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Aceh: A Fragile Peace

To access this report in Bahasa Indonesia, please click here.

On 9 December 2002, an agreement on cessation of hostilities in Aceh was concluded in Geneva, bringing hope that an end to the 26-year-old conflict between Indonesian government forces and guerrillas of the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) was in sight. Since then there have been many positive developments, most strikingly, a dramatic drop in the level of violence.

The agreement, however, is not a peace settlement. It is rather a framework for negotiating a resolution of the conflict, and it remains extremely fragile. The first two months were supposed to be the confidence-building phase of the accord, but far from generating confidence, they may have actually reinforced each side’s wariness of the other’s long-term intentions.

On 9 February 2003, the two sides moved into a five-month implementation phase with major differences unresolved. These include how the Indonesian military will relocate as GAM places an increasing percentage of its weapons in designated locations. The leadership of GAM may have accepted the concept of autonomy as a starting point for discussions but not as a political end, and there remains little incentive for the guerrilla group to reinvent itself as a political party working within the Indonesian electoral system.

The Indonesian army is not likely to sit quietly indefinitely if the reduction of violence leads, as appears to be the case, to more organising in support of independence, whether or not that organising constitutes a formal violation of the agreement. The provincial government of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD) also constitutes an obstacle to lasting peace because it has such low credibility and is so widely seen as corrupt. As long as it is seen to embody "autonomy", as granted to Aceh under an August 2001 law, many Acehnese will continue to see independence as a desirable alternative.

The 9 December 2002 agreement, brokered by the Geneva-based non-governmental organisation, the Henri Dunant Centre (HDC), was the outcome of three years of tortuous negotiations and interim efforts to end the violence that worked briefly and then collapsed.

This agreement is different from all those that preceded it. It has international monitors in place. Its structure for investigation and reporting of violations is already far more transparent than those in the previous accords. It is backed at the highest levels of the Indonesian government and by a broad range of international donors. It is the best – and maybe the last – chance that the 4.4 million people of Aceh have for a negotiated peace. It may also be their best chance to get international backing for local government reform and substantial post-conflict reconstruction aid. If the agreement holds, not everyone wins, but if it fails, everyone loses.

The consequences of failure would be grim, and intensified military operations would be all but inevitable. The outpouring of enthusiasm that the agreement has generated across Aceh should be reason enough to for all parties involved to do their utmost to ensure its success.


The most important recommendation to both sides is to see the current five-month implementation phase of the agreement through to completion while refraining from actions that violate the letter or spirit of the agreement. But in the meantime, some of the harder issues need to be tackled.

There are more recommendations below to the government than to GAM. This should not be read as an indication that the government has greater responsibility but rather as an indication of how important the issue of local governance has become. In many areas of Aceh, the populace has simply lost all faith in government. That faith will not be restored by an autonomy law, and an increase in funds going into provincial and district budgets does not necessarily translate into an improved standard of living for ordinary Acehnese.

To the government of Indonesia:

1. Offer GAM more realistic incentives to take part in the political process, including by supporting the necessary legal changes that would allow for local political parties in Aceh.

2. Support fully the process outlined in the 9 December 2002 agreement for investigating reported violations.

3. Improve local governance by:

(a) supporting efforts to strengthen the fiscal transparency of the NAD government;

(b) having an independent board review the allocation of contracts for publicly-financed projects in Aceh as well as the relationship between expenditure authorised and quality of work;

(c) ensuring that allegations of corruption by provincial and district officials are promptly investigated, and where appropriate, prosecuted, by individuals who themselves have no political or economic ties to those being investigated; and

(d) supporting the assessment by a credible international accounting firm of accounting practices by provincial and district governments and how these could be improved.

4. Support a carefully designed public opinion survey in sample villages across Aceh of how Acehnese believe their lives could be improved and what their priorities are for themselves and their children, and use the results to design public policies that respond to local aspirations.

5. Develop a plan to restore credibility in the justice system in Aceh, including by:

(a) ensuring that the establishment of new religious courts does not further weaken the legal system by creating confusion about overlapping jurisdictions;

(b) giving high priority to the administration of justice within the peace zones; and

(c) understanding why local or traditional methods of justice are seen as more effective than anything on offer from the state.

6. End illegal levies along roads by:

(a) having the national army and police headquarters in Jakarta make this a priority, with spot inspections using the kind of commercial vehicles that are normally the target of demands for money; and

(b) enforce strict discipline from headquarters on police and soldiers who extort money.

7. Encourage the local parliament in Aceh to give high priority to the draft regulation (qanun) on direct election of local officials, including district heads and mayors.

8. Channel all central government aid and humanitarian assistance not through the provincial government but through a special body committed to complete transparency and public accountability.

9. Have a senior government official from Jakarta chair a discussion among law faculty, nongovernmental organisations, the local press, military and police on freedom of expression and assembly, so that mutually acceptable definitions are worked out for how those freedoms can be exercised in Aceh, or at least that different interpretations and their consequences are understood by all parties.


10. Refrain from pro-independence rallies and other activities that suggest to the government that GAM is using the cessation of hostilities to consolidate political and military support.

11. Give serious attention to how the January 2001 discussions, at the time of the "Provisional Understanding" on the democratic process, could be translated into a concrete program for transforming GAM into a political party in a way that would not involve a referendum but also would not indelibly alter GAM's identity.

12. End extortion of the local populace by GAM members.

13. Support fully the process outlined in the 9 December 2002 agreement for investigating reported violations.

To International Donors:

14. Fund immediate reinforcement of the HDC media and public relations unit to enable a much more direct, widespread, and unbiased dissemination of the contents of the agreement, in the Acehnese language and in a manner likely to draw a wide audience.

15. Produce immediate peace dividends in communities affected by conflict through high-visibility projects that help shore up the agreement.

16. Support local efforts to promote fiscal transparency by:

(a) helping journalists find information on the Rp.700 billion (approximately U.S.$79 million) allocated for education by the provincial government; and

(b) reinforcing pressure on Jakarta and the local government to ensure independent and credible auditing of the latter's expenditures.

17. Look for ways to absorb GAM fighters into the labour force without creating wage distortions.

18. Prepare plans to help with the direct elections of local officials, if and when the provincial regulation on direct elections is adopted.

19. Avoid, as almost all donors already are, channelling assistance through the provincial government.

20. Monitor project implementation by creating a small multi-donor office in Aceh that can also easily provide information on donor assistance to Acehnese organisations.

21. Consider reviewing project implementation on a regular basis, not just to evaluate the success of individual projects but to see how well the donor effort is strengthening the peace, and make adjustments accordingly.

Jakarta/Brussels, 27 February 2003


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