TCS Daily

The Aceh Peace Accord

By Yang Razali Kassim - August 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Barring any last-minute glitches, the Aceh peace accord brokered in Helsinki on July 17, between the government of Indonesia (GoI) and the separatist Gerakan Aceh Merdeka ("the Free Aceh Movement" or GAM), will be formalized Aug. 15.

If the Indonesian Parliament passes the accord and the Indonesian military and ultra-nationalists are reined in, one of the intractable problems confronting modern-day Indonesia -- how to manage Achenese separatism -- may be resolved.

Aug. 15 was presumably chosen to formalize the historic agreement for symbolic reasons as two days later Indonesia celebrates its independence day. If the peace accord is inked as scheduled, it will spill-over into the Independence Day celebrations to underscore the supremacy of the Indonesian nation-state.

While the peace accord is largely the work of Vice President Jusuf Kalla, the accord would be a feather in the cap of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as he approaches the first anniversary of his presidency. The president needs some high profile successes after a series of unpopular policies, such as the petrol tax hike. With the House now controlled by the vice president, through the country's largest party, Golkar, the peace accord will in all likelihood be adopted. If GAM leaders turn up in Jakarta for the August 17 celebrations, it will mark the end of the long-standing Acehnese quest for their own homeland.

A tortured history

Historically, Aceh was an independent state - a proud sultanate - even before the Indonesian nation was born in 1945. This recognition was extended by the British in 1819. Although the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty treated Sumatra as part of the Dutch sphere of influence, the British continued to acknowledge Acehnese sovereignty. Following the 1871 Treaty of Sumatra between the two colonial powers, the Dutch began a drive to subjugate the Acehnese.

But the Acehnese were among the fiercest in the struggle against Dutch colonialism. They joined the Republic of Indonesia upon its birth in 1945. But a sense of betrayal over the question of autonomy led them to break away to join the pan-Indonesian Darul Islam movement for an Islamic state. The Darul Islam rebellion was crushed, but Acehnese resentment persisted.

By 1976, GAM emerged to spearhead a new separatist campaign. It is this struggle that has since been the bane of the Indonesian government. While previous peace initiatives have failed, the Helsinki-based Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) proved surprisingly productive. It culminated in the July 17 accord to end the 30-year conflict.

The Helsinki talks would not have made any headway had GAM not signaled a willingness to drop its quest for independence. That was in itself a breakthrough which encouraged the Indonesian side to press on. Surprisingly, GAM even went on to drop its quest for a referendum on the future of Aceh -- in return for a future role as a local political party in that strife-torn province. President Yudhoyono initially rejected this as it would be against the Constitution, but a compromise saved the deal: If the Indonesian legislature endorses the compromise, the Acehnese will form their own local parties but must never attempt to use these vehicles to press for a referendum on independence.

The tsunami effect

Why did the two sides agree to end the conflict now when previous peace initiatives had ended in failure? The most important factor could be termed the "tsunami effect." The post-tsunami scenario is putting heavy pressure on both sides to end the war -- fast. The calamity on Dec. 26 last year triggered a new dynamic in Aceh. Foreign volunteers have been shot at, making international donors nervous. Without peace, reconstruction can be derailed and the billions of dollars of international aid that have been committed will be jeopardized. If this happens, both the Indonesian government and GAM will lose international goodwill.

The cost of the conflict on the Indonesian side is also high. Funding the war is not cheap for a government or a military that is facing growing budgetary pressures. At the same time, Aceh, like Papua -- the other separatist province -- is facing the gradual erosion of its natural wealth, according to Indonesian analysts. Gas production from Arun Field is declining. The viability of the Asean Aceh Fertilizer plant, which produced fertilizer from natural gas, is in doubt. In other words, the economic imperative for an independent Aceh is losing steam. The prospect of an independent, but resource-poor, Aceh is also contributing to the changing dynamics in the conflict.

A genuine result?

But is this all a clever ploy by GAM, as the skeptics in Jakarta say, to buy time and secure independence from within the system? Will GAM try to capture power in Aceh through the democratic process and subsequently fight for a referendum on independence -- a referendum that GAM leaders believe they will easily win?

This is unlikely. Giving up the quest for independence after a long struggle is no small thing. GAM must know that once it fully and completely abandons the idea of a separate state, a future secession will not be easy. GAM clearly has made a huge sacrifice for the sake of the Acehnese people. It would not be unreasonable to expect Jakarta to give something in return for a permanent and enduring peace under the banner of a united Indonesia.

Yang Razali Kassim is a senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


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