. The monitors are currently expected to remain until elections in December. Most Acehnese want them to stay longer. Wrapping up AMM's work too hastily could endanger political stability, as has happened in other conflict zones before.

Building Back Better?

The tsunami disaster triggered the most generous humanitarian aid response ever, with pledges in the billions of dollars pouring in from all over the world. The emergency relief effort was indeed an admirable operation. But longer-term efforts to rehabilitate Aceh have run into a host of problems, partly because of unresolved land and property disputes.

With international aid groups awash in unprecedented levels of aid, their catchphrase has been "building back better." But actual rebuilding is agonizingly slow: by July 2006, only about 35,000 out of 141,000 needed houses had been completed. At least 25,000 Acehnese remained in tents. Those housed in temporary barracks are better off, but living conditions are characterized by overcrowding, little privacy, and often a lack of even basic amenities such as toilets and running water.

The quality of reconstruction is as problematic as the pace. One reason is corruption and profiteering. In several cases, unscrupulous contractors were found to have built flimsy homes and schools. In place of laying proper foundations, they propped buildings on wooden stilts and stones. The timber used was substandard and warped and the bricks of inferior quality. In March, some 10,000 of the new houses were judged to be so poorly built as to require major repair.

Foreign aid groups have in their own way contributed to the problem. Hundreds of them went into Aceh after the tsunami, making coordination a near-impossibility. In fact, intense turf wars broke out, with major aid agencies claiming certain villages and areas as their domain, displaying their logos and putting up banners extolling their good works. In the mad dash for visibility, some towns and villages ended up with redundant services, while others were overlooked entirely.

The aid groups' desire to demonstrate quick results to Western donors (and thus burnish credentials seen as necessary to secure future funding) has to some extent also had the effect of sidelining the longer-term needs of the local population. By and large, local communities were not consulted in rehabilitation and reconstruction decision-making. Meetings and documents were mostly in English. Acehnese disillusionment and resentment were compounded because many aid groups ended up promising far more than they could deliver. So frustrated with the mismatch between promises and actual performance were villagers in Pasi, in the regency of Aceh Besar, that they told one aid group to leave.

By mid-2006, only US$1.5 billion of $8.5 billion in post-tsunami pledges had been disbursed, and much of that amount has not been spent well, according to a scathing report by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition. TEC was formed by a group of public and private aid agencies to identify recurring systemic problems and improve the quality of humanitarian action. Its report says that many of the aid agencies displayed arrogance and ignorance, were staffed by incompetent workers, and suffered from high rates of turnover.

Reconstruction is never just a physical task. Assistance in the wake of so-called "complex emergencies" such as disasters and armed conflicts runs the risk of creating uneven benefits, widening economic disparities, and fueling social jealousy. For instance, how much housing assistance people should receive has divided tenants and house owners.

Tension is also building between tsunami survivors and those displaced during the conflict. An estimated 120,000 Acehnese were forced from their homes by the Indonesian army's counter-insurgency operations before the tsunami, but they have received minimal or no assistance. Several thousand of the conflict-displaced even faced intimidation at the hands of military and police as well as local officials when they attempted to return home to the central highlands.

Finally, the re-integration of former GAM fighters--and the economic development of the villages to which they return--will be crucial for lasting peace. Those who own land have fared reasonably well so far. But many others need land, capital, skills training, and jobs. A World Bank assessment found that six months after the peace agreement, almost 75 percent of GAM members remained unemployed. Many GAM members also need shelter. Half of those surveyed by the World Bank had their houses damaged or destroyed by the conflict, and another quarter by the tsunami.


The Indonesian government promised assistance for job creation, economic development, and rehabilitation for ex-combatants and war-ravaged areas of Aceh. But the government's Aceh Reintegration Agency was overwhelmed by the heavy demand for such aid, and the release of funds has been exceedingly slow. Representatives of GAM and civil society groups complain of a lack of transparency, an overly bureaucratic approach, and corruption. The Indonesian Survey Circle, a leading pollster, said that its latest survey in Aceh showed public skepticism about the peace process might increase if economic difficulties remain unresolved after the December elections.

Sustainable Aceh

A few kilometers inland from Lhokseumawe, the only paved road is colloquially known as "Exxon's Road." For many years, it was off limits to Acehnese farmers, who had to travel on narrow dirt roads that were badly churned up by army trucks during the rainy season. Until the peace agreement, Exxon's Road was lined with military posts spaced just 100 meters apart. The soldiers manning those posts, notorious for their abusive behavior, were part of the deployment of as many as 5,000 troops to shield ExxonMobil from GAM and the wrath of villagers whose land was confiscated in the 1970s without compensation.

Aceh's natural gas and other resources have long been exploited for the benefit of Javanese elites and foreign multinationals such as ExxonMobil. Ordinary Acehnese have harvested only the bitter fruits of repression and pollution. The peace accord promises that the bulk of resource revenues will stay in the province. Still, absent new discoveries, the once-ample gas deposits may be depleted in relatively short order.

