Behind-the-Scenes: Fragments of the Aceh Peace Process in Indonesia

Behind-the-Scenes: Fragments  of the Aceh Peace Process in Indonesia

We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear... That old law about "an eye for an eye" leaves everybody blind... The time is always right to do the right thing... Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Just recently, news on TV on the swift and stunning sweep of Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan which made the Government collapsed after two decades of efforts by the US and NATO to reshape the region as part of its “war on terror” have shattered me from deep inside. The Taliban, which for hours had been in the outskirts of Kabul on Sunday 15th August 2021, announced soon after it would move farther into a city gripped by panic throughout the day as helicopters raced overhead to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy, while several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.

After two decades of foreign intervention, the Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in a short time, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and NATO to build up Afghan security forces. Afghan security forces were defeated by the Taliban or fled much of the country, even though they had some air support from the U.S. military. But of all these decades, what shattered me hardest is to see how the lives of ordinary peoples, like children and women, were deprived by the war, loosing every tiny chance of their life to take on and watching the lives of their loved ones drifting apart before their very own eyes. We’ve seen the “flood of fear” in the eyes of thousands of innocent refugees trapped in this conflict that carved a painful story of a developing country that is supposed to build a better country for their people.

When I lived in Istanbul during my term of service as Secretary-General of the D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation, I had also been deeply moved by similar drama occasionally aired by the Turkish TV stations. Each time I see news where the mother, father, wives, children, and families of a young fallen soldier cried and mourn over their beloved son in the fights against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), my heart cries. As a human being, my heart also grieved when I imagine the feeling of the casualty from the other side, as they were also fighting for what they believed in, and also prayed to the same God as the soldiers they were fighting against. These scenes—which are not uncommon in developing countries, be it in Afghanistan, or Turkey—only left me with a dark and gloomy feeling of sadness and grief.

The sadness and grief caused by this type of internal conflict were also present during the years I experienced in Indonesia, where war broke out between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Government of Indonesia since mid 1970s. It was not a conflict stemmed because the GAM demands the application of Islamic syari’ah in their region—which had been mistakenly identified by many parties in Jakarta, but instead a genuine case of centralistic injustice that were utterly felt by the Acehnese from their fellow Indonesian brothers.

But thank God, finally after a long, tireless peace process efforts, Indonesia had succeeded to harvest a lasting peace deal with GAM in 2005 in Helsinki, Finland, which was mediated by the former Finland President, and the laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martti Ahtisaari. And with this regard, I was lucky to have experienced collaboratively accompanying the then President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (who goes popularly in Indonesia with his initial, SBY), during the early stage of the whole process to seek peaceful ways to end the war.

Under the administration of the former Indonesian President Megawati, in 2002-2004, SBY was the Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs. He took a decisive action to establish the Aceh Desk under his office as an effort to solve the security affairs and peace process in Aceh region. Indonesia is a huge country with 230 million people. Geographically, it spans from east to west in almost the same area from Washington D.C (east) to San Francisco (west) of the USA. While from north to the south, it is almost the same length as from Moscow, Russia, to Barcelona of Spain. However, although Indonesian belongs to one nation, Bangsa Indonesia, and to one language Bahasa Indonesia, with the Moslem majority, yet Indonesia has more than 300 ethnics and groups, which within the richness of diversity could potentially pose a threat of conflict if managed by inaccurate policies.

Even though coming from military background, where he graduated as best cadet from the Military Academy and later on successfully served as army general in the Indonesian Army, SBY is in fact a modern military reformer. His ideas of reformation within the National Indonesian Military (TNI) —especially the one to reduce military involvement in politics—just after the end of the Suharto regime rule were often cited as brilliant. He had been the strongest believer, from the very beginning, of the establishment of the Aceh Desk, where I was an active member, that the peace solution was the best choice, compared to military operation. He knew that he had to seek balance in his role as Minister of Political and Security Affairs, and managing relationship with his military professional colleagues (who were once very influential in Indonesian politics and privileged during the Suharto regime), and the demand of Indonesian people for reformation and true democracy. He also knew that he had to balance the influence of the global world’s trend on democracy and human rights, vis-à-vis harsh domestic nationalist faction in the parliement that were voicing objections against the plans to have peace dialogue and negotiation with the GAM, because the two parties: the Republic of Indonesia and the GAM were viewed as unequal by law.

