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Aceh's uneasy peace in focus

Jakarta Globe - May 25, 2010

Ade Mardiyati – After the devastating tsunami in 2004, Aceh – then in the midst of an armed rebellion – entered a new era. The bloodshed was ended by a peace agreement signed by the Indonesian government and the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement in Helsinki on Aug. 15, 2005.

After nearly 30 years of fighting, members of the rebel group, also known as GAM, laid down their arms and returned to society. Interestingly, many of them now work as civil servants, including former GAM leader Irwandi Yusuf, who is now governor of Aceh.

Despite what appears to be a success story, the province is nevertheless facing another chapter of struggle in terms of rebuilding the lives and communities of its citizens now that the conflict has ended, which could be a threat to the peace process.

"In the Aftermath of Peace: Hope and Struggle in Aceh" by Sandeep Ray was screened on May 19 by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club at the Goethe Institute. The documentary served as the center piece of a night of discussions about the province and its efforts to rebuild.

The event also featured lectures by Sandra Hamid, a cultural anthropologist and the senior program director of the Asia Foundation in Indonesia, and Rizal Sukma, the executive director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Ray's documentary featured interviews with ex-combatants, conflict victims and government representatives.

Some of the interviews clearly implied that one of the core problems was the unsatisfactory situation of the Acehnese, directly affected by the decades-long conflict, after the peace deal was signed. They believed the central government had neglected its promises in the agreement.

In the film, the government is said to have altered what was promised in the memorandum of understanding, such as rehabilitation efforts, farms and assistance for former combatants. Instead of fulfilling the expectations, people interviewed in the film said the government had only given small amounts of money, barely enough to provide support during the rebuilding effort.

"If the people get what the MoU promises – a fair distribution of resources between the central government and us – marginalized people like us can benefit from this," a former GAM rebel said in the film. "That is my hope. That is what freedom means to me."

The same situation was also faced by other members of the conflict-affected community, namely the women who lost their husbands, sons and relatives. These women also demanded compensation for what they have lost.

What seemed to be missing from the film was a peek at the province's economic development, so as not to solely look at the past violence and the ramifications of the prolonged armed conflicts, and to find out whether there had been improvements in the past five years, as well as the political and social consequences that were brought about by the peace. In relation to this matter, Sandra said that the most pressing challenge was how to ensure that issues rooted in governance – as experienced in so many places in Indonesia – were not allowed to become the causes of new conflicts.

Meanwhile, Rizal, who was also interviewed in the film, reminded the audience that in many parts of the world that emerge from conflict, a relapse often takes place within 10 years' time.

"That's why, I think, some within the government continue to remind every one to work harder to deliver the promises of peace, especially in the economic area," he said.

"The continuing support from the international community is also important to ensure that the Aceh peace process would withstand the challenge of relapse beyond the 10 years time frame."

Rizal said that he was heartened by the large turnout at the event, which saw a crowd of over 50 coming from a range of backgrounds and professions.

"The fact that so many people attended the event, especially from the diplomatic and foreign community, clearly suggests that attention to Aceh from the international community is still there," Rizal said.

"The international community is still committed to see that Aceh would continue to be a success story of peace building.

"This [attention] should serve as an important asset for Aceh to develop into a more democratic and prosperous area in Indonesia," he said. "All the support is still there."