Fishing has long been a mainstay of Aceh's economy. The tsunami destroyed the livelihoods of fishers by obliterating ports and landing facilities, silting shallow waters, and damaging coral reefs. And of 223 shrimp hatcheries along the coast, 193 suffered extensive damage. But the post-tsunami rehabilitation effort needs to tread carefully: overfishing may result if the fleet of fishing boats is rebuilt at higher numbers than before.

Logging proceeds at a rapid clip and much of it is illegal. The World Bank and the Indonesian government estimated in the late 1990s that 69 percent of Aceh's total land area remained forested--2.7 million hectares of old growth and 640,000 hectares in tree plantations. By 2004, this had declined to 62 percent, according to Indonesian environmental group Greenomics.

Aceh's natural treasures are under threat of rapid depletion, including Gunung Leuser National Park. The park is part of the Leuser ecosystem, a vast tract nearly the size of Belgium that harbors some 700 species of animals and 4,500 of plants. It is also rich in tropical hardwood trees such as semaram, merbau, kruing, and meranti. Besides logging, the biggest threats to Leuser are oil palm plantations and roads that facilitate growing human encroachment. By 2002,26 percent of the national park had been deforested, and a planned road project could push this to 40 percent by 2010. According to the Leuser International Foundation, at least 120,000 metric tons of illegal logs were trucked out in 2005 alone.

The Leuser ecosystem is not only the last refuge for several endangered species, but also provides essential ecosystem services--such as water supplies and protection against floods and land erosion--for Aceh's human population. Logging has caused a growing number of flash floods and landslides, sweeping away homes and destroying nearby rice fields.

The long conflict was a convenient cover for illegal logging ventures that are plundering the region's hardwood forests. Both the military and the police have been (and continue to be) involved in illegal logging in Aceh, working in partnership with private entrepreneurs and levying protection fees on trucks that carry logs out of Aceh. Rivalries among different units of security forces have at times led to armed turf battles.

But to some extent peace has also opened previously closed areas to logging, and post-tsunami reconstruction needs are driving up demand for timber. Lumber prices have jumped, forcing delays and suspensions in some construction efforts, especially in Aceh Jaya regency on the west coast, where most of the tent-bound survivors are. Concerns over accelerating the already unsustainable pace of deforestation in Aceh led the government's reconstruction agency to all but prohibit the use of wood from the province. But aid agencies have struggled to secure adequate supplies from other sources, and few of them have the expertise to guard against illegal timber.

Beyond simple reconstruction, Aceh's economy needs to be put on a broader footing to create jobs and secure livelihoods. Boosting education, skills training, and investment is critical, because extractive industries alone will not provide sufficient livelihoods.

Struggle for the Soul of Aceh

Traveling into Banda Aceh from the airport, it is hard to miss the billboard-size image of an Acehnese couple in traditional clothing, accompanied by the stern admonition that the strictures of Shari'a (Islamic law) are to be obeyed. As elsewhere in Indonesia, a struggle is intensifying between those wanting to hold firm to the country's secular path and conservatives who favor Shari'a.


In Aceh, the role of Islamic law needs to be understood in the context of both the 2004 tsunami and the long-running independence struggle. After the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 and the discovery of mass graves, the Indonesian government decided that introducing Shari'a in Aceh would be a clever political move--mollifying the population of a deeply religious province and enticing it to abandon separatism. However, many Acehnese, mindful of a tradition of tolerance and pluralism, consider Shari'a an "unwanted gift."

The ulama (Islamic theologians) have stridently blamed "female sinners" for the tsunami and argued that moral shortcomings caused the long conflict. Banners put up by the ulama are hectoring a traumatized population: "Disaster has struck, so women cover yourselves." Yet the majority of the Acehnese reject a puritanical interpretation of Islam.

Only questions of marriage, divorce, and inheritance had traditionally been handled by Islamic courts. But Jakarta has pushed for an expansion of cases to which Islamic law is applied. The first set of regulations entered into force in 2005, criminalizing the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages, gambling, and illicit relations between men and women. Public canings have been instituted as a punishment for violators, even though there is no precedent in Aceh for meting out such penalties. Women now feel compelled to wear the jilbab (head scarf) in public.

The wilayatul hisbah (vice and virtue patrol) was created in 2004. Poorly trained and overly zealous in arresting or harassing people, the religious police have quickly become very unpopular. Many Acehnese complain that women and the poor are the primary targets of enforcement, while acts of corruption have been neglected. Meanwhile, vigilantism is on the rise.

This struggle is crucial to the future of Aceh--mobilizing its strengths instead of paralyzing a large segment of its population. Ensuring that Acehnese women can fully participate in political and economic life will make a critical difference in the effort to overcome the legacies of conflict and natural disaster and to build a vibrant society.


