Aceh is Building Peace from its Ruins
Aceh is Building Peace from its Ruins
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Aceh is Building Peace from its Ruins

The sign in the otherwise unremarkable little field on the road into Banda Aceh from the airport gives the visitor an immediate, jolting reminder of the appalling scale of it all: "Here lie buried 46,718 victims of the tsunami of 26 December 2004." With much of the coastal landscape still scarred and desolate, and the number of all those killed and missing enough to fill another three such Aceh graveyards, harrowing human reminders of the tragedy are everywhere.

One such memory will stay with me a long time. The young caretaker of the guesthouse I stayed in a few days ago pulled from his wallet a frayed and faded five-year-old photograph of his wife and two young children. Somehow, after being tumbled through a black, oily onslaught of ocean and debris - strong enough to lift a seagoing freighter and carry it 4 kilometers inland - he and the photo had survived. But his family had not, and that photo was all he had in the world to remember them by.

But I will have happier memories too. That wall of water, which came with the "roar of a hundred bulldozers," as another survivor told me, may have laid waste to Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh Province, and much of the coast. But it also created the conditions for ending a 30-year war. And for all the unprecedented scale of the catastrophe, and death and blighted lives, there is as a result an extraordinary, almost exuberant, optimism in the air in Aceh today.

The insurgency here has been one of Asia's, and indeed the world's, most intractable conflicts. Some say it started in the 19th century, with the fiercely independent Acehnese on the north coast of Sumatra fighting to the end to resist incorporation into the Dutch East Indies. A decade-long rebellion beginning in 1953 cost many more lives.

The Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, which has been at war with the Indonesian government since 1976, is only the most recent manifestation of Acehnese resistance to central rule. After an intense peace attempt failed in 2003, the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri mounted a new offensive designed to kill off the resistance once and for all.

But then in early 2005, within a month of the tsunami, GAM and the government of the newly elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, were sitting down at a table in Helsinki in talks. By Aug. 15 there was a detailed agreement, setting in motion a peace process that, as of late December, shows every sign of working. Weapons have been handed in, troops have been withdrawn and the rebel army has announced it will disband, saying "guns are no longer the answer." But why peace now, when there have been so many disappointments before?

Multiple factors were clearly in play, as they always are in any complex peace negotiation, and many of them were new:

Yudhoyono was serious about peace, had campaigned on that platform, and was willing - as none of his predecessors had been - to offer serious political participation to GAM in exchange for it settling for an autonomous rather than fully independent Aceh.

Both Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla were willing to take risks and to put their personal credibility on the line to reach a solution. Kalla had been working behind the scenes to open dialogue with GAM since early 2004.

The former Finnish president and UN peacemaker Martti Ahtissari was a fully empowered mediator, not a mere "facilitator" like his hapless predecessors, and one both highly skilled and splendidly intolerant of nonsense.

The agreement set quantifiable standards of success: GAM, for example, was to turn in 840 weapons, and the Indonesian government would withdraw all but 14,700 security personnel.

A European Union-led international monitoring mission had more authority to resolve disputes and was seen as more neutral, professional and generally effective than its counterpart in the failed 2003 agreement.

A further important underlying consideration was that, by the time of the tsunami, the government's military operations had unquestionably sapped GAM's strength, and many guerrillas were looking for an exit strategy: "They had lost so many people, with so little to show for it," one sympathizer told me frankly.

But what clearly made the biggest difference of all, as everyone I spoke to acknowledged, was the tsunami itself.

For a start, it changed the political dynamics: It became in everyone's interest to smooth the way for relief and reconstruction. The sheer scale of the disaster made Indonesia receptive to international assistance, and donors applied their own pressure, making it clear that continued hostilities would hinder the relief effort.

But above all the tsunami changed the psychological dynamics. The unimaginable losses showed both sides that there were more urgent things to do than fight. Skeptics who saw the likelihood of one side or the other reneging on the peace have so far proved very wide of the mark.

None of this is to suggest that, God forbid, an appalling natural disaster is a necessary condition for a successful peace process. Other factors have to be in play as well, as they were in Aceh but not on any similar scale in Sri Lanka, where the tsunami also had a devastating impact but the long-running civil war seems no closer to resolution.

There are still some major hurdles ahead in Aceh, and the sustainability of this peace is not yet absolutely guaranteed. Reintegration will be a long, slow process, and the demobilized fighters need jobs. Getting GAM involved in the political process depends on the passage of a new law that may face opposition in the Indonesian Parliament.

Distrust of GAM was still palpable among the Indonesian military officers I talked to, and there is worry among GAM supporters about what happens when international monitors leave. There are already frictions within the GAM leadership, and for the peace process to succeed, it is crucial that it stay united.

But at every stage of this process, the parties have found a way around problems, because the will for peace is now overwhelming among the people themselves. Maybe Dwight Eisenhower put it best, back in 1959. Sometimes, he said, "people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."

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