Aceh 14 years on: Peace by ‘fiat’?

  • ASEAN+
  • Sunday, 25 Aug 2019

Patriotic spirit: Students singing the national anthem to celebrate Indonesia’s 74th Independence Day in Blang Pidie, Aceh. — AFP

THE Bible says the world was created by fiat.

No, no! I don’t mean Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, the Italian automotive company, but the word taken from Latin which means “let it be done”. God just needs to proclaim, command, suggest it, and sim sala bim! It comes into existence!

If only humans could do that! We declare peace, and peace reigns on Earth!

Aug 15 this year marked the 14th anniversary of the Aceh Peace Agreement which ended 30 years of conflict between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Indonesian military forces. The war lasted from 1976 to 2005, claiming an estimated 15,000 lives.

The background of the conflict is complex, stemming from historical mistreatment, distribution of resources (Aceh’s gas reserves were then among the largest in the world), disagreements over the implementation of Islamic law, etc.

Aceh had been a bastion of resistance against Dutch rule, so when the former colonisers were replaced with Indonesian rule, the Acehnese said, hey, not so fast! So the GAM was born. In their eyes, one oppressor is as bad as the other.

Then in December 2004, the 9.2-magnitude Boxing Day tsunami hit Aceh. In one day it claimed an estimated 170,000 lives – 11 times that of the 30-year war!

GAM declared a cessation of hostilities to allow aid from all over the world to reach the affected areas.

Ironic that it took a massively tragic disaster to precipitate peace.

Sure, peace talks had been conducted since 2000, but they had never worked out. Negotiations between GAM leaders and Indonesian government officials were reopened in February 2005, mediated by Martti Ahtisaari, former Finnish president.

Finally, on Aug 15, the historic signing of the Aceh Peace Agreement took place in Helsinki.

Resolving a conflict obviously involves compromises from the parties. GAM agreed to disarm and renounce its demand for full independence and the Indonesian Military withdrew its troops. The implementation of the agreement was overseen by monitors from South-East Asian countries and the European Union.

So far the peace process seems to have been successful. Aceh was given special autonomy status, former GAM guerilla fighters were disarmed and became successful politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. Aceh has also held four peaceful elections (2006,2009,2014 and 2019).

So things are hunky-dory now? Not exactly.

One can’t even begin to imagine how long it would take to recover from the trauma of the tsunami, on top of the 30-year conflict. One village in Pidie became a village of widows as their husbands were all killed in the war.

Women hold up half the sky but often treated as a minority. A reliable indicator of a society’s status, level of development and indeed peace, is its women.

So I was really interested to hear about “Scraps of Hope”, a project founded by Marjaana Jauhola, a university lecturer from the University of Helsinki. Jauhola described Scraps of Hope as an “urban ethnographic study of peace in Aceh”.

Relations of power and structures of violence exist even in so-called peaceful societies, but even more so in a society like that of Aceh, “layered exiles and displacement; hidden narratives of violence and grief; struggles over gendered expectations of being a good and respectable woman and man”.

Scraps of Hope also looks into “the hierarchical political economy of post-conflict and tsunami reconstruction; and multiple ways of arranging lives and remembrance, cherishing loved ones and forming caring and loving relationships outside the normative notions of nuclear family and home.”

What ethnography does is to focus more on the non-elite who are less heard in the peace process. It allows ordinary people to engage in dialogue in what are considered the “bottle-neck” areas of the peace process. It also breaks “the boundaries between research, documentarism and activism” to raise awareness of the complex issue of sustaining peace.

It’s clearly not just an academic project but also an attempt to heal the trauma of victims. After all, what is peace without inner peace? Jauhola partnered up with Zubaidah Djohar, an Indonesian researcher, feminist and humanitarian activist and poet based in Aceh. She suggested a trauma healing creative writing workshop, which took place from January to August 2018. There were 20 participants aged 19 to 22 years old.

Djohar also collaborated with a group of students from Malikussaleh University (UniMal) in Aceh, forming a creative minority. The results of the workshop will be published in an anthology of poems entitled Dalam Keriput yang tak Usang (Peace without Recovery: Wrinkles that Remind of the Past) later this year.

Aceh is the only province in secular Indonesia that enforces Qanun Jinayat (Islamic criminal law). Has this helped women and the peace process?

With the wave of formalisation of sharia and even calls for a caliphate in the rest of Indonesia, these are the kinds of questions that we are asking ourselves throughout the nation, not just in Aceh.

Gendered violence is normalised in post-conflict Aceh. Violence against women throughout Indonesia keeps increasing, often in the name of religion. This is also the case with religious, ethnic and gender and sexual minorities. Just look at the recent outbreak of violence targeted at Papuans.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s speech for Indonesia’s 74th Independence Day speech was criticised for not addressing enough of these issues. He wore a Sasak traditional costume (from Bali) for the occasion to draw attention to the regions. Pak Jokowi, you looked really handsome, but it really doesn’t solve the problem.

So after 14 years of the Aceh Peace Agreement, and 74 years of independence, can we really call ourselves a free and peaceful society?

Or are Indonesian human rights and pluralism simply reduced to scraps of hope? – The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

The writer is the author of ‘Julia’s Jihad’.

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