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FOCUS March 2009 Volume 55

Normalization of Aceh:Impossible Without Truth-telling

Amiruddin al Rahab

The absence of acknowledgment and accountability for the thousands of victims of violence during the period of armed conflict in Aceh makes the current peace settlement merely symbolic. For the Acehnese, the only change that the peace settlement brought was the change of people who hold power, or the ranks of the elite. The political situation in Aceh today and predictably even for the next five years remains to be an 'abnormality,' and if ignored for too long will destroy the peace investment.[2] Hence, steps to normalize Aceh have to be taken.

The main step towards the normalization of the political situation in Aceh is truth-telling. This article explains why this step is important and what requirements should be fulfilled to make truth-telling possible.

Symptoms of abnormality

The symptoms of the abnormal situation in Aceh are seen in a number of incidents and situations that occur in the area. The presence of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) military wing and other militia groups that perpetrate terror and armed robbery is one example. Within the last few months, armed groups were involved in robbery in several areas around East and Central Aceh.

Another example is the lack of coordination within the bureaucracy between the Governor, the executive head, and the Regents who all belong to GAM. The lack of coordination between them led to the many complaints from the people about the slow process of change in the local governments.

The mobilization of support for the creation of new provinces in Central, Western and Southern Aceh constitutes another symptom of abnormality. The people behind this effort argue that the new provinces would provide prosperity to the interior and western coastal areas, and stop dependence on the provincial government of Banda Aceh that does not really pay attention to their situation. But dividing the Aceh province into several provinces does not necessarily mean obtaining better economic condition since the natural resources and public facilities are not evenly spread in the province. Members of the Indonesian provincial elite still believe this idea, which actually "betrays" the ideals of the 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding and the Free Aceh Movement.

The most obvious symptom of 'abnormality' is the implementation of the Islamic Laws (Syariat Islam). While the Islamic Laws address the particularity of the situation in Aceh, they have also become means for political negotiation. The Islamic Laws are tools to "threaten" the National Government to agree to demands of those in power in Aceh by making the Aceh provincial government adopt strict Islamic regulations that in turn become example for other Indonesian provinces with majority Muslim population to follow. The National Government does not want this to happen, as this will cause disruption of the national unity and stability. This also traps the elites and the Acehnese society as a whole since the Acehnese identity becomes strictly Muslim. This means that those who were born and lived in Aceh all their lives cannot declare themselves non-Muslim in order to be identified as Acehnese. Finally, this has become the source of confusion in the attempt of people to institute political reforms.

Why do these symptoms of abnormality happen? The lack of standard guidelines in understanding, as well as the absence of a wide acknowledgment, of the bitter experiences of the Acehnese people in the past would explain these symptoms. All new political regulations and the coming of new elites in the political arena merely function as short-term transactions. This implies that the Acehnese society faces difficulty in identifying substantial difference in the characters and systems of the ruling governments in the past and at the present. The only identified difference refers to the different personalities among the elite.[3]

Suffering of the past and expected change

In 1989, the National Government established the Military Operation District (DOM) in Aceh in support of its military response to the Aceh issue. In 1998, the DOM ended and a State of Emergency (DO) was instituted instead. During the DOM and DO periods, the armed conflict raged and thousands of Acehnese suffered from human rights violations.

With the high cost of the armed conflict situation in terms of lives lost and properties destroyed and other problems, the National Government and the armed opposition group (GAM) started peace negotiations through the mediation of Finland.

The peace process raised the expectation of a real change in the situation of Aceh. But change turned out to be merely symbolic.

