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Tension mounts in 'post-recovery' Aceh

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12 August 2010 08:21

Aaron Connelly is a Fulbright scholar and visiting fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta. He visited Banda Aceh for The Interpreter; earlier posts here and here.

No city in Indonesia looks quite so new and put-together as Banda Aceh does today. The commercial centre is lined with new buildings housing banks, restaurants, clothing boutiques, travel agencies, and coffee shops. They look out upon new roads, bordered by well-manicured lawns and that rarest of public accommodations in Indonesia, footpaths. At night, young men and women walk along the city's broad boulevards, headed to their favorite coffee shop to meet friends.

A typical evening café scene in Banda Aceh. (Photo by author.)

The newness in Banda, of course, is a result of the unprecedented reconstruction effort of the last five years and the biblical destruction that preceded it. The loss of an estimated 170,000 people in Aceh focused the minds of the province's leaders. Grievances which were previously deeply felt suddenly appeared petty.

The Indonesian Government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) ended thirty years of conflict within eight months following the tsunami, signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Helsinki in August 2005. The rush to a peace agreement was possible because all parties recognised that reconstruction was paramount, according to Shadia Marhaban, one of the Acehnese negotiators in Helsinki.

Some lingering disagreements were smoothed over with vague language. One-sentence clauses mandated a Human Rights Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but deferred the details to the political process in Jakarta. 'It's not like a real peace process with a comprehensive arrangement of the system of reintegration, the system of holistic approach to human rights', Shadia says.

Jakarta has not yet implemented many of its obligations under the MoU. To do so, the central government needed to push a Law on the Governing of Aceh (LoGA) through a sceptical national legislature. Many doubted it would succeed, with the president and vice president's parties holding only a third of the seats in the body.

But in August 2006, four months late, the legislature approved the LoGA, though with some of the MoU's promises watered down in the process. For example, the LoGA orders a Human Rights Court for Aceh to be set up, just as the MoU required, but does not give it retroactive terms of reference, thus ruling out an examination of the crimes of the conflict.

It would not have mattered. Indonesian laws cannot be enforced without an implementing regulation issued by relevant ministries. In the case of the LoGA, most of these regulations have still not been issued, four years later. Yet remarkably, many Acehnese leaders with whom we spoke have resigned themselves to this state of affairs.

'I don't see even thirty percent of the LoGA being implemented', says Humam Hamid, the head of the local think tank Aceh Recovery Forum and the runner-up in the 2006 gubernatorial election. 'I'm afraid now if you are trying to propose a revised fashion of the law, the moment you go in, everything will then be rejected, or even revised for the worse.'

Humam's running mate in the 2006 election was Hasbi Abdullah, now the head of the provincial legislature. Hasbi seems more frustrated with the status of implementation. Unlike Humam, Hasbi says that the central government must eventually meet its obligations, particularly regarding the human rights court, if there is to be a comprehensive settlement of Acehnese problems.

The last five years of reconstruction have remade not only the physical infrastructure of Banda Aceh, but also its social infrastructure. The daily needs of the aid agencies gave rise to a middle class meritocracy, led by the province's most cosmopolitan residents. But most of those aid agencies have now left, and they have taken with them many of the middle class jobs once on offer.

As the economic situation dims, the smart young people in Banda's new cafés wonder where the lack of progress on the terms of the MoU, combined with high unemployment of educated Acehnese, will send the province's politics next. A return to conflict is hard to imagine these days — all the Acehnese we met, including former GAM fighters, passionately declared their preference for peace over 'the time of conflict', as the period of insurgency is often called. But frustration is quietly mounting.

'From last year until now, the tension of discussion on Facebook and other internet community rooms is high', says Jeliteng Pribadi of the Aceh Recovery Forum. 'The educated unemployed', Jeliteng says, 'can easily go extreme if their idea, their skill and possibly their stomach cannot be fulfilled by the government.'