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This month marks the 7th anniversary of the signing in Helsinki of the Aug. 15, 2005 peace agreement between the Indonesian government represented by cabinet minister Jusuf Kalla and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) aimed at ending the near 30-year conflict that took over 15,000 lives.
“This is the beginning of a new era for Aceh,” former Finnish president and talks mediator Martti Ahtisaari said at the time. “Much hard work lies ahead.”
Malik Mahmud, the head of the GAM delegation, also recognized the many challenges facing the province, especially compounded by the tsunami of the previous year that killed over 170,000 Acehnese citizens.
“This peace process ... is a leap of faith we have taken to give the people of Aceh the opportunity to build a brighter future,” he said.
Despite these hopeful pronouncements, there remains growing dissatisfaction and tension throughout the province, especially in those rural areas of Aceh, where the majority of the conflict took place.
In Banda Aceh during the signing of the peace accord, the five members of the newly formed local NGO, Jembatan Masa Depan (Bridges to the Future/JMD) watched as the city held a two-day prayer of support.
A resident told the Associated Press, “I can’t predict what will happen now. I only know we want to see an end to the fighting, we want prosperity, and to feel safe.”
This was, and still is, the mission of JMD: to assist those most severely affected by both the tsunami and the conflict, especially in remote areas where few large international organizations dared, or wanted, to go. For JMD, the signing of the peace accord held all of the promise that it did for those who had suffered for the past 30 years, in that it meant that the agency could finally fully address those areas and communities whose livelihoods had been destroyed by physical damage to their farms, and whose families and villages had been “collateral damage” — indiscriminately eliminated or forcibly recruited to both sides.
Since 2006 the Law on Governing Aceh (LoGA) has had at its disposal an additional 2 percent from a sub-fund of the General Autonomy fund established to reduce disparities between rich and poor regions. This additional percentage, which will diminish in 2023, was earmarked to assist in recovery from the tsunami and the conflict.
In addition, under LoGA, Aceh was also granted a majority share of its resource revenues from gas, oil and mining, and granted permission to hold local democratic elections, which allowed GAM to participate politically and “engage with Indonesia’s democratization process”.
In 2006, newly elected governor Irwandi Yusuf, a former GAM leader, identified assistance to the rural poor as his priority policy, and pledged during his first year in office to spend Rp 40 billion (US$4,214) on rural community livelihoods programs.
Though JMD and other local NGOs repeatedly requested funding to implement these programs for rural conflict victims, governor Irwandi used the funding to attempt to attract large businesses to the province and to revitalize the province’s palm oil plantations, stating in a 2008
interview that it was a wise because palm oil has a steady market, is low maintenance, and “Acehnese people are very bossy and lazy ... so for [much of] the time they can sit around doing nothing.”
The negative environmental impact of this strategy has already been felt through deforestation and erosion and has done little to alleviate poverty in the rural areas where implemented.
NGOs that requested funds for programming were consistently told, “Go to BRA,” the agency
set up to disperse payments to ex-combatants, but BRA provided no relief either.
In the past several years JMD has come in contact with thousands of ex combatant beneficiaries across the province who never received any aid.
Those who did receive it often shared it with those in their village, rendering the final allocation miniscule. Many of these forgotten ex-combatants say that they would rather the peace accord had not been signed, because at least when they were fighting, they could commit crimes to provide for their families.
It is the fervent hope of those who have been living and working in Aceh’s rural and marginalized communities that newly elected Governor Zaini Abdullah, himself a former separatist leader, will guide his new administration in a direction that acknowledges and honors the sacrifice and continued suffering of the people of rural Aceh.
Now, eight years after the tsunami, nearly all the international NGOs have left the province, and few local ones remain or are supported by the government. The reconstruction funds have arguably helped far fewer communities than originally intended. The path chosen by Irwandi’s administration alienated him from even his most ardent supporters, and pitted separatist against separatist.
Governor Zaini’s incoming administration’s challenges are in a way just as great: it needs to work with Jakarta to insure that its allocated funds reach and remain in the province.
Jakarta, in turn, must encourage the new administration to honor the commitment to the LoGA and re-examine and address the disparity between assistance to urban areas and the neglect of the rural areas, before dissatisfaction turns from isolated clashes to systematic violence once again.
Both Governor Zaini and Irwandi were elected through the support of the rural poor of Aceh; it is time for the current administration to honor their support and repay their trust.
The writer is president & founder of Building Bridges to the Future Foundation (BBF), a New York-based organization that supports development work in Aceh, Sumatra