Since 1975, the people of Aceh, Indonesia’s easternmost province, have claimed freedom from the Indonesian Republic. The resulting civil war has lasted 30 years and claimed over 20,000 lives. In an historic agreement signed on 15 August 2005, the leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian Government have finally agreed to a compromise: Aceh will have autonomy but not independence from Indonesia.
The peace deal relies on a political reconstruction of the territory. And just as the reconstruction following the tsunami disaster brought hope, so too does this. The difference is that, while the tsunami reconstruction followed a natural disaster, this one has been very much human-made.
It can be traced back to the days of the Suharto military dictatorship when the Indonesian state was overly centralistic, oppressive and disregarded local voices, especially those outside Java. It was then cemented by the excessively unjust policies of successive governments towards Aceh. The heavy-handed way in which Jakarta dealt with the conflict, with endless brutal military operations, resulted in the further alienation of the Acehnese and radicalization of the movement as the children of victims and the unemployed joined GAM’s armed struggle. Before the tsunami, the conflict had become extremely bloody and militaristic, with an estimated five people dying each day.
The peace process has now started to address the political sources of the conflict. It will require significant political change in Indonesia’s governing structure. GAM’s demand for self-rule challenges forms of autonomy established by the capital, Jakarta. The crucial gain for Aceh – a gain which is in marked contrast to the ‘autonomy’ offered by the Indonesian Government to West Papuans – is that they can establish local political parties. This will mean changing the present electoral system in Indonesia.
Then there is the most difficult change of all. If Aceh’s political structure is to be fixed, Indonesia’s must be fixed as well. In order to build peace in Aceh, Jakarta must control the Indonesian army, which is so used to intervening in political affairs of state. The old dark forces of the past – the nationalist politicians, the religious conservative groups and élites who want to maintain the old way of running the Indonesian nation – are still quite strong.
For Aceh the signing of the peace agreement may not be the end to the decades of destruction. It is, however, the beginning of the end. The present Indonesian Government has an opportunity. President Yudhoyono and Vice-President Yusuf Kalla have a mandate from the people. They also have the support of the international community, which presently has high expectations that peace can be achieved in Aceh and the post-tsunami reconstruction can be completed. That support will need to be continued if Aceh is to achieve its peace.