restricted access Building Blocks and Stumbling Blocks: Peacebuilding in Aceh, 2005–2009
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Building Blocks and Stumbling Blocks:
Peacebuilding in Aceh, 2005–2009


The August 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) formally brought an end to nearly thirty years of violent conflict in Aceh. Since then, Aceh has been largely peaceful, and major strides have been achieved in laying the groundwork for lasting peace and social and economic recovery and development in the province.

The twenty-nine year rebellion and counterinsurgency wrought terrible deprivation and suffering for the majority of the province’s population, causing nearly 30,000 deaths. The conflict damaged and destroyed infrastructure and productive assets, disrupted economic activity, and bred rampant corruption and extortion. Despite the province’s abundant natural wealth, the poverty level in Aceh remained among the highest in Indonesia.2

In the period following the demise of President Suharto’s New Order government in 1998, numerous attempts were made to negotiate an end to the conflict, but none [End Page 83] lasted more than a few months.3 It was not until after the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 that the government of Indonesia and GAM were able to negotiate a lasting peace. GAM leaders in Aceh and abroad all lost family members in the tsunami, contributing to their resolve to prevent further loss of life in the province. Indonesia’s political leaders, as well, were moved to overcome their differences with GAM for the greater good of helping the Acehnese people to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. The presence of large numbers of international aid organizations and workers involved in the tsunami recovery effort opened the province to international scrutiny, helping to push both sides to the negotiating table. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times the day after the signing of the accords, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said,

Peace in Aceh was a priority that I publicly set for myself during last year’s presidential campaign and after my government took office in October. But the real political opportunity came knocking only after the tsunami last December.4

Government negotiators were authorized to bring important new offers to the table, including a significant realignment of the economic relationship between Aceh and the Indonesian central government; amnesty for GAM fighters; release of political prisoners and detainees; and permission for Aceh-based political parties to contest elections.5 In return, GAM negotiators agreed to drop their demand for Acehnese independence, accepting instead provisions that mandated significantly increased self-government for the province.6 Mediator Martti Ahtisaari’s insistence on the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” distinguished this negotiation from previous attempts, and surely contributed to its lasting success.7 The historic accord was signed by Indonesian Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin and GAM Chairman Malik Mahmood in Helsinki on August 15, 2005, ushering in a new era of peace in Aceh.

In spite of the long duration and high level of violence and destruction of the Aceh conflict (and unlike post-conflict situations in many other parts of the world), institutions and capacities needed to lay the foundations for sustainable peace and development were largely in place at the time the accord was signed. In Aceh itself, although a significant proportion of the population experienced some form of victimization during the conflict, there were not major population dislocations, and village and other local institutions still functioned. Provincial and district government structures were intact, though operating at sub-optimal levels. As in conflict zones worldwide, Aceh’s government was characterized by high levels of corruption and poor service delivery. Nonetheless, structures were in place at the time of the signing that provided a viable starting point for rebuilding effective local government in Aceh. [End Page 84]

Indonesia is a successful democracy, with a robust economy. The national government was able immediately to mobilize political and fiscal resources to support the peacebuilding process. Numerous international donors already had a presence in Aceh, supporting the massive tsunami recovery effort there. Some of these agencies initiated new peacebuilding programs, and a small portion of excess tsunami recovery funds was redirected to assist conflict-affected...