The main leading policy that was used as a rule of thumb in the peace process was that whatever GAM would request in the negotiation, would be heard sympathetically by the Indonesian Government, and would be given the highest attention and genuine willingness to implement it. However, the request from the GAM should be made under one major prerequisite that the peace, shall be sought within the brotherhood of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia, and never as an independent country.

I joined SBY as Deputy Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs in the first important stage of the peace process in Tokyo, October 2003. Facilitated by the Japanese Government, it was the first international meeting on Aceh Peace Dialogue, attended by delegates from the USA, a number of EU countries, Islamic countries, UN, international organizations and international financial organization such as IMF, the World Bank, and ADB. The meeting was successful, in the way that we were convinced that the world’s stance on this matter is clear, that the global community will support the Indonesian Government’s effort as long as we are honestly willing to enter into peaceful solution with GAM, and they pledged to build Aceh once the peace is achieved. This case was different than the separatism process of East Timor from Indonesia (1998), when the international opinion was in strong favor to an independent East Timor state.

The author (front left) with the Indonesian Delegation led by SBY during peace process for Aceh in 2003


The night before the final meeting in Tokyo, in what was a Ramadhan month, SBY woke me and other members from the Indonesian delegates up to have sahur breakfast together and asked that we pray to God—the very same God that our GAM brothers also believe in—that war will be resolved peacefully, and violence will be stopped once and for all in Aceh region. I should add that being a firm believer in God, is another trait that has won this General a lot of sympathy in Indonesia.

From Tokyo, facilitated by the Switzerland-based Henry Dunant Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, we went off to Geneva to meet the GAM delegates to talk over the Cessation of the Hostility Agreement (COHA). It is important to note that this was the first time the Government of Indonesia, internationally and officially had direct negotiation on peace process with the GAM, which is controlling the movement from their headquarter in Stockholm, Sweden.

It is worthy of note, that an hour before the negotiation started in Geneva, the Commander in Chief of Indonesian Armed Forces, called from Aceh, informing that they were already in Aceh and had been in a very strategic maneuver position to terminate all the GAM leaders and their fighters in the battlefield. They believed that, if SBY agreed, they could take on military operation right away, and the Government could win the war, and therefore negotiation with the GAM in Geneva was not necessary. The respond from SBY was very clear-cut: the military operation is pointless and should be avoided; peace process should be set to proceed.

The Geneva peace meeting resulted in the very first officially agreement between the Indonesian Government and GAM, which was called COHA, although it was far from perfect. Furthermore, although it started to grow the seeds of trust between both parties, the different perspective that has been growing on both sides within the long years of conflict were still tremendously huge to cope with. For example, there were differences in the agreement on how GAM would render and control their weaponry; as well as on the reduction of military bases and pulling out of TNI soldiers from Aceh. However, followed by international observers on the COHA, this peace agreement had shown the good faith to the GAM side that Indonesian Government was very serious and willing to end the long and bitter conflict through peaceful ways.

The two international peace processes led by SBY in Tokyo and Geneva was geared into presidential campaign of SBY in 2004, where he pledged that the Aceh conflict will potentially be solved in a humanitarian and peaceful way had he elected President. He delivered that promise in 2005, and facilitated by Marti Ahtisaari, where the lasting peace deal between Indonesian Government and the GAM was finally inked.

By these fragments of peace process in Aceh, I was reminded of what Dr Martin Luther King Jr. stated on the willingness of us to have a dream on peace and how to make it happen. He said, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear... That old law about "an eye for an eye" leaves everybody blind... The time is always right to do the right thing... Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” Indeed, leaders of developing countries should have the courage to allow, and make peace to happen. This courage will “hold back the flood of fear” of our people from the violence and wars, be it in Indonesia, Turkey, or Afghanistan.

Public Policy Observer and Chairman of DANDARA Foundation

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