A Silver Lining?

Undoubtedly, Aceh still has serious hurdles to surmount on the way to a stable peace. But it offers hope that humanitarian action following natural disasters can be a powerful catalyst for overcoming deep human divides. Post-disaster goodwill can carry warring factions beyond the stumbling blocks of a peace process only if it is transformed into political change--addressing the root causes of conflict, setting up a firm and reliable peace process, giving people a tangible stake in peace, and taking on the vested interests that might benefit from a continuation of conflict.

This much is clear in comparing Aceh's experience with that of Sri Lanka, which also was hit by the 2004 tsunami and suffered through two decades of civil war between the island's Sinhalese majority and its Tamil population. In Aceh, the shared suffering sparked political reconciliation, but in Sri Lanka, initial acts of empathy soon gave way to the old rifts. One year after the tsunami, the island's protagonists entered a period of brinkmanship that led to open warfare in mid-2006.

Several key differences can be seen in the way that the conflict and disaster situation was handled in these two places. In Aceh, everyone acknowledged that rebuilding after the tsunami could not be done in the absence of peace. By and large, post-tsunami aid has been distributed without political favoritism. In Sri Lanka, the tsunami accentuated rather than ameliorated the conflict dynamics. Relief and reconstruction were soon seen in a competitive context, and the protracted quarrel over aid distribution hardened the conflict fronts once more.

Aceh's peace negotiations concentrated on finding a political formula to end the conflict, and continued skirmishes never threatened to derail the talks. In Sri Lanka, a ceasefire was put in place, but a reckoning with the underlying causes of conflict was postponed.

Indonesia's top leaders worked hard to neutralize or mollify opponents of peace among the military and parliament. In Sri Lanka, the current president was elected in November 2005 with the assistance of extremist parties that rejected compromise.

In Aceh, the European Union took the lead in monitoring the peace agreement, putting its prestige on the line. In Sri Lanka, monitors from Nordic countries are working under a very limited mandate, and international donors mistakenly assumed that economic incentives would override the political imperatives of the protagonists.

Aceh and Sri Lanka show that disasters occurring in conflict zones can either spur reconciliation or trigger fresh upheaval instead. The crucial difference lies in the political action that follows--on the part of domestic and international actors.

Michael Renner is a senior researcher and director of the Global Security Project at Worldwatch.

For more information about issues raised in this story, visit

For more information on disasters, conflicts, and peacemaking, visit

RELATED ARTICLE: Conflict and Peacemaking in Aceh: A Chronology

1976 -- Founding of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) with the goal of independence from Indonesia. By 1979, the uprising is crushed.

1989 -- After a new GAM uprising, Aceh is declared a Military Operations Area. Massive human rights violations ensue.

1998/99 -- Severe economic crisis and political upheaval force Indonesia's dictator Suharto to resign. Aceh's demands for a referendum on independence are rejected, and the military resumes a brutal counter-insurgency campaign.

2000 -- A short-lived "Humanitarian Pause" fails to stem rising violence.

2001 -- Special autonomy legislation for Aceh is signed by President Megawati but remains largely unimplemented.

2002 -- Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed in December. A drastic reduction in killings follows, but trust and mutual confidence do not.

2003 -- Peace negotiations fail in May, and martial law is imposed with the help of some 50,000 military and police.

2004 -- Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose election manifesto included a pledge to seek peace in Aceh, becomes Indonesian president in October. The tsunami kills nearly 170,000 Acehnese in December.

2005 -- Following negotiations in Helsinki, a peace agreement is signed in August.

2006 -- With several months delay, the Indonesian parliament passes a new Aceh governing law in July. Elections are expected to take place in December.

RELATED ARTICLE: Aceh's Peace Accord versus the Governing Law

Human Rights

The peace agreement stipulates that a Human Rights Court be established to hold violators accountable. Yet Article 215 of the law creates an ad-hoc tribunal that will only hear cases occurring after its establishment, without retroactive powers. The military--responsible for most of the atrocities against civilians during the conflict--pressed for this limitation.

Role of the Indonesian Military

The peace accord says that remaining security forces would be stationed in Aceh only for external defense. Article 193 of the law, however, more vaguely refers to a state security function for the army, which could be read as once more giving the military an internal role.

Central Government Powers

The accord says that all decisions of the Indonesian central government with regard to Aceh require both consultation and consent of Aceh's government. But Article 8 of the new law refers only to a consultation process.

Control over Natural Resources

The accord says that Aceh is entitled to retain 70 percent of the revenues from oil and gas deposits and other natural resources. But instead of full Acehnese control, Article 160 stipulates that oil and gas resources will be managed jointly by the provincial administration and the central government.
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Title Annotation:Aceh connected after Tsunami
Author:Renner, Michael
Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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