After the Wave: Tsunami as Peacemaker
After the Wave: Tsunami as Peacemaker
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia

After the Wave: Tsunami as Peacemaker

Aceh had more than enough problems even before disaster struck. Over the last two years, the war-torn Indonesian province has experienced intensified military operations, depredations by guerrillas, extortion by both sides, the exodus of almost all foreigners, near total state control of the media, and one of the most corrupt provincial administrations in the country.

Now all those problems have been overshadowed by the huge death toll wrought by the tsunami, which is estimated to have killed at least 90,000 people in Aceh alone. But, amid this terrible loss of life, there may yet be a silver lining -- if the immense relief effort now underway in the province can lay the groundwork for ending the low-level insurgency that has afflicted the province since 1976.

That's not to suggest it's likely to lead to fresh peace talks between the Indonesian government and the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, anytime soon. The last such talks began in May 2000 and produced a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in December 2002. But GAM was no offered no real incentive to exchange the gun for the ballot box, and exploited pauses in the fighting to recruit and rearm. The military, for its part, mounted its own campaign to undermine the fragile peace. Amid mutual recriminations, the agreement collapsed in May 2003, triggering the imposition of martial law in the province.

The military then concluded that the only way to deal with separatism was force. They believe that negotiating with the rebels gives them a legitimacy they don't deserve and threatens national unity. That's why GAM's unilateral declaration of a ceasefire in the wake of the tsunami was not reciprocated. The Indonesian army is not about to follow the Sri Lankan model and work side by side with a rebel movement in getting relief supplies to the victims. Instead it has already accused GAM of trying to disrupt aid convoys, divert relief to its own much-diminished forces, and gather up weapons from destroyed police and army posts.

But even though the tsunami is unlikely to lead to a resumption of negotiations, it could still change the dynamics of the conflict. At the very least, it will keep Aceh open. The enormity of the needs there are such that it's unlikely the government will put in place any restrictions on access by international groups for a long time to come. It will also be in everyone's interest to lessen the chance of armed clashes taking place along the main provincial roads essential to aid deliveries or in areas of intensive reconstruction. This, in turn, could generate pressure for an end to the state of emergency that was renewed last November.

If well handled, the relief effort could improve the government's image and ease Acehnese resentment toward Jakarta, paving the way for a more serious discussion of grievances, including justice for past abuses. The outpouring of aid and sympathy from across Indonesia may help this process. A flawed autonomy package granted in 2001 could eventually be amended and strengthened. But for this to happen, some modicum of trust has to be established, and how the aid is handled thus becomes critical -- especially when there is a long tradition of skimming.

Given the destruction wrought by the tsunami, local government in the province is going to have to be reconstituted from scratch. The task is enormous, but so too is the opportunity to put in place a more transparent, efficient administration that can deliver social services and give autonomy, as opposed to independence, a chance. Technical assistance from donors will be key.

The relief effort has the potential not just to change the relationship between Aceh and Jakarta but between Indonesians and the international community. Ever since the 1999 referendum in East Timor, many in the Indonesian government and military have had a deep suspicion that outside powers want to weaken Indonesia and undermine its territorial integrity by supporting independence movements in Aceh and Papua. They have a particular aversion to the United Nations because GAM, influenced by East Timor's success in gaining independence under U.N. auspices, has long wanted the international body involved in the Aceh conflict. The need for the Indonesian military and international aid workers to work alongside each other in Aceh could help ease those suspicions -- but any misstep on the international side could bring them back in force.

The U.S. and Australia have both been eager to restore full relations with the Indonesian military, a process made difficult because of the latter's human rights record. Cooperation in a successful humanitarian effort in Aceh could help find a way forward, giving more flexibility to both sides in setting ground rules that would be acceptable to domestic constituencies. However it will be difficult to move forward on this issue until the state of emergency in Aceh is lifted.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said this week that international assistance could help eliminate "the pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activities." But Aceh has been immune to overtures from international terrorist networks. GAM has no interest in an international jihad and no ties to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesia-based terrorist organisation. It is not an Islamic movement but an ethno-nationalist one, and Acehnese anger over the quality of the pace or quality of the relief effort will be directed at Jakarta, rather than Washington or Canberra.

Now is the time to begin thinking about how easing the suffering from the tsunami could lay the groundwork for ending the conflict in Aceh. The immediate need is to ensure that the impediments to humanitarian relief are ironed out, and that the aid gets where it is most needed quickly, and with full accountability and transparency. From that, other miracles may follow.

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