By Shadia Marhaban
December 26 2014
After the Dutch declaration of war on March 26, 1873, the Acehnese spent more than a century fighting to regain their sultanate.
Each war was bloodier than the last. On Aug. 15, 2005, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) signed a peace accord in Helsinki, Finland, with the Indonesian government to end their 30-year conflict.
Today, in remembering the fateful morning of Dec. 26, 2004, when a 9.1-magnitude earthquake hit in the Indian Ocean — the third-most-powerful seismic event ever recorded in human memory that released energy equivalent to 550 million Hiroshima-type atomic bombs and generated a tsunami with waves reaching as high as 30 meters — Acehnese cannot but remember also the massive worldwide sympathy that had come to help them, to rebuild in the fashion that former US president Bill Clinton had creatively coined as “build back better”.
We cannot but reflect on the unforeseen positive result, a tremendous silver lining of the devastation – the ending of the conflict that was also unprecedented in its atrocities in the memory of the Acehnese struggles to regain their freedom and dignity as a people.
If today you visit the major towns of Aceh you will see better buildings, better roads and bridges, indeed, better towns with cars clogging their narrow and winding streets, and people busy with their daily routines as if nothing had happened a decade ago, no traces of either the natural or man-made calamities.
However, the real condition of life in a society is very rarely what is immediately visible on the surface. One has to ask if the reasonable expectations of the masses as dividends of the peace agreement called the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that pledges in the very first line of its Preamble: “peace with justice and dignity for all” have been realized.
Have the wounds of the latest war healed, not just the physical injuries but the mental degradation caused by prolonged existence under military occupation?
Have the most important clauses of the “understanding” been translated properly into laws to be implemented; has this 2006 Law on Aceh Governance been implemented properly? And has the deep-rooted anger and uncertainty, the daunting conditions of life and the gross violations of human rights been handled in accordance with the letters and spirit of the “understanding”?
The Helsinki MoU is now largely considered a model of “compromise” for similar conflicts between the centre and seceding provinces, in which the latter give up the struggle for independence in exchange for a new model of wider autonomy blanketed under a euphemism of “self-government”.
Surely there are lessons to be learned from the resolution of the Aceh conflict. But it is more on what not to do than what to do in order to avoid pitfalls that would be detrimental to the peace process.
Is this model still relevant in today’s democratization and globalization of the world’s societies in which a small upheaval in one place could have rippling consequences in another, like a pebble thrown into a lake? The method of resolving conflicts has changed from getting the service of an experienced wise man to the opening of direct dialogues with widest participation of the stakeholders.
The top-down approach, despite the great success achieved in Aceh, has become somewhat obsolete.
There are many crucial variables that contributed to the success that are impossible to reproduce. One cannot expect to have the massive amount of money being poured into a scarcely populated small territory like Aceh during the tsunami recovery and reconstruction period that coincided with the post-conflict peace management; the money that had sustained the economy during the crucial years. Today, when this money has dried up from the circulation, we have seen a marked increase in both violent and non-violent criminal activities. Joblessness among ex-combatants has become an acute social issue that needs to be handled immediately.
In many post-conflict areas, “inter” (communal, religious, ethnic) conflicts have become “internal”. Former combatants have become leaders, from Dilma Roussef of Brazil to Xanana Gusmao in Timor Leste, to Muzakir Manaf of Aceh.
How the world envisions peace is no longer a win or lose situation but how to benefit from what you can get. In the case of Aceh, the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has successfully gained power through democratic elections. But have the real sufferers of the conflict, the ordinary people, got what they are entitled to, or is this peace merely giving birth to the culture of entitlement for the new class of elites?
The way to go today to establish a sustainable peace process is to open more channels for dialogues and confidence building among the various factions in society, not just the combatants, stressing on the reduction if not total end to violence, before a meaningful negotiation for peace could be started.
Both former belligerents need to learn about a give and take process. There are undeniable successes in Aceh, but also visibly blatant failures. In any conflict women and children are the ones who suffer the most. But in the case of Aceh both the central and Acehnese governments have conveniently put aside their rights. Women and orphans are left on their own.
The so-called Sharia bylaws, first introduced in Aceh by Jakarta as part of a war strategy to win the hearts and minds of the pious Acehnese people to reject GAM who were waging a nationalist struggle for independence, is adopted today by these former nationalists as a political tool to gain popularity, in the same way their former enemies had done.
Radicalism of religion is the order of the day, with introduction of local laws that have nothing to do with the real Sharia. Women are being made the targets of social ridicule by petty local political leaders with the central government closing both eyes despite such actions being illegal under the Republic’s national laws.
Reflecting on the current situation in Aceh, one thing is foremost in my mind: the integral part of human rights questions in Aceh, that naturally includes women’s rights, has unfortunately shifted to a policing morality which has completely silenced the majority.
I feel strongly that the powers that be, both in Jakarta and in Banda Aceh, have not yet understood that the state’s reaction to a conflict situation is an obsolete and futile option.
The paradigm of conflict resolution has to change from reaction to prevention, and transformation from state-centred to human and people’s-centred perspective in analyzing and addressing conflict.
Acehnese had prayed in silence for too long. In wars their voices had been silenced.
Today, in peace, the downtrodden, especially the women, are still not able to have their voices heard.
They still have to pray in silence.
Shadia Marhaban is a consultant to UNDP and a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University.