For the third time since Jakarta and the fighters of Aceh signed their first ‘treaty' in May 2000, both sides have again reached a deal, hoping to pave the way to a lasting solution of the conflict in North Sumatra. This time the negotiations were conducted in the wake of the region's worst catastrophe: the tsunami of December 26 last year. The calamity, which virtually annihilated the capital Banda Aceh, killed tens of thousands of people at a stroke; it surpassed even the total number of victims that the Indonesian National Army (TNI) has killed in Aceh in the last 30 years.
That there are already doubts about the durability of this ceasefire, which is to be signed on August 15 in Helsinki, Finland, is not surprising. The last time there was an official signing ceremony, in Geneva in December 2002, it was called a "humanitarian pause": in other words both parties agreed to disagree. The fact was that the killings – especially by TNI, which, technically speaking, is not bound by any political control from Jakarta – had continued throughout. The ceasefire ended officially in May 2003 with one of the most destructive military operations since Suharto's fall, sanctioned by then-president Megawati Sukarnoputri and engineered by none other than the president who is now getting ready to shake hands with Free Aceh Movement (GAM) leaders: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was then minister of security.
The leaders of GAM, which claims to be the rightful leader of the Acehnese struggle to break away from Indonesia, were already expressing doubts as western leaders congratulated themselves on having ‘helped' both sides to reach a peaceful settlement. But, as has happened in the past, such a ceasefire agreement is taken by the military as a deadline by which to commit as many atrocities as possible throughout Aceh, before it is forced to lay down its weapons. In a statement on July 19, GAM alleged that the Indonesian army had begun a series of acts of "violence, extortion and plunder" against the people of Aceh.
The rush that characterises the way the atrocities are committed is a sign of growing discomfort within TNI, as the impending agreement will require it to withdraw completely from Aceh. Indications are that what happened in East Timor – when commanders either lost control of their command or turned blind eyes when their men rampaged – will probably happen in Aceh. The possibility of things getting out of control in Aceh cannot be discounted, what with the reluctance of western powers to support an independent state in Aceh, as they did in the East Timor conflict. Although general Endriartono Sutarto of TNI has issued a statement urging the army to halt all offensive operations and go on the "defensive", GAM says that TNI is still setting up military posts in villages and attacking GAM fighters.
Yet for ordinary people in Aceh the war has been overtaken by larger worries left by the tsunami. Nothing has been as catastrophic and affected every aspect of life in Aceh as the tsunami has, even as Acehnese leaders in Europe talk about an independent state. The discussions at negotiating tables thousands of miles away have become almost completely irrelevant to most of the Acehnese. The continuing conflict is dwarfed by the enormous toll the tsunami has taken on every aspect of Acehnese life: social, economic, and (perhaps least of all) political. The last was already a mess even before the tsunami last December.
How much messier the situation might get remains to be seen, but only if the latest agreement is successfully implemented. One key feature of the agreement is that GAM will be allowed to create local political parties not controlled by Jakarta. This is in exchange for GAM's renunciation of its demand for full independence – which in any case it now knows is impossible, given the geopolitical reality and military conditions. The tsunami, which gave birth to a rare display of compassion and concern by brothers from other parts of the archipelago (particularly the huge aid exercise carried out by Javanese Muslim groups), has opened up a whole new array of possibilities for peace without resort to armed struggle. This is not to say, however, that the blood of thousands of Acehnese martyrs that was shed during the pancasila era was in vain; on the contrary, the sufferings of war are the reason that Aceh got more attention than any other region in south Asia that was affected by the tsunami. Although it may seem illogical to argue that the tsunami was a blessing, the fact is that both sides – Jakartaon one hand and the anti-Java Acehnese groups fighting for independence on the other – got to know each other much better after it. Each side was forced to rethink its political strategy and reposition itself within the context of larger interests – a feat that no amount of negotiation at Helsinki or Geneva could ever have achieved.
The main problem now is with TNI, a legacy of the Suharto era that continues to act like a wounded tiger. While the recent "opening up" of the Indonesian polity at the centre is a welcome development for Muslims and Islamic organisations who long bore the brunt of Suharto's tyranny, how the new system will tame this wounded tiger is a difficult question: its answer will be a key factor in determining the effectiveness of any agreement. Having said that, the pledge by the European Union not to send troops to strengthen the so-called Aceh Monitoring Mission, which will oversee the implementation of whatever is signed on August 15, only casts a shade across the future.
As GAM prepares to transform itself into a political party, several questions are still looking for answers. Foremost is how peace can be achieved meaningfully in a society that has suffered many betrayals, and is now facing the huge physical and psychological damage inflicted by the tsunami. Any society that rises from these depths may well become a power to be reckoned with. Another important question is whether the leaders of GAM, locked away safely in the conference halls of European capitals, are prepared for such a possibility.