Aceh: Can Autonomy Stem the Conflict?
Aceh: Can Autonomy Stem the Conflict?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Report 18 / Asia

Aceh: Can Autonomy Stem the Conflict?

Indonesia is offering broad autonomy to the province of Aceh in the hope of ending an increasingly bloody conflict with Acehnese separatists.

Executive Summary

Indonesia is offering broad autonomy to the province of Aceh in the hope of ending an increasingly bloody conflict with Acehnese separatists. The aim of autonomy is to allay Acehnese resentments at the political domination and economic exploitation of the province by the central government, thereby reducing support for independence.

This autonomy is encapsulated in a law now being debated by Indonesia’s parliament. Although its final details have yet to be determined, the law is likely to give Aceh a greater share of income from its natural resources, chiefly gas, to allow it the freedom to run its internal affairs, to refashion local government in line with local traditions and to base the legal system of the province on the Islamic Sharia. This “special autonomy” for Aceh is much broader than the “regional autonomy” applied across Indonesia since the start of this year.

Indonesia’s armed forces are currently mounting a military offensive with the aim of destroying the armed wing of the Aceh Liberation Movement (GAM). An earlier ICG report concluded that this military solution is unlikely to succeed because human rights abuses by the security forces will further alienate ordinary Acehnese.[fn]“Aceh: Why Military Force Won’t Bring Lasting Peace”; ICG Asia Report No 17, 12 June 2001.Hide Footnote  Since GAM cannot defeat the Indonesian forces either, and given that there is no international support for Acehnese independence, the autonomy plan is the only alternative at the moment to prolonged conflict.

ICG’s research for this report focussed on the better-educated, urban minority of Acehnese, whose views are nonetheless likely to influence public opinion among the largely rural population. This research suggests that if Acehnese were asked to choose now between autonomy and independence, a deep distrust of the government would lead most to choose independence. However, if autonomy reduces poverty and brings people in Aceh a greater sense of justice and identification with the governance of their province, then support for independence may gradually diminish.

There are varying views within Aceh on the merits of autonomy. GAM is opposed, because it wants independence, and the movement’s control over large parts of Aceh’s territory means that it may be able to block or impair the implementation of autonomy in many places. Acehnese legislators in the provincial and national parliaments are in favour of autonomy and played a key role in designing the law, but they appear to command only weak legitimacy in much of Aceh.

Some religious leaders and NGO activists support self-determination for Aceh via a referendum on independence, an event ruled out by Jakarta. Others believe autonomy is a good option, while yet others assert that the priority is peace, irrespective of political arrangements. After a history of broken promises by the government that dates back to the 1950s, there is little belief in Aceh that Jakarta means to implement the autonomy law in good faith.

Amongst those Acehnese who are prepared to consider autonomy as an alternative to independence, the redistribution of revenues is considered the most important issue, followed by clauses in the draft law that would give the province a greater say in its own security arrangements. The latter clauses may not survive into the final law, however, because of objections by the Indonesian military and police. Many Acehnese may support the application of Islamic Sharia to the legal system, but this provision is not generally seen as relevant to the conflict or acceptable as a substitute for political and financial autonomy.

Autonomy will have to be implemented in the midst of a conflict in which both armed sides use murder and terror to intimidate civilians. GAM could prevent autonomy from being successfully implemented in areas under its control by blocking or disrupting government programs. The widespread practices of murder, torture and robbery by members of the Indonesian military and police could erase any goodwill that autonomy creates amongst the Acehnese.

There is also a risk that if the central government meets its commitments under the autonomy law in an ambivalent or poorly coordinated way, or if the implementation of autonomy within Aceh itself is not seen to be transparent, then many Acehnese will conclude that the government is deceiving them again. The likely result would be a rise in support for independence.

Jakarta/Brussels 27 June 2001

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.