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Last Updated: 12/02/2008
Peace in Aceh
Endro Kristanto

Three years after the historic Memorandum of Understanding was signed, Endro Kristanto discusses the long standing struggle between Aceh independence advocates and the Indonesian government, the current challenges to peace, and the necessities of building trust, protecting human rights, and moving towards political reconciliation.

In October 1976, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement was established to fight for independence of Aceh, an Indonesian province located at the north edge of island of Sumatera. Since then, a conflict between GAM and Indonesian government arisen although the early years of the conflict were characterized by unsuccessful struggle on the GAM side. In 1989 GAM reemerged, became stronger, and used a more professional guerilla strategy, which forced Indonesian Military Force to use a more repressive approach when President Soeharto declared Aceh as Military Operation Area. The repressive approach, unexpectedly, caused a larger support for GAM from Acehnese people since they also became the victims of violence by Indonesian military officers (Schulze, 2004). Subsequently, the battles were mounting in many areas in Aceh even after Soeharto retired from his presidency.

Conflict between Indonesian government and Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Aceh Independence Movement has reached its pivotal point in August 15, 2005. On that day, Indonesian government and GAM signed a peace agreement in Helsinki thanked to Martii Ahtisaari, the former Finland president. The Memorandum of Understanding asserted that, “The Government of Indonesia (GoI) and The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) confirm their commitment to a peaceful, comprehensive, and sustainable solution to the conflict of Aceh with dignity for all.” The key point of the agreement is that Aceh will exercise authority in all sectors of public affairs except in the field of foreign policy, external defense, national security, monetary and fiscal matters, justice and freedom of religion, and the policies of which belong to the Government of Republic Indonesia. Other important points are that Aceh is allowed to have its own local political parties and is entitled for 70% of total revenue from its natural resources. In short, Aceh is still a part of Republic of Indonesia but with special status among other provinces in Indonesia.

As International Crisis Group reported, three years after the signing of Memorandum of Understanding, GAM and the Government of Indonesia under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono keep their commitment and maintain peace in Aceh. In other words, negative peace has been achieved in Aceh, marked by the absence of violence or gunfire between two sides. The question is, however, whether peace will be sustainable in the long run since there are several vital challenges should be addressed by these two sides in the near future.


Considering Ramsbottom, Woodhouse, and Miall (2005) quotation of World Bank research that “a country coming out of civil war has a 50 percent chance of relapsing into conflict in the first five years of peace”, it should be underlined that Aceh peace now is in the critical state. Whether or not Aceh will maintain its peace will be influenced by the events of the next two years . Especially, Indonesia will conduct its general election in April 2009 for local and central parliament and in June 2009 for president. In conjunction with the likely heat of the election, there are four challenges for peace in Aceh that will follow the results of the election.

 The first challenge is how to eliminate the motivation of GAM to follow the path of East Timor to call for referendum in Aceh regarding their independency. Schulze (2004) notes that GAM (before peace agreement signed) attempted to use East Timor success as the blueprint of their efforts. Recently, there were two East Timorese who were the members of Fretilin, the separatist group in East Timor, visited Aceh to explain how the truth and reconciliation commission has worked in East Timor (International Crisis Group, 2008). However, no one can assure that their visit was only for that agenda. In addition, it should be noted that Aceh local party which represents GAM most likely will win the majority of provincial parliament since their candidate, Irwandi Yusuf, won in the governor election in 2006 (International Crisis Group, 2007). Meanwhile, International Crisis Group (2008) also predicts that on-going contest to define Aceh autonomy will intensify if Partai Aceh, the largest GAM party, wins the election.

The possibility to inquire the opportunity of referendum is in line with the notion made by Albert Bandura about social learning theory. Bandura (1977) suggests that an observed behavior will be imitated if the behavior is rewarded and is corresponding to the moral code of the observer, and the observer possesses a high level of perceived self-efficacy. In Aceh case, the observed behavior is the path of independence by referendum. This behavior was clearly rewarded – shown by the success of the referendum – and the behavior is in line with the moral code of GAM leaders – shown by GAM’s struggle to achieve independence at any cost in the past. More importantly, the win of 2006 election has elevated their self-efficacy that they will get the support of Aceh people. Therefore, the path for referendum in the future cannot be disregarded.