This symbolic change started right after the leaders of GAM and the delegates of the government of the Indonesian Republic (RI) signed the Memorandum of Understanding (Helsinki MoU) on 15 August 2005 in Helsinki, Finland. The treaty was formally legalized when the National Government passed Law No. 11 Year 2006 on Aceh Governance (UU PA). From that time onward, the existence of peace in Aceh hinged very much on the fulfillment of the mandates under the Helsinki MoU. The three major mandates are the following:[4]

  1. Autonomous governance of Aceh - "Aceh will exercise authority within all sectors of public affairs, which will be administered in conjunction with its civil and judicial administration..." ? Article 1.1.2[5] UU PA has established the autonomous Aceh government.
  2. Resolution of human rights issues - "The government of Indonesia will adhere to the United Nations Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;" establish a Human Rights Court; and establish a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation that will formulate and determine reconciliation measures..." ? Article 2.
  3. Amnesty and reintegration of former combatants into the society - The National Government, in accordance with constitutional procedures, will grant amnesty to all persons who participated in GAM activities as soon as possible but not later than fifteen days from the signing of the MoU; unconditionally release all political prisoners and detainees held due to the conflict; restore to those who received amnesty and freed from prison and detention all political, economic and social rights as well as the right to participate freely in the political process both in Aceh and at the national level ? Article 3.2.

Peace in Aceh therefore is very much determined by the implementation of these Helsinki MoU mandates.

However, there is an old wound that cannot be healed instantly. That wound is the collective memory of the past atrocities that affect the whole body of the people of Aceh, especially the victims of violence during the long-winding conflict in the past. That collective memory has become a trauma that spreads beneath the surface without getting noticed.

This wound (collective memory) should be cured otherwise the process towards a peaceful Aceh would be hard to achieve. This is a big problem when talking about Aceh, a problem that weighs heavily in discussing its future.

In general, the problems that are related to the collective memory of violence and human rights violations that happened in Aceh can be categorized into two: first, violence and human rights violations that happened during the DOM era (1980 ? 1998); second, violence and human rights violations that happened post-DOM era.

Aceh in transition

The armed conflict situation in Aceh resulted from two major problems that the Aceh people faced. The first was the loss of opportunities for the Aceh people to prosper under the centralized government system (with Jakarta as the center). The second was the brutal system of the dual-function military establishment that claimed thousands of lives.[6]

To address these root causes of the armed conflict, the Helsinki MoU called for the establishment of an autonomous government in Aceh in the context of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI). An autonomous government started to operate in Aceh by 2007 under the 2006 UU PA.

To solve the problems related to the brutality of the security apparatus and other armed forces, a Human Rights Court and a Truth Commission should be established as soon as possible. The establishment of these two institutions will open a "gate of peace" that will help Aceh normalize the social life of its people as they recognize the dark past through truth-telling and by upholding the sense of justice of the society. The process of solving the main causes of armed conflict until a normal condition is achieved takes a long time. The process from the initial peace to the normal situation is called transitional process.

The transition time is an interval[7] from the end of the armed conflict to the process towards a new political system. This interval is politically seen as the most critical as it is the period when the moral legitimacy of the old order is lost, while the new order has yet to be wholly established. In this kind of situation, political compromises automatically ensue. Parties to the peace process enter into these compromises so that they will not risk their respective positions or cause the peace process to fall back to zero.[8]

The political transition currently happening in Aceh is a "transplacement" process or a compromise, using Huntington's theoretical framework on democratization.[9] This transitional process is characterized by an opposition or resistance having concluded that it could not win the battle against the government, and the latter having realized that it would not be capable of completely suppressing the former. Another characteristic is the fragility of the situation that can turn bad if the resistance force continues resisting, bringing back the conflict and risking the positions that have been secured. Or, on the other hand, the situation can turn bad if the government continues to suppress the opposition and brings about the dilemma of either losing the international legitimacy of the government or the current ruling group losing power to a more conservative group.[10]

A closer examination of the process of Helsinki negotiations that produced the MoU and of making it legal through UU PA shows the "transplacement" characteristics. Conservative groups within the nationalist faction of Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP) and retired Army generals put pressure on the government of Jakarta to review the present status of Aceh province based on the Helsinki MoU and, if possible, revoke the special status and autonomy that the Aceh Province has been enjoying. This is due to their centralistic governance viewpoint. They also do not want an Islamic province within a secular State.[11] The National Government that has the support of Golkar and PDIP factions continues the negotiation to show that the ultranationalist groups could not dictate upon it and to keep its international legitimacy. Meanwhile, GAM itself is facing problems as it starts to lose its legitimacy before the international community and the people of Aceh. Other than that, GAM also faces a shortage of personnel and weapons. In that situation both parties were not capable of taking any offensive anymore, hence they resorted to negotiation as a lose-lose solution.

