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Aceh leaders face high expectations, little patience

Jakarta Post - November 2, 2008

The world's "post-conflict" areas are a living laboratory with ever changing experiments, the Aceh Reintegration Agency (BRA) and the local population being among its guinea pigs.

Critics say that approaches such as that of the BRA which only distributes funds to verified individuals to ensure their accountability, are ineffective and further weaken "strong communal ties".

Traditionally these ties ensured that a neighbor would not go hungry, said Afridal Darmi of the Legal Aid Office in the capital, Banda Aceh. In a tense situation "people have grown tired of data taking," an activist said.

In a land scarred by war and one of the world's most devastating natural disasters, all the note taking "brigade", including journalists, can easily trigger an angry reaction when promise after promise fails to materialize. The communal ties mentioned above already disappeared during the war; people spent decades working out who to trust among family and friends.

One could never know who was the resented spy, or cuak, who often reported his neighbor of being a GAM member only because of a personal grudge.

"Reintegration" then involves not only former GAM militia and those who were "defending themselves against GAM", but also the stitching back together of mutual trust in society.

The BRA is faulted on each occasion that it fails to provide its services, which would at least give peace of mind, to conflict victims – the former militia, the ordinary civilians who protected local peple and those who lost loved ones.

Sensitivities flare even with the first step of verification of victims. Widows who have remarried demand why they are no longer listed as beneficiaries, as they need the funds for the children of the dead or missing father.

In a press conference on the first day of Tiro's visit, Oct. 11, Fatimah, identifying herself as a former member of the GAM women fighters, Inong Bale, asked Tiro's aides about the fate of orphans and widows including former female combatants.

Malik Mahmud, who signed the MoU on behalf of GAM, appealed for patience, saying that in the peace process, everyone would be taken care of.

Knowing that this issue is central to pacifying those directly engaged in the conflict and those affected by it – virtually the entire population – this message was reiterated in Tiro's statements read out by Malik on all his stops in Aceh.

Support and oversight for those working on such essential details is still critical in the struggle for peace. Tiro's visit seemed to cool tensions and frustrations. Held well before next year's elections, it was also timely and helpful "to heal rifts" among former GAM members, said Juha Christensen, one of the facilitators of the MoU during one of Tiro's family reunions.

Locals here cite another category of restless people which might disrupt the peace: the scores of GAM members forced to surrender before the Helsinki agreement was signed.

Victims of rape are silent; "which victim would ask for anything if they were asked to submit evidence?", one activist asks.

Not too long after the MoU was signed the old grumblings and accusations of graft have shifted to the new elite – such as BRR officials and the elected governor Irwandi Yusuf and his former GAM loyalists.

"The governor is GAM so of course his men get all the projects," said a driver. "Look at all their cars," he said, pointing to the costly SUVs of former commanders in the long convoy of Tiro's bodyguards and his hosts.

Scholars blame corruption and centuries of rivalry among Aceh's elite for adding to its people's problems. Such rivalry enabled intervention and "divide and rule" tactics from the dominant central power, whether colonialists or the late Soeharto's New Order.

The painfully slow work to complete regulations to implement the new laws of Aceh's government following the MoU provides a test case on whether Jakarta will habitually "break its promises," in the eyes of Acehnese, and pull back, as it did since the 1950s, any intention of giving more authority to provincial rulers.

In this vicious circle, locals are far from fatalistic.

"Our elders say we have always had bloodshed," said another driver, Wadi. However like many others, since that August day when locals crowded around televisions to see the signing of the MoU in faraway Finland, he said at last he had peace of mind.

"In the past we were always worried what would happen to our wives and children at home," Wadi said.

A quiet voice meanwhile, voices one of Aceh's challenges to peace. "Some of us have jobs, some don't," said a former GAM militia man.