The second challenge of peace is the lack of trust between both parties in the recent situation. International Crisis Group (2008) reported that “the mil­itary is worried about Partai Aceh, the GAM party, winning control of local legislatures and challenging Jakarta’s authority. Partai Aceh is worried about overt or covert interference from Jakarta…” Apart from Partai Aceh, the anxiety of military is also caused by the efforts of KPA and SIRA, two other local parties, to investigate the human rights abuse during the conflict period, and the visit of two ex-Fretilin members. On the other side, some GAM leaders are worried that Aceh will only become similar as other provinces in Indonesia.

If lack of trust continues to grow, the Government of Indonesia and GAM might involve in another conflict escalation. Johnson and Johnson (1994) believe that lack of trust might lead to self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Pruitt and Kim (2004), the basic tenet of self-fulfilling prophecy is that a party beliefs and attitudes toward other party make the party behave in ways that bring out behavior from the other party which will reinforce these beliefs. In addition, Pruitt and Kim also consider that self-fulfilling prophecy is implicit in the cycle of escalation. In Aceh case, the belief among military that local party or GAM have not declined the desire of independence and that GAM will use election for this goal might cause a negative effect. International Crisis Group (2007) reported that the belief drove the some military leaders to prevent GAM from winning the local parliament election. The belief was also reflected in the power point presentation about The Plan for Operation Vigilance” concerning on the political, economic, social and security fronts by Kodam Iskandar Muda, the Aceh military command (International Crisis Group, 2008). This action might encourage GAM to strengthen their prejudice that military force would interfere the election in Aceh.

The third challenge is how to deal with reconciliation and justice enforcement through human right court and truth and reconciliation commission. According to Montville (in Avruch and Vejarano, 2001) reconciliation consists of acknowledgement from the perpetrators about their action and exoneration from the victims. The difficulty of reconciliation in Aceh case lies on both elements. From the perpetrator side, the current Government of Indonesia has never explicitly acknowledged that they are responsible of human rights abuse in Aceh. It is even more since the actual perpetrator, which is former president Soeharto, has died but never admitted any human rights abuse in Aceh. From the victim side, it is difficult for the victims to forgive if the perpetrator has never acknowledged their action. Moreover, Clark, Wandita, and Samsidar (2008) reported that restitution to the victims did not reach to the actual victims, for example, to common Aceh people who were tortured.

Justice is also a challenging matter in addition to reconciliation. Avruch and Vejarano (2001) noted that justice might encompass retroactive justice, the justice upon what had happened in the past. However, the Helsinki MoU failed to specify that the Human Right Court must have retrospective jurisdiction over past crimes (Clark, Wandita, and Samsidar, 2008). This failure might lead to unwillingness to prosecute the actors of human rights abuse in the past. In fact, International Crisis Group (2006) reported that the Government of Indonesia weakened the reference of past abuses in the draft of human rights settlement made by the government of Aceh. Instead of upholding human rights standards written in international covenants, the report said, the Government of Indonesia prefer upholding the standards in international covenants that have been adopted by Indonesian law. Moreover, the anxiety of military leaders toward the move to investigate human rights abuse can be additional obstacle to the seeking of justice. However, if local parties dominate the local parliament next year, Aceh might push the implementation of human rights investigation more than the government expect.

The fourth challenge toward sustainable peace is the subsistence of small arms in Aceh which threaten the security in Aceh. Although disarmament post-conflict was relatively successful, there were some incidents of violence using arms. International Crisis Group reported a robbery using guns pointing at an NGO worker in February 2007, a grenade thrown at a government official’s house and an arson attack on a school in August 2007, the killing of five members of a local political party by villagers in March 2008, and so on. Those incidents show that there are small arms left among Aceh people, which indicate the common problem of conflict resolution.

