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A happy, peaceful anniversary in Aceh

Asia Times - August 15, 2006

Michael Morfit, Jakarta – The Free Aceh Movement, known locally as the Gerakan Acheh Merdeka (GAM), and Indonesia's government on Monday marked the first anniversary of a peace agreement that ended nearly 30 years of armed conflict in the resource-rich and historically turbulent province of Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra.

After the frustrations, disappointments and mistrust resulting from decades of brutal conflict alternating with abortive peace efforts, the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding has achieved a negotiated peace settlement that is firmly taking hold.

Consider: the international Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) has earned the trust and respect of both former adversaries; armed conflict in the province has largely ceased; government troops have been significantly reduced; and GAM fighters have decommissioned their weapons and been demobilized.

The crucial basic law on Aceh governance was approved by parliament last month, and local political groups are now able to organize peacefully. Local elections contested by local candidates are planned for November 12. Even GAM's vigorous complaints about perceived serious flaws and inadequacies of the basic law are being peacefully formulated and debated within the framework of the Helsinki agreement.

These are important achievements and, more broadly, the Helsinki agreement points to a key milestone in Indonesia's continuing democratic development.

To reach an agreement with GAM, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla first had to confront and manage powerful constituencies in Jakarta, not all of whom were in favor of a peace deal. Yet their success in responding to these challenges has arguably strengthened Indonesia's transition toward more open, accountable and effective governance.

This includes the resilience and flexibility to accommodate regional differences and yet maintain national unity, ability to maintain civilian control over the Indonesian military (TNI), and the ability of the executive to formulate and implement policies without yielding to the informal sabotage and subversion of dissident factions.

In many respects, the Yudhoyono-Kalla administration faced a more difficult path to peace than its GAM counterparts. While GAM was solely focused on Aceh's fate, the national government faced more complex issues, including competing political objectives, diverse constituencies and strong, potentially disruptive vested-interest groups.

The Yudhoyono administration at the same time also had to deal with separatist movements in Papua, entrenched ethnic conflict in Sulawesi and Ambon, as well as the broader issues of governance, accountability, and military reform. The national government was also working in a relatively less disciplined and reliable institutional environment.

Since the end of strongman Suharto's New Order administration, which was toppled in 1998 by angry street protesters, Indonesian governance has been characterized by artful ambiguity, messy compromises and partial measures rather than single-minded focus and systematic follow-through.

With a range of politically powerful and deeply entrenched potential opponents and spoilers within Indonesia's political system, including elements in the military dissatisfied with their diminished post-Suharto role, Yudhoyono had plenty of reasons to worry about dissent, equivocation, provocation, subtle sabotage or even outright defiance to the Aceh peace deal.

The failure of previous administrations to master Aceh's complex, evolving and unruly political environment, articulate a coherent approach, forge agreement among key stakeholders, and enforce discipline within their own ranks had undermined previous efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement.

Former president BJ Habibie was too distracted by the magnitude of the turmoil of the reformasi era; Abdurrahman Wahid was too erratic and unpredictable to develop a coherent approach; Megawati Sukarnoputri was too disengaged from the difficult task of policy development and was disinclined to expend her political capital on a risky process of negotiations.

Tag team peacemakers

Strong personal commitment and close collaboration between Yudhoyono and Kalla, who is also chairman of the Golkar Party, the largest grouping represented in parliament, were essential to the success. Despite different backgrounds and experiences, they stood united in a common conviction that after 30 years of fighting, there was no pure military solution to the damaging conflict.

Yudhoyono's and Kalla's very different styles, networks, and political bases enabled them to mobilize resources and manage threats that had confounded their predecessors. Neither politician could have achieved success in Helsinki on his own, however. Together they were able to bring the focus, coherence and discipline to the government side that had been badly lacking during previous attempts at reconciliation.

