On a hot December day in 2006, the people of Banda Aceh gathered in a field, to watch the unimaginable: The handing over of weapons by the Free Aceh Movement ( GAM ) to the Aceh Monitoring Mission ( AHM ), joined by Indonesian police and military personnel. Since then, the war of the past three decades, fought with bullets, has been replaced by the ballot.
The European Union ( EU ) was one of the parties actively involved in peace attempts before the historic signing of the MoU in Helsinki, Finland. It proceeded to set up the AMM; its weekly meetings with former combatants, led by Pieter Feith, helped build trust in the early years of peace building.
Despite the occasional acts of violence, residents, now led by the second directly elected Governor Zaini Abdullah, largely enjoy peace, while expectations have risen to not only survive the post-war but to also rebuild lives after the 2004 tsunami and earthquake. Witness the happy, proud faces of Acehnese students at a Malaysian flying school, published Friday in the local daily Serambi Indonesia — these future pilots are a tiny part of Aceh’s new generation which the administration has invested in through scholarships.
Investing in Aceh’s future generation is the ultimate contribution to sustainable peace in Aceh, initially enabled by the support of the international community in efforts to end the war and to reconstruct and rehabilitate a devastated land.
What the EU provided was an acceptable role to the conflicting parties, the Indonesian government and GAM. Indonesia did not want to internationalize settlement of the conflict, in the wake of the violence preceding Timor Leste’s separation after the UN-sponsored referendum. Finland’s Crisis Management Initiative then brokered the Helsinki agreement, which catapulted its leader, former president Mastti Ahtisaari, to the Nobel Peace Prize.
As in the independent Timor Leste, Aceh is not free of internal conflict, as recent regional elections have shown. However within a democratic Indonesia, Aceh largely has the tools to at least suppress any incentive that might lead to a recurrence of ethno-nationalist sentiments, the main fertile ground for the recruitment of the former GAM.
Along with Papua, the province is entitled to a larger share of revenue from its natural resources compared to other provinces, and it has its own special autonomy law.
Aceh leaders now face the challenge to live up to the high expectations of the electorate, who will boot them out at the next elections if they cannot overcome poverty and unemployment, and manage political conflicts, partially related, observers say, to the lucrative projects perceived to be available under donor-sponsored programs.
The Acehnese have not been left alone on Thursday, EU representative Giovanni Serritella said the EU will continue to support forestry, environmental, climate-change and economic development programs in Aceh, even after its seven-year mission to monitor peace ends next month.
Apart from the challenge of ending corruption, Aceh still faces other uncertainties — that of sharia laws. The new governor has not detailed what he meant by his commitment to “replicate” the rule of 16th century ruler Iskandar Muda, a time which he described as prosperous and harmonious while based on the Koran and Prophet’s sayings.
In the meantime, from the bottom of our hearts, we would like to express Indonesia’s gratitude, to the people and leaders of the EU for its assistance in Aceh; and to the dedicated men and women who have returned a sense of security and confidence among people who had lost so much.