The prospect of democracy and peace in Aceh

Author: Badrus Sholeh, Deakin University

The Indonesian province of Aceh is due to hold its gubernatorial elections in December 2011.

These elections highlight the significant contribution democracy has made to the maintenance of peace since Aceh’s 2006 elections — which were held a year after the peace agreement between the Freedom Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government. Many Acehnese have welcomed this new sense of democratisation, with approximately 78 per cent of voters participating in the 2009 presidential elections, the largest turnout for direct elections in any Indonesian region. But as the December elections approach, flaring tensions among Acehnese leaders — especially between former elites of GAM — have observers concerned over potential threats to the continuation of peaceful democracy in Aceh. A number of former GAM combatants were killed recently and local Acehnese see this as closely related to the tensions and rivalries evident among political groups in the province.

But the international community has invested billions of dollars in supporting Aceh’s transition toward peaceful democracy. At the ASEAN Leaders’ Special Summit held in Jakarta on 6 January 2005, two weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the leaders of 26 nations and international organisations agreed to donate US$4 billion in aid to further rehabilitation and reconstruction in Aceh. Australia also contributed AUD$1billion over five years through the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development. Of this aid, millions of dollars were targeted at the support and reintegration of former GAM members. The programs associated with this funding will help to ensure the continuation of rehabilitation and integration by overcoming any inequitable distribution of resources, supporting stability and peace, and rebuilding communities.

The Multi-Stakeholder Review, a partnership between the Indonesian Coordinating Ministry for Legal, Political and Security Affairs, the National Development Planning Agency and the Aceh Peace-Reintegration Agency, reports that the total amount of funds committed to the process of reintegration and peace building is Rp9 trillion (US$895 million) — one-seventh of the tsunami reconstruction funds. And the Acehnese government will receive close to US$7.9 billion in special autonomy funds between 2008 and 2027 as a result of the Law on the Governing of Aceh.

Adequate funding is of crucial significance in maintaining the peace building process in Aceh and the progress of reconciliation; decentralisation and democratisation have positively affected the transition toward peace. But for the current positive momentum to continue, area-specific institutions will need to be strengthened and, where necessary, created. The importance of institutions for supporting peace in post-conflict regions cannot be understated. In Aceh, strong institutions in local government, parliament and civil society are still needed.

But the ongoing dispute between the winning Aceh Party and the incumbent governor’s camp over regulations pertaining to the 2011 elections now threatens to destabilise Acehnese efforts to implement further reforms. The Aceh Party’s threat to boycott the elections is counterproductive to the party and the democratisation process in Aceh. If this dispute is not resolved it will overshadow more pressing issues in the Acehnese development and peace building program. These include capacity building for rural Acehnese so they can revitalise important agricultural initiatives, such as the region’s high quality coffee plantations. Another issue is the high unemployment rate. Law enforcement training for members of parliament is also important if they are to work out effective regulations for Aceh’s development and reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission regulation, which was keenly anticipated by human rights organisations and victims of conflict, is still pending due to the ‘political negotiation process’ and is another issue which needs prioritising.

The World Bank reports that investors still perceive Aceh as a risky place to conduct business, meaning that growth in Aceh will be limited and efforts to reduce poverty will likely lose their effectiveness. This must be remedied. The Acehnese government must change the perception of the region so it is seen as a secure and safe business environment. Providing high quality infrastructure will be a big part of this. These challenges will not be overcome unless Aceh’s political parties and leaders give priority to the broad interests of local inhabitants rather than their own narrow interests.

The current precariousness of Acehnese politics has not had a positive effect on the media, civil society organisations and the Acehnese people in general. The fear of political violence is rising after the death of local leaders and other violence suspected of being closely related to rivalries among local political groups. If these political elites and civil society groups cannot manage their political conflicts it will destroy a great deal of important investment in the region.

Badrus Sholeh is a PhD student at the School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University.