Contemporary Politics of Conflict in Aceh
Author: Michael Cornish
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 01/21/2014
Aceh has been an independently-minded region and place of conflict for several generations. Despite the promises of significant autonomy within an independent Indonesia, 1950 saw the construction of a unitary Indonesian state and Aceh lost its quasi-autonomous status, being subsumed within the new, larger province of Northern Sumatra. This sparked off a conflict between the Acehnese and the central Indonesian administration that was then to seethe violently in various forms until the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami triggered serious efforts at peace. These efforts eventually culminated in the 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Indonesian Government and the armed independence movement (the ‘GAM’). This agreement, combined with the subsequent Law of Governing Aceh, granted Aceh significant local political, cultural, and economic powers. However, the democratic transition has not been trouble-free, and Aceh has seen the return of patronage politics – so endemic elsewhere in Indonesia – to its political landscape, along with all its attendant challenges.
Politics as usual?
After the peace, the Independent Aceh Movement Party was founded by the former leaders of the independence movement. A core element of the peace agreement had been that GAM members would be allowed to contest political positions in Aceh without having to adopt national party affiliations – in essence, politics has been granted legitimate space to become local. The result, as Mohammad Ansori describes, was that “combatants re-invented themselves as politicians, administrators, businessmen and contractors.” Furthermore:
The entry of a large number of GAM members into bureaucracy… has created a new circle of power and lucrative patronage networks in Aceh, thereby deconstructing the existing constellation of political power in the province. The newly crafted circle of power then steers economic opportunities to former GAM elites.
However, these insurgency leaders-turned provincial elites also contest power between themselves, and as democracy consolidates within a transitional, post-conflict Aceh, this is to be expected. Professor Damien Kingsbury agrees:
[The] GAM reflected a common experience with former independence movements that bring together often disparate groups of people under a common cause. Once the cause was gone, these groups gravitated to their more natural constituencies.
However, the concern is that even though political power is being more or less democratically contested, it has still been captured by a political elite less interested in the development of Aceh than they are in their own self-enrichment. Ansori continues:
[There is an] inequitable distribution of the rewards between the elites and the rank-and-file combatants in the post-Helsinki [post-Memorandum] period. Former elites appear ignorant of or unconcerned with the living condition of former rank-and-file combatants, most of whom are unemployed and living in poverty.
Already under pressure from the global financial crisis, these dynamics are emerging as international funds for post-tsunami and post-conflict projects are being wound back. Already, the simple gap between development funding received by conflict-affected communities and those received by tsunami-affected communities has been a source of increasing frustrations. With a glut of former-GAM militia who possess little means to secure a decent income – 20% of Acehnese are below the Indonesian poverty line – a worrying cocktail of factors is developing which may incentivise violence through banditry or broader social unrest. If this were not enough, the division of spoils of political power between just the former-GAM elite is also accentuating longstanding ethnic divisions in the province.
On the other hand, whilst there have been disputes between Aceh’s provincial government and the central Indonesian government throughout the peace process, its implementation to date has been – remarkably – “relatively smooth”. Even so, a major political challenge yet to be addressed is the implementation of an Acehnese Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Human Rights Court, both of which were promised in the original Memorandum. Whilst a Commission “is not meant to open old wounds, but to fulfil the rights of victims of the conflict to truth, justice and reparations”, Executive Director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Rizal Sukma, is more concerned:
[The Commission and Court] will prove to be contentious issues for peace-building efforts because it might serve as a source of tension in intra-community relations and between Aceh and the central government in Jakarta.
The lack of economic development, whilst not purely a national responsibility, is also an issue that needs greater national attention if Acehnese politics are to remain peaceful.
As one would expect, the political climate in an Aceh at peace has vastly improved since it was plagued by open and violent conflict. However, the transformation to democracy has been imperfect, and is now beset with the return of traditional political challenges. Cronyism and patronage politics are complicating attempts at good governance and broad-based development, and the unfinished business of reconciliation looms ever politically larger. As the International Crisis Group so aptly puts it:
Sooner or later… there will have to be a reckoning: does the party [Partai Aceh], with its extensive institutional control, have the will and capacity to use its power in the interests of improved social services and poverty alleviation?
Bio: Michael Cornish (B.Ec, LLB, GDLP, MPACS) is a Visiting Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences and the School of Economics at the University of Adelaide in Australia, where he lectures in various fields of Economics, Development Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies, and International Politics. Michael has a background in international aid project management and applied economics research, with direct experience in China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. He has just completed his second Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.