by Angela Ramirez:
Six years ago, Banda Aceh, the capital of the Indonesian province of Aceh, was embroiled in a fierce, 30-year conflict that claimed the lives of some 15,000 people. Arriving there this summer, however, I found myself in a world that seemed far removed from its tumultuous past. “Now we use our mind because now we understand the gun is not the way. Now we try to make peace,” T.M. Nazar, the director of the Aceh Reintegration Board and a former combatant for the Free Aceh Movement—colloquially known as GAM—said during our first interview in the territory.
In its prime, the GAM was no ragtag band of thugs: Known for their fierce determination and superior knowledge of the Acehenese jungle, upwards of 5,000 of these men had received training in Libya as guests of Muammar al-Gaddafi. That makes it all the more remarkable that, six years after the signing of a formal cessation of hostilities, GAM has not returned to arms and, by most accounts, has left its warring beginnings behind. At the heart of the demobilization of this group are organizations like Nazar’s, situated in an unremarkable three-story building in the heart of Banda Aceh, which aids ex-GAM soldiers with re-assimilation into civilian life.
I traveled to Aceh intending to report on the work of Nazar’s organization and to assess the effectiveness of efforts to reintegrate GAM fighters into civilian life, but midway through the interview with Nazar, our conversation took an unexpected turn. He seemed to question reintegration and even the durability of peace itself.
While discussing his organization’s work, Nazar mentioned Hasan di Tiro, a Swedish citizen of Acehnese descent and the former head of GAM. “Can I speak to him?” I asked, expecting that he would not be at a level warranting the attention of somebody as important in the movement as di Tiro. Instead, he promised to put us directly in touch—he had di Tiro’s number saved on his cell phone—as long as the leader’s health cooperated (as it turned out, di Tiro, who died in June of this year, was already too sick to meet with me). And Nazar didn’t stop there. Without being asked, he also passed on the names and contact information of fellow ex-GAM combatants, among them the group’s former second-in-command and several members of Aceh’s parliament who had previously fought for Acehnese independence.
Nazar, it seemed, was a very well connected man. But as I discovered over the next few days of reporting, so was the entire GAM movement. As Nazar mentioned, ex-combatants still “do as their leader will say to them. We listen to him… he gives advice.” These men may have stopped fighting a half decade ago, but there was no question that they were still very much in touch with one another. The real question was: Why?
Insurgency in Flux
Aceh has a long history of resistance. After a 12-year struggle for independence from the Dutch, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, declared Aceh an autonomous province in 1957. 20 years later, this regional autonomy had disappeared along with a large percentage of annual profits from natural resources. Acehnese pride soared in the face of unjust central government policies. In response, di Tiro founded GAM.
Until 2001, fighting for GAM soldiers was a “part-time job,” according to Craig Thorburn, senior lecturer at Monash university in Australia and frequent contributor to World Bank studies in Indonesia. “Throughout the war, people were sort of able to rotate in and out of GAM.” Combatants “could melt into the jungle” when the clock struck four, leaving their civilian clothes behind in exchange for military uniforms.” Acehnese social structure remained centered around the immediate family and friends.
When in 2001 the Indonesian government increased its force in Aceh to 30,000 soldiers, GAM fighters became full time residents of the Acehnese jungle. Fighting intensified, and peace talks mediated by the Finnish government in 2003 were in vain. Facing the dangers of the jungle and conflict together, bands of fighters developed close bonds. For them, the core of society shifted to their comrades and commanders in the jungle.
Peace came to Aceh at great cost. When the 2004 tsunami struck Aceh, killing over 160,000 people, GAM and the central government agreed to a ceasefire to allow aid to flow into the region. As the scale of devastation in Aceh became clear, the ceasefire gave way to a formal Memorandum of understanding (MOu) in 2005. The central government ceded to Aceh the autonomy it had demanded in exchange for immediate peace, the disarmament of 3,000 combatants, and the release of imprisoned GAM members.
New Beginnings, Old Connections
From the rubble left behind by the devastating tsunami and prolonged fighting rose a cacophony of political enthusiasts, many of them ex-GAM military commanders who had been in power during the war.
Lauded as war heroes, former fighters created their own GAM political party, Aceh Party, and ran almost unopposed in many local elections. “you basically couldn’t run if you [weren’t] a former combatant,” said Thorburn. The Aceh Party filled about half of all parliamentary seats in the first election, essentially controlling the provincial government. Di Tiro returned to Aceh after thirty years of exile in Sweden and built a reputation as the top ‘adviser’ to reintegration. “Most Acehnese like to see him and ask him questions,” said Tengku Jamaica, a former spokesman for GAM. Aceh Party politicians sought support and advice from members of their supposedly disbanded movement.
But military expertise has not translated to successful policies. “We’re holding guns for 20 years…vAnd [then] we find ourselves in government…What can we do?” complained one ex-combatant. “People in the jungle don’t know what the meaning of freedom is.”
In short, GAM politicians have had trouble delivering, particularly on reintegration. Although most ex-combatants, prisoners, and victims found jobs immediately after 2005, nearly 80 percent of these were temporary, part of the post-tsunami reconstruction of Banda Aceh. Outside the capital even fewer jobs, temporary or permanent, are available to ex-fighters. By the end of 2012, many ex-combatants and victims alike will find themselves unemployed as foreign aid trickles to a halt.
The only men who “will be just fine,” predicted Muslahuddin Daud, post-conflict consultant for the World Bank in Banda Aceh, will be high-earning politicians. The Indonesian government, he said, has failed to do its part to assist reintegration.
Post-conflict, post-tsunami, and post-foreign-aid Aceh “must be turned around,” said Daud. With the economy in decline, a growing discontentment with the central government, and a tight network of ex-GAM combatants and supporters still in place, this challenge has taken on a new urgency.
Aceh may be closer to conflict than many think. One cause for concern is that thousands of arms are still unaccounted for. While the MOu states that “GAM undertakes the decommissioning of all arms [and] commits to hand over 840 arms,” estimates of the size of the GAM force top 13,000.
Fortunately, recent events suggest Aceh would not tolerate future bloodshed. In March of this year, authorities discovered and arrested a group of Islamic militants belonging to the Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist organization, in the Acehnese jungle. They had attempted to establish the first terrorist training camp in Southeast Asia by harnessing Aceh’s anti-government sentiment, separatist ideology, and Islamic identity, but as Conrad Clos from the International Organization of Migration recalled, “communities were reporting them to the police.” The terrorists severely underestimated the province’s commitment to peace. “There is no space for them to work… Aceh [doesn’t] like jihadist groups,” assured Daud. Ex-combatants and civilians alike made clear that the Acehnese are tired of fighting.
A Tool or a Threat?
With this widespread aversion to violence in mind, GAM’s enduring network looks less like a threat than its past may suggest. And with the impending exodus of foreign aid from Aceh, this network, which connects ex-combatant politicians with their fellow fighters and with a public that generally supported the GAM, may in fact be a hidden blessing. It is perhaps the glue of Acehnese society at a time when widespread unemployment and discontent would otherwise foster even more frustration with the government.
Effective future use of this network is key to Aceh’s stability and strength. If it continues as a tool for Aceh Party candidates to ascend to power regardless of competency, political and social benefits may not last long. If it can be used to inspire the Acehnese to rebuild their society from the ground up, then the future for Aceh may be very bright indeed.
Angela Ramirez ’12 is a Political Science and International Studies major in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.