Yudhoyono managed what he has subsequently described as the "political umbrella" for negotiations, which provided essential cover and protection from the hardline military commanders who had undermined previous ceasefire agreements, including the 2002 deal that later broke down. Yudhoyono's military background, personal networks and experience with previous military reform efforts helped him to identify and contain potential spoilers in the TNI.

His deliberative style and innate caution, meanwhile, reassured ultra-nationalists who feared that the nation's geographical integrity would be compromised through an autonomy-granting agreement with GAM separatists. One of Yudhoyono's key decisions was to retract former president Megawati's nomination of General Ryamizard Ryacudu as the military's commander-in-chief and instead order the extension of incumbent General Endriartono Sutarto's tenure.

Ryacudu had been a frequent and outspoken critic of negotiations with GAM, and demonstrated little hesitation in publicly challenging the government's conciliation policies. Aceh may have been the immediate issue, but in retracting Ryacudu's nomination, Yudhoyono was also taking the senior generals' ability to challenge, subvert or undermine civilian control over the TNI head-on.

During the course of the Helsinki negotiations, Yudhoyono systematically used his own military background and personal networks, as well as his close relationship with Sutarto, to strengthen civilian control over the policy process and reinforce the subordinate role of the TNI, which under Suharto wielded huge political influence.

Under the protection of this umbrella, meanwhile, Kalla tackled the national political parties and parliament. In the final rounds of negotiations in Helsinki, the challenge of finding an acceptable channel for the expression of GAM's legitimate and peaceful political aspirations became a critical issue. Establishing local political parties would require fundamental changes in existing national laws, and would eventually require parliamentary approval.

The established national parties – several of them very critical of the negotiations – would somehow have to be brought on board. In late June and early July 2005, Kalla used his personal touch by convening a series of meetings at his residence to search for creative ways to resolve differences. He continued to take the lead in negotiations with parliamentary factions in relation to the recently approved Basic Law for the Governance of Aceh.

Kalla oversaw day-to-day negotiations and was deeply immersed in the details of discussions, often personally drafting analyses of government and GAM positions, developing options and formulating strategies. His enormous energy, entrepreneurial spirit and pragmatic flexibility finally found a way through the entrenched positions toward a mutually acceptable solution. Kalla's position as leader of the Golkar Party, meanwhile, greatly strengthened the administration's ability to win the support of other national political parties.

Failure to achieve success in Helsinki would have been a significant setback to Yudhoyono's administration at an early juncture in its tenure. Most important, it would have reinforced a pattern of undisciplined and unfocused policy processes, with wide latitude for the continued informal and covert of influence by the military and ultra-nationalists of the policy process. Yudhoyono's ability to pursue other policy priorities – from tackling separatist movements in Papua to governance reform and anti-corruption initiatives – would inevitably confront many of the same vested interests, and a failure on Aceh would have significantly undermined his government's future maneuverability.

Instead, the Aceh settlement has helped to project an image of stability, which in turn has proved invaluable in attracting new private and foreign investment and bolstering economic growth. The peace deal has also elevated Indonesia's international profile, which had declined significantly in the turbulence of the so-called Era Reformasi.

Under Yudhoyono, Indonesia has re-established its erstwhile leadership within Southeast Asia, and arguably advanced his administration's aspirations for Indonesia to be globally recognized as a neutral, reasonable, steady and reliable international partner.

For all these reasons, the significance of the Helsinki agreement for Indonesia stretches far beyond Aceh. The peace that the people of Aceh enjoy today is a long-overdue blessing, but the benefits extend widely throughout the entire country, as well as to Indonesia's regional allies and neighbors. As such, all stakeholders have an interest in supporting the full, faithful and timely adherence by both GAM and the government to the Helsinki accords.

[Michael Morfit is adjunct professor at the American University in Washington, DC. His work in Indonesia dates from 1976, where he has focused on issues of governance and political reform. His study on the Helsinki peace process is forthcoming and involved extensive direct interviews with the key players from all sides of the negotiations, including Yudhoyono, Kalla, the Indonesian negotiating team, the GAM leadership, and Finnish mediators.]