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  5. Normalization of Aceh: Impossible Without Truth-telling, Part 2*

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FOCUS June 2009 Volume 56

Normalization of Aceh: Impossible Without Truth-telling, Part 2*

Amiruddin al Rahab

Compromises in addressing human rights violations committed during the past regime in Aceh are based on a hoped-for "new future" perspective, rather than on the principle of accountability. Compromises are allowed as long as the human rights violations victims are not left out and human rights violations are not justified. In human rights terms, this is known as transitional justice.

Ruti Teitel (2004) explains that transitional justice is basically a normative change that rearranges the social system and the legal and political structures at the same time. Therefore, transitional justice should include constitutional change (governing norms), legal sanctions, reparation for victims, restoration of reputation, and reconstruction of history. The change in legal norms aims to encourage political or power management change. Old mechanisms are usually being reformed to achieve justice. Truth-telling as a tool to achieve justice and to show the responsibility of the state (government) for violence that happened in the past is a form of this new mechanism.

In the light of this theory, transitional justice is not merely about meting out punishment to individuals found responsible for the violence, but more on finding and revealing the sources of fear, sense of insecurity, and injustice.

The 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (Helsinki MoU) and the Law No. 11 Year 2006 on Aceh Governance (UU PA) are forms of normative legal changes that provide the basis for the political authority in Aceh to encourage further normative changes to achieve justice for the Acehnese. The establishment of a Human Rights Court and a Truth Commission are initial measures in the search for the sources of fear and sense of insecurity, and also sources of normative basis for restoring reputations and providing reparation to the victims.

Defining the Truth: Understanding History

To understand the truth about the past human rights violations in Aceh, one has to analyze the situation of Aceh as a Military Operation District (daerah operasi militer or DOM). During the DOM era, the government of Aceh became an extension of the military establishment. This turned the DOM regime into an institution with dual character: political and military. Its political character consisted of being an institution under the control of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia (ABRI) that made political decisions, while in implementing these political decisions it assumed a military character. ABRI was the main political force in Aceh during the DOM era, and human rights violations did not constitute mere abuses but the means by which to maintain the DOM regime itself.

Under this situation, how much negative impact did the militarization of Aceh during the DOM era cause? Only by understanding these negative impacts that the healing and the rearrangement of political and cultural structures in Aceh can be mapped out. Without understanding these negative impacts, the rehabilitation programs being carried out by provincial government (Badan Pelaksana Harian Reintegrasi- Damai Aceh or BRA) become artificial in the context of the still remaining militarized social structure of Aceh.

Therefore, understanding the truth about the human rights violations during the DOM era means understanding how the military regime worked in Aceh. It also means showing how the Acehnese people were organized and shaped by the political system of the military regime. The change of the political system in Aceh by virtue of the Helsinki MoU and UU PA is aimed at reducing the negative impacts of the military regime and creating possibilities for a new and demilitarized Acehnese society.

Roles of Religious Leaders in the Transition

Major General Supiadin AS, the Chief of the Aceh Military Command (KODAM), asked the ulamas to take an active role in urging the children of the victims of conflict not to remain vengeful. Major General Supiadin AS asked the ulamas to use "religious activities such as Koran readings, religious lectures and preaching" (Serambi Indonesia, 9 May 2007) to prevent vengeance from breeding.

Unfortunately this appeal retained the ulamas' traditional role during the conflict as political messengers of the military. Politically, the political messengers are called collaborators, agents who always support government policies. (Tim Kell, 1995) This role was confirmed when the ulamas organized the Indonesian Council of Ulamas (MUI) in 1975, which was seen "as a means of mobilizing Muslim support for the government's development policies" or as described by the Religious Minister at that time, the function of the ulamas was "to translate government policy into a language that the ummah (Muslim community) understands." One author sees the MUI performing a security role in the 1980s by "assisting the army in its counterinsurgency campaign against Achenese rebels."

In late 1990s, the standardization of the village governance structure and the devolution of power down to the village level resulted in the loss of the social legitimacy of the ulamas.

In order for Major General Supiadin's appeal to become meaningful and productive, all ulamas throughout Aceh should transform themselves from their traditional role as collaborators to that of reformers. And to assume this latter role, the ulamas have to keep distance from government power, become guardians and agents of truth, and fight for the social, economic, civil and political rights of the victims of past violence. This will eventually restore the social legitimacy of the ulamas.

Truth and Justice

The Helsinki MoU (Chapter 2, Article 3) and UU PA (Chapter 229) provide for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to find out the truth about the violence of the past through the testimonies of affected people and the gathering of other information. Will this commission be able to bring out the truth and lead to reconciliation among, and justice for, the parties concerned? Will vengeance among the aggrieved disappear?

Martha Minow (1998) argues that vengeance melts away if there is a process of "restoring dignity to victims" and not merely by having "prosecutions and amnesties." Some steps are needed such as the following:

Commission of inquiry into the facts; opening access to secret police files; removing prior political and military officials and civil servants from theirs post and from the rolls for public benefits; publicizing the names of offenders and names of victims; securing reparations and apologies for victims; devising and making available appropriate therapeutic services for any person affected by the horrors, devising art and memorials to mark what happened to honor the victims and to communicate the aspiration of "never again"; and advancing public educational programs to convey what happened and to strengthen participatory democracy and human rights.

Based on these requirements, truth means acknowledgment of all the bitter experiences faced by the victims through a clear and proven mechanism. Acknowledging the truth about the victims' experiences becomes the foremost step toward restoring the dignity of the victims and their families.

Another author suggests the "survivors' justice approach" which focuses on reconciliation to remove vengeance. (Mahmood Mamdani, 2001) Reconciliation means those who survived the armed conflict and violence strive to build themselves up along with other groups. The blame is not on individuals but on the system that opens the possibility for inhuman wrongdoings to occur. The key steps are the acknowledgment of all the victims' experiences and immediate changes to all institutions that contributed to the past violence. These steps are aimed at preventing the bad experiences of the past from happening again.

The problem of post-conflict vengeance is indeed a collective problem, not a problem of the individual. Violence in a conflict is a collective experience that accumulates over time. There should be no space for forgetting, rather a space for remembering and transforming the memory into something productive - a space for healing. Healing in the context of collective memory surely cannot be achieved through religious activities such as Quran reading or moral preaching, but through materialization of justice. Al-Quran provides a principle: "O ye who believe! Be ye staunch in Justice, witness for Allah, even though against yourself" (QS al-Nisa 4:135).This principle should become the guide in healing the wounds of the victims to regain their dignity.


The normalization of Aceh will hit a dead end if truth-telling is not done soon. Prolonging the abnormal condition will only give room for instability to appear within each party involved. The worst impacts of this prolonged abnormality are: first, a crystallization of the apathy and skepticism of the people toward the new elites and government; second, provision of legitimacy to the growth of the anti-peace forces that will manipulate the situation and agitate the people towards violence.

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

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:,;


*This article was originally written by the author in Bahasa Indonesia and translated into English by Dhyta Catura. The first part of this article appeared in the March 2009 issue of this publication. Other endnotes omitted due to space limitation.