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INDONESIA: The Aceh Peace Agreement

Author: Esther Pan
Updated on September 15, 2005

What are the latest developments in the peace process in Indonesia’s Aceh province?

Rebels from the Islamist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM), which has fought for independence from Jakarta for nearly 30 years, began turning in their weapons to international monitors September 15, an important first step toward peace in Indonesia's troubled Aceh province after a nearly 30-year civil war. GAM members will hand in a total of 840 weapons in four stages over the next three months as Jakarta withdraws thousands of soldiers and police officers. Half the current number of soldiers and police will be withdrawn by the end of the year, leaving 14,700 soldiers and 9,100 police in Aceh. The moves are outlined in a peace treaty signed by representatives of the Indonesian government and GAM in Helsinki August 15.

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What kind of weapons are being handed in?

GAM members handed in dozens of weapons, including rifles, handguns, grenade launchers, and shoulder-fired missile launchers. There was some controversy over which weapons counted; some government representatives said the weapons must be foreign-made and in working order—like the Chinese-manufactured AK-47s seized from rebels in almost-weekly military raids during 2004—while GAM members said any weapons, including homemade ones, should count. Pieter Feith, the Dutch diplomat heading the 220-member Aceh Monitoring Mission, said any working weapons with a steel chamber and a steel barrel would count toward the total.

What prompted the signing of the peace treaty?

GAM has been fighting for independence in the western Indonesian province since 1976. Many previous attempts to make peace, including the latest in 2003, failed as hostilities flared between Jakarta—which has been determined to hold onto resource-rich Aceh—and the rebels. Decades of violence left over 15,000 people dead and thousands more displaced. But after the December 26, 2004, underground earthquake and tsunami devastated the Aceh province—killing some 170,000 residents, leaving 500,000 homeless, and causing $4.5 billion worth of damage—b oth sides in the conflict returned to the negotiating table with new resolve to end the longstanding dispute.

What are the treaty’s provisions?

The Helsinki peace deal strengthens the autonomy granted to Aceh in a 2001 agreement with the government and gives the province several special rights and privileges. The agreement also:

  • Establishes an immediate ceasefire.
  • Calls for GAM to disarm its roughly 3,000 fighters by the end of the year.
  • Offers an amnesty to all GAM members, and a prison release for those being held by the Indonesian government. Some 1,500 GAM members imprisoned for their political activities have been released since late August.
  • Restricts government troop movements in Aceh.
  • Changes Indonesian law to allow Aceh-based parties to participate in politics.
  • Mandates that 70 percent of the country’s natural resources will stay in Aceh. The region has vast reserves of oil and natural gas and is rich in timber and minerals. It is also a fertile agricultural region.
  • Establishes a human rights court to expose abuses committed during the conflict, and a truth and reconciliation commission in Aceh.
  • Allows Aceh to use its own regional flag, crest, and hymn. However, Jakarta will still control the province’s finances, defense, and foreign policy.
  • Allows for over 200 unarmed monitors from the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to oversee the peace process.
Why do Acehnese people want independence?

Aceh was an independent sultanate until the twentieth century, having fought off repeated Dutch attempts to colonize it along with the rest of Indonesia. The Dutch finally won control of the province in 1904. Aceh was briefly occupied by Japan after World War II, then was claimed by the newly independent state of Indonesia. However, the Acehnese—who historically traded with fellow Muslims from India, the Arabian peninsula, and the Ottoman empire—fought all their colonial overseers. Their cultural history—which includes a more conservative form of Islam than in other parts of Indonesia—has led the Acehnese to consider themselves distinct from the Javanese, who form the majority of Indonesians. A form of sharia (traditional Islamic law) has been practiced in Aceh since 2003, in contrast to the secular law practiced in the rest of the nation.

What happened to previous attempts to end the violence?

In December 2002, the two sides signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA). But CoHa collapsed five months after it was signed over the issue of Aceh’s autonomy. The Indonesian government responded by declaring a state of emergency and launching a massive military campaign that severely weakened GAM. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 100,000 people were displaced and many thousands murdered in that time. The organization accused the Indonesian government of torturing GAM prisoners and committing widespread human-rights violations in its report, Aceh at War: Torture, Ill-Treatment, and Unfair Trials.

Will this peace deal last?

Indonesian Vice President Kalla, with strong support from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took a personal role in the negotiation process and is committed to making the agreement stick, experts say. But the difficulties of ending a 30-year-old conflict should not be underestimated, warns an International Crisis Group report, Aceh: A New Chance for Peace.

What’s the state of Aceh’s economy?

It is one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces, with a 27 percent unemployment rate among its 4 million people. The inflation rate is 17 percent, compared to about 7 percent inflation in other parts of the country, according to the World Bank. Much of the inflation is a result of the massive influx of aid workers and money for post-tsunami reconstruction, which pushed up costs for housing, food, and transportation. Aceh provides almost a quarter of Indonesia’s total oil and gas output, and oil and gas production make up nearly half of the province’s revenues. However, the region’s known oil reserves are predicted to run out in 2011, experts say. Despite its mineral wealth, poverty persists in the province, leading some Acehnese nationalists to accuse Jakarta of exploiting the region.

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