Lose-lose solution as a political democratization step in Aceh is marked with the shift of the demand for independence to a form of autonomous government. To reach this demand, GAM should surrender its weapons, which means that they have to dissolve its armed forces too. On the government end, it gave amnesty by dropping all criminal charges against the members of GAM. GAM also gained a political opportunity to form a political party and compete in the Provincial Elections (Pilkada) within the national political system.

By characterizing the political transition in Aceh as a "transplacement" (compromise) transition the efforts on dealing with problems of human rights violations during the armed conflict (DOM era) come within the political compromise domain. The question is, what are being compromised in solving the human rights violations?

Amiruddin al Rahab is a member of Aceh Working Group, Political and Human Rights Analyst of ELSAM, Jakarta.

For further information, please contact: Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM), Jl. Siaga II No. 31, Pejaten Barat, Jakarta 12510, INDONESIA; ph (62-21) 7972662, 79192564; fax (62-21) 79192519; e-mail:,;


1. Written in Bahasa Indonesia by the author, Dhyta Catura translated the article into English. This is the first of two-part series of articles on Aceh peace process.

2. The opening of political democratic space for GAM exponents that allowed them to enter the formal political arena is the most important investment, of which the elements can now be seen from the election of Irwandi Yusuf and Muhammad Nazar (known as IRNA), the presence of six local parties in the elections, and the victory of personalities who were associated with GAM in some municipal elections. Another important investment is the space for freedom for the people of Aceh.

3. During the DOM regime, the elites in Aceh were dominated by members of Golkar and supported by the Armed Forces (ABRI), but now the elites are associated with GAM. The method of governance and the programs are similar but the budget for the MoU regime is bigger.

4. See Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement. An Indonesian-version of the MoU has been agreed upon by the delegates of both sides.

5. The power of autonomous governance does not extend to matters relating to foreign affairs, external defense, national security, monetary and fiscal affairs, justice and freedom of religion. (Article 1.1.2 of the Helsinki MoU).

6. Tim Kell, The Root of Acehnese Rebellions, 1989-1992, Cornell Modern Indonesia Project No. 74 (Ithaca, New York: 1995).

7. Theoretically, "interval time" is marked by the uncertainty of rules in the political process. This uncertainty occurs because of the ongoing changes and the decision-making process being employed in the conflict arena by the parties involved. See further, Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions and Uncertain Democracies, LP3ES, Jakarta, 1993, pages 6-8.

8. The most obvious compromise was the willingness of GAM to change its name, from GAM Party to Independent Aceh Movement Party (Partai Gerakan Aceh Mandiri) and finally to Party of Aceh. The latest clarification by the General Elections Commission (KPU/KIP) finally confirmed the name as Party of Aceh (PA).

9. Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, (Jakarta: Grafiti, 1995), page 146. Theoretically, Huntington explains that there are three forms of transition - transformation, replacement, and transplacement. Transformation (reformation) is marked with the willingness of the old ruling political regimes and elites to initiate change. It means that political changes are conceived and initiated by the old regime itself. Replacement is marked by the success of opposition forces or resistance to overthrow or replace the old political regime and elites. Transplacement means the change towards a new political system is achieved through compromises between the opposition or resistance forces and the old political regime.

10. Ibid, page 192.

11. PDIP was the faction of the ruling party that declared the State of Emergency in Aceh in 2003. PDIP was also against the peace negotiation process in Helsinki and opposed the UU PA.