The existence of small arms in Aceh reflects one of the core challenges of the intervention phase of post-war reconstruction stated by Ramsbottom, Woodhouse, and Miall (2005). The challenge is the fundamental fact of continuing conflict where surviving combatants might still keep the pre-existing political goals. In Aceh case, the surviving combatants are a small amount of people who did not agree with the peace agreement and saw that any attempt less than independence is a sign of weakness. The number of these people might be small but in the vital point, the election, any kind of small overt conflict or ordinary crime might increase the tension in Aceh whether the conflict or the crime is between Acehnese or between Acehnese and government element. It should be underlined that International Crisis Group as well as national and local newspaper reported that the number of robbery is increasing. This trend might be caused by what Mitchell (1998) state as the issue of balance of rewards on the implementation of positive peace. In this case, the restitution is reported did not reach many actual victims since the process of distribution is political (Clark, Wandita, and Samsidar, 2008).


Peace in Aceh is reaching its critical point three years after the signing of Memorandum of Understanding in Helsinki in 15 August 2005. The next two years will be characterized by a hypersensitive event which is the general election in 2009 and its following effects. There are four key challenges toward sustainable peace: first, the successful experience of East Timor to attain independence by referendum might inspire Aceh to follow the path. In any parameter of the emergence of socially learned behavior noted by Bandura, Aceh meet the criteria. Second, lack of trust between the Aceh local parties and the Government of Indonesia might lead to conflict escalation resulted from self-fulfilling prophecy. Third, to deal with justice and reconciliation according to Montville’s notion on reconciliation is difficult since the Government of Indonesia and military force do not interested in dealing with past crimes as well as the victims disadvantage of unclear restitution process. And fourth, the existence of small arms among Aceh people brings about violence and crime in community as expression of dissatisfied on the peace agreement or restitution.    

Responding to these challenges, there are some recommendations that will endorse sustainable peace. First, in order to avoid the repetition of Timor East referendum in Aceh, the Government of Indonesia should ensure that Aceh is treated as a special province with special authority by amendment of law and regulation that strengthen Aceh specialty without weakening the position of Indonesia. Second, intensive and transparent communication should be cultivated by the Government of Aceh and the Government of Indonesia, and it involves other parties that representing GAM, especially around the issues related to 2009 election, in order to eliminate for example, the National Human Rights Commission in order to maintain the neutrality of the process. Fourth, the next restitution program should focus on civilians who were victims of past conflict and GAM members who were marginalized in the previous restitution programs. Therefore, the involvement of the Government of Indonesia and independent committee is important. Fifth, the Government of Aceh should support national police in dealing with violence and crime by providing information about the mapping of small arms. Conversely, any proposal about additional personnel of police by the Government of Indonesia should involve intense communication to the Government of Aceh and other GAM representatives, and the proposal should consist of proportional and rational number of personnel so Aceh people do not feel threatened.                    


Avruch, K., Vejarano, B. (2001). Truth and reconciliation commission: A review essay and annotated bibliography [electronic version]. Social Justice: Anthropology, Peace, and Human Rights, 2(1-2), 47-108.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Clark, R., Wandita, G., Samsidar. (2008, January). Considering the victims: The Aceh peace process considering transitional justice perspective. New York: International Center for Transitional Justice.

International Crisis Group. (2006, March 29). Aceh: Now the hard part. Jakarta/Brussels.

International Crisis Group. (2007, October 4). Aceh: Post conflict complication. Jakarta/Brussels.     

International Crisis Group. (2008, September 8). Indonesia: Pre-election anxieties in Aceh. Jakarta/Brussels.

Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, F.P. (1997). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (sixth edition). New York: Allyn and Bacon.  

Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Republic Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement. 2005. Downloaded from

Mitchell, C.R. (1998). Sketch of the Conflict “Termination” Process.

Pruitt. D.G., Kim, S.H. (2004). The persistence of escalation. Social conflict: Escalation, stalemate, and settlement, Third Edition. pp 151-167. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., Miall, H. (2005). Peace building. Contemporary conflict resolution (second edition). Cambridge: Polity.

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., Miall, H. (2005). Post war reconstruction. Contemporary conflict resolution (second edition). Cambridge: Polity

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., Miall, H. (2005). Reconciliation. Contemporary conflict resolution (second edition). Cambridge: Polity.

Schulze, E.K. (2004). The Free Aceh Movement (GAM): Anatomy of a Separatist Organization. Washington: East-West Center Washington.

Endro Kristanto is a Mater's degree candidate at UPEACE.