Wed, 07 May 2003

The Aceh conflict: The long, bumpy road to peace

Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, Senior diplomat, Jakarta

From the outset, it has always been clear that the road to peace in Aceh would be a bumpy one, especially during the first two months after the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) in Geneva on Dec. 9.

As of Dec. 30, 2002 there were already some 50 incidents of fighting between Free Aceh Movement (GAM) troops and Indonesian security forces.

Yet, the general effect of the signing had been widespread optimism verging on euphoria.

The fact is that the guns are not yet silent, and it will not be until July that these guns will be removed from politics.

But the people believe that they already had peace in their hands and would not let go of it. Sick and tired of decades of armed conflict during which more than 10,000 persons, mostly civilians, died, the Acehnese want peace that badly. With hopes and expectations raised so high, the risk is that if the peace process failed, the letdown could be very severe.

A multi-agency UN team visited Aceh in order to assess the requirements of the rehabilitation of the province. The initial finding was that the province was in dire need of financial aid to rebuild schools and health facilities. In Jakarta, the government organized a team to distribute humanitarian aid.

The government also pledged to give priority to the hundreds of thousands of Acehnese who had been displaced by the conflict.

Within the month, the joint security committee, which monitors the cease-fire, was partly deployed.

There was a dramatic reduction in the incidence of killings.

These positive developments could have gained momentum.

Instead, the process got bogged down.

It did not take long before the Indonesian Military (TNI) and GAM accused each other of cease-fire violations. There were press reports of civilians intimidating the peace monitors. At any rate, for their safety, the monitors were eventually withdrawn.

The government complained that the committee had become ineffective in the field because of the negative statements of GAM personalities. GAM has been brazenly holding pro-independence rallies and carrying out a public disinformation campaign to promote a public perception that the final result of the implementation of the agreement would be independence.

It also undertook heavy recruitment in villages. It smuggled in weapons to arm its expanded fighting force. It continued to build and expand its political structure in villages. This underground government went so far as to collect a "Nanggroe tax." This was, of course, a form of extortion.

The government noted that with very little time left before the end of the demilitarization phase, there was no indication of the system, plan and process of placement of GAM weapons..

The government then registered a strong protest with the Henry Dunant Centre (HDC), charging that GAM was in material breach of its obligations.

On this basis, it demanded in early April the immediate convening of the Joint Council, which is composed of high officials of the government, the GAM and the HDC.

When GAM indicated that it had no intention of attending such a meeting, the government at once started preparing for military operations. In mid-April, however, GAM communicated through HDC that it was ready to attend the meeting. They still had to agree, however, on the date and place of the meeting.

The government proposed Tokyo, GAM wanted Geneva. The government agreed, and set it on April 25, a Friday, considering that in the past GAM preferred to meet on weekends. GAM indicated its agreement, but not long after changed its mind again. The government offered a compromise where the opening formalities would be held on 25 with the respective advance parties in attendance, and the actual discussions on the 26 and 27. Again, HDC could not persuade the GAM to agree to this compromise.

GAM would agree to meet on the 27, a Sunday.

But what could be accomplished in one day when there were so many sensitive and complex issues to straighten out? HDC was not able to bring the GAM to the meeting, so it could not be held..

The government had taken all pains to be flexible even when its patience was stretched to the limit. On the other hand, GAM was not only inflexible, it also displayed a streak of obstructionism and disdain.

The big question now is: What next?

The answer may be derived from a consideration of GAM's past behavior. Since negotiations began in January 2000, this has followed a pattern of perfidy.

GAM would accept an arrangement such as the humanitarian pause but would use it only for the purposes of consolidating its forces, only to resume fighting when it would be confident that it had sufficiently gathered political and military strength.

For its part, the government has been consistent with its statement of Aug. 19, that it would adhere to a strategy of exhausting all peaceful means before deciding on an "appropriate action," which many would interpret as a military operation.

The Joint Statement of May 10, and the COHA of Dec. 9 are not perfect documents, but they constitute a sufficiently clear road map, with the acceptance of the Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD) law as a starting point, followed by cessation of hostilities, an all-inclusive dialog and finally the election of 2004.

So, while the HDC-facilitated talks are important, they do not represent the heart of the matter. Their shared mission is not to find the road to peace, but to make peace the way to achieve their common objective. And the only way to achieve that common objective is to adhere to the letter and spirit of the COHA and to sustain the focus on the common objective.

By exercising patience and flexibility, the government believes that it has secured the higher moral ground.

If it must now reformulate its policy, it is important that it must do so in a way that it keeps its hold on that higher moral ground. The government has two options: it can undertake some kind of military action, or it can retry the peace process.

Resuming the peace process does not appear to be a politically attractive option for some. On the other hand, the view that peace should be endeavored at all costs has been strongly expressed by many prominent politicians, ulemas and Acehnese in general. As the agreement provides for a five-month period during which the placement of arms is to be accomplished, theoretically the government has the option to wait until after July 9, the deadline for the placement of the GAM's weapons, before it can be justified in carrying out a military operation in the province.

When a decision is finally made to take military action, operations should be carefully planned so that what is waged is not war in the traditional sense, but a "humanitarian war", that is based on a recognition that the exceedingly complex political situation cannot be resolved through military force alone.

Moreover, there is the risk that military action may backfire if sizable civilian casualties are incurred. Hence, the operation should be designed not only to win battles and skirmishes, but primarily the hearts and minds of the Acehnese.

Even the justified use of military force must take all precaution against "collateral damage." A large number of civilian casualties could engender a new sense of grievance on the part of the people of Aceh, thereby frustrating the attainment of the objectives of a humanitarian war.

Indeed, it is imperative that the people of Aceh support the operation at least to some extent, and should therefore be conducted in such a way that it is perceived as not in disregard of their interests and their lives. The humanitarian aspect of the operation should be of primary consideration.

This means that it should not be an effort of the military forces alone. Social, political, economic and public relations considerations should be integrated into the substance of the operational plan, and should involve appropriate operational contributions from the government agencies concerned with the delivery of social services.

Above all, military personnel in the field must not only respect the human rights of the people of Aceh even in the heat of the fighting, but must also be seen as doing so by an observant world that will be keenly monitoring the progress of the operation.

Above all, the effort should be as brief as possible.

As the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu put it, "There is no instance of any nation having gained a benefit from prolonged war." Certainly not if it will take another 26 years, as it has happened in Aceh.

The author, a senior diplomat, is the Indonesian government's chief negotiator for Aceh. This paper is an abridged paper of his personal account of his involvement in the Aceh diplomacy. The full version of the paper will soon be available at our website,