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Aceh's disaster could herald political change

25 January 2005

It is a truism in politics that a cathartic experience can result in unrelated change. Conflict, chaos or natural disaster has been the handmaiden to many political changes, not least Indonesia's monetary crisis producing democratization.

So too, Aceh's disaster could herald political change. The announcement by the Indonesian government that it may hold talks with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) at the end of the month is, perhaps, the breakthrough that could be the beginning of the end of Aceh's almost three decade old conflict.

In part, the push for a settlement to the Aceh conflict builds on the electoral promise of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to find a solution to the conflict there. In part, too, it is based on the failure of an escalated military campaign, started in May 2003, to crush GAM, and an inability to keep funding that campaign at what has been an unsustainable level.

But in greatest part, the rising tide of support for a settlement comes from domestic and international recognition that the people of Aceh have suffered more than enough.

However, there are many competing voices over what type of future Aceh could or should have, and how to achieve peace. These competing voices present what appear to be five basic options for Aceh.

The first option, which has been presented by the government as its starting point, is that the fighters of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) should take up a government amnesty, lay down their weapons, and accept their place and that of Aceh in the Indonesian state. This offer amounts to little more than GAM's surrender, and this has already been rejected.

Similarly, the second option of the Indonesian government acceding to GAM's demand for either independence or a referendum on independence, has also already been rejected.

The third option, which reflects the first two, is for the Indonesian military (TNI) to destroy GAM militarily. The problem with this option is that the TNI shown that is cannot eradicate GAM, and this tactic has proven to be counter-productive.

The greater the military response, the greater the popular support for GAM. Unless the TNI intends to destroy the population of Aceh, this policy cannot succeed.

The fourth option, expressed by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, is an immediate ceasefire that at the same time includes an immediate resolution of all outstanding claims. Unless this means an all or nothing resolution, the gulf between the government and GAM is too great, and there is too little trust, to reach a quick resolution.

The fifth option, then, is for a ceasefire between the TNI and GAM, with full attention and resources being given to the reconstruction effort. Such a ceasefire should, over time, build a sense of "normalization" and trust, allowing a meaningful dialogue over Aceh's longer-term future.

The question is, what will that future hold? If the future is to avoid a relapse into conflict, it will need to address most of the key claims being made not just by GAM, but by large sections of Acehnese civil society. Similarly, it will need to accommodate the bottom line in Indonesian, which is the physical integrity of the state.

When Indonesia achieved independence in 1949 it was constructed as a federation, a political model which reflected the aspirations of many anti-colonialists who never the less did not wish to be dominated by their neighbors. Aceh was prime among these aspirants, and the participation of Aceh in the War of Independence was intended to secure Aceh's autonomous place within such a structure.

It was the unilateral ending of this arrangement, and the loss of Aceh's provincial status, that propelled it to join the Darul Islam Rebellion. That only ended with the promise of "special autonomy". Yet that promise was hollow, and the rapaciousness of the New Order government and its disregard for local sentiment propelled Aceh into a new claim for separation.

The declaration of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD) was intended, at least in rhetoric, to address this claim. But NAD has been even more hollow a promise than the earlier "special autonomy". A genuine autonomy, however, might work.

Genuine autonomy is not for the politically faint-hearted. It would require that Aceh become a self-governing state in all matters but foreign affairs, aspects of external defense, and elements of taxation. It would also require locally-based political parties, including GAM. More than anything, it would require that Aceh alone be responsible for the imposition of its own, locally defined, law (be that sharia or otherwise).

But most importantly, genuine autonomy would mean the dissolution of all combatant parties within Aceh. That is, GAM would cease to exist as a military force, militias would be disarmed and disbanded, and the TNI would be required to leave. The imposition of law and order would devolve exclusively to an Acehnese police, obeying autonomously codified law, under the strict and singular authority of a locally elected autonomous government.

In such a model, Acehnese aspirations for self-determination would be functionally met, while the Indonesian state would continue to be able to claim its overarching territorial integrity. The errors of past judgments - the original dissolution of Aceh, the failed promises of special status and autonomy, and the use of the military to solve a political problem - would be addressed.

There is no doubt many on both sides would hold out against such a proposal, at least in the short term. But politics is the art of the possible, and of compromise. A sustainable peace is possible in Aceh. But it can only be achieved through real political compromise, on both sides.

Dr Damien Kingsbury,
Director of International and Community Development at Deakin University, Australia.

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