Interview with Sidney Jones on Aceh peace agreement

Interview with Sidney Jones on Aceh peace agreement

August 30, 2005 4:03 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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“There’s no question that there’s never been a better chance for peace in Aceh and for resolving their 30-year-old conflict,” says Sidney Jones, a renowned Indonesia expert and director of the Southeast Asia Project at the International Crisis Group. “But that said, it’s not by any means assured that we’re actually going to get a lasting peace at the end of it,” she says. She was interviewed by Esther Pan on August 30, 2005.

What do you think of the new peace agreement signed August 15?

There’s no question that there’s never been a better chance for peace in Aceh and for resolving their 30-year-old conflict. But that said, it’s not by any means assured that we’re actually going to get a lasting peace at the end of it. It was an agreement concluded with really great political will on both sides—which was missing from all other efforts at making peace—but there are a lot of outstanding issues which were addressed in principle in the peace agreement, but none of the details are there. And so a lot is going to depend on what the fine print says when it actually gets written, and also on how the parts that are now being clarified are implemented.

Which issues, for example?

I’ll give you a couple of examples. There’s an issue of who is entitled to compensation, and what kind of compensation. What the agreement says is that amnestied prisoners and combatants who turn in their arms and come down from the hills and anyone who suffered a demonstrable loss in the conflict will be entitled to either land, jobs, or a cash payment that will constitute a kind of social security. The problem is, first of all, it’s not entirely clear who’s going to get amnesty. It’s not clear how many people are actually going to come down from the hills; or if there’s land available, whether the people who come from the hills actually have the skills necessary to farm it. And it’s not at all clear what they mean by “anyone who suffered a demonstrable loss in the conflict. That’s basically anybody in Aceh. They’re trying now to define that more clearly, and one suggestion was that that clause was only apply to widows and the disabled—but even that is going to be a major headache to resolve.

Another question is, if you give every one of the combatants a cash package, what is the reaction going to in communities where you had both people who were fighting against GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the Free Aceh Movement), or tsunami victims, who feel the GAM guerillas are being treated better than they are? So there are a lot of people worried about some of the perceived inequities that might arise as a result of the agreement. That said, there’s a huge number of people now working to try to put the details on the agreement in a way that will draw on experience from other places. You’ve got the International Office for Migration, the World Bank, every imaginable international agency under the sun, all eager to do what they can, and every donor willing to give whatever resources are necessary to make this stick. It’s just that it was signed so quickly, with so many details left up in the air, that they’re now in the process of taking the enormous goodwill and political desire for a settlement and actually trying to turn it into something that’s manageable.

What caused the goodwill? This is a 30-year-old conflict, so what changed so suddenly to lead to the agreement?

First of all, the government of [President Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono and vice-president Yusuf Kalla, actually made the resolution of outstanding conflicts part of their campaign platform in Indonesia’s first-ever direct election of a president [in 2004]. And Kalla in particular feels, with some degree of truth, that he solved two other major conflicts in Indonesia—one in central Sulawesi and one in the Molucca [Islands]—that were communal conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and he was interested in taking on a bigger one, which was Aceh. He’s now invested enormous personal legitimacy and credibility in making this work. That’s one of the reasons there was greater political will on the government side. It was a challenge to the people involved, and now they’ve put so much into it, they’re going to lose out personally if they don’t make it succeed.

On the GAM side, they’ve been hurt very badly by military operations that were put in place after the last agreement collapsed in May 2003. The military operations netted thousands of suspected GAM mid-ranking figures—and much of its support base—and pushed the guerillas back, out of urban areas and villages into the hills. So there were a number of commanders who were actually eager for some kind of exit strategy.

Those two factors were instrumental in securing the political will. Then you also had the sympathy factor of the tsunami, and the fact that Aceh was so devastated that it really was beyond time to worry about ideology. People wanted to get on with their lives. It wasn’t so much combat fatigue as much as it was basic survival at stake here. I think that feeling pushed both sides to try to come up with something that might last.

What’s the mood among the people in Aceh? Do they support the peace agreement?

They certainly do, but because they’ve had so many false hopes and so many times where peace seemed in the offing and then collapsed, I didn’t find a single person who was willing to say, “We’ve got an agreement that’s here to stay.” There were people saying, “Well, let’s see what happens in the first month or six months.” They were saying, more or less, that it’ll be a miracle if it comes off.

Is there enough trust on the part of the people to make the agreement work, given the abuses the Indonesian army has committed against them?

There’s no question about the severity of the abuses in Aceh, although most of the worst abuses were committed not during the most recent military operation, but during counterinsurgency operations before then, particularly from 1990-93, roughly, and then from when Suharto fell [1998] up to 2002. That’s when some of the worst civilian abuses were taking place. But there have also been a large number of abuses committed by GAM, and one of the concerns a number of people have raised is, what happens when people who’ve committed abuses on the GAM side come back in the villages? How are the people who were their victims going to react? So we’ve got some nasty guys on both sides, even though the weight of the scale is far larger on the government side. But there’s no question there’s a lot of distrust and fear there, particularly in areas of the interior which have been basically off-limits for travel since the military emergency was imposed. It’s not clear what’s actually going to take place there. And the army is not happy with this agreement for a lot of different reasons. It’s going to be a real test to see if the civilian side of this government can keep the military on board.

What’s the size of the government presence in Aceh? There are about 4 million residents. How many troops are there now?
According to the agreement, the army gets to leave 14, 700 troops on the ground in Aceh. That will mean the pullback of about 15,000 troops, but a substantial number will be left there. GAM is already saying it’s too many, but they did agree to the final figure, so there’s no scope for changing it. There are also going to be 9,000 police left on the ground. In the last four or five years, the paramilitary police actually have a far worse record, in terms of abuse, than the army. And the Aceh Monitoring Mission—the international team of monitors from the European Union and the ASEAN countries—have been assigned these police as their guards.

And the EU and ASEAN monitors are unarmed, is that right?

Yes. And there’s a real dislike of international monitors in the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta. They’re seen as embodying the internationalization of something which should have been a domestic affair. So there have been lots of  heated words about them. It’s mostly hot air, but it remains to be seen if that’s a problem in the future. What happened the last time there was an agreement is that when you had clashes where both sides blamed the other, the army mobilized civilian mobs to go and attack the monitors’ offices on the grounds that they weren’t being neutral. This time around, there is an arbiter, but nobody knows how well that’s going to work at this stage.

How strong is the desire for independence in Aceh? Are the people still hoping for sovereignty?

There’s no question that there’s a huge pride in Aceh’s history among the Acehnese, and probably you’d get more than 50 percent of the people saying they’d want to have their own country and be separate from Indonesia. But a lot of the people who would like to have a separate nation don’t like GAM. So it’s not at all clear that GAM is the sole representative even of the people who want independence, let alone of the people of Aceh. I don’t think it’s on the same scale as East Timor, for example.

What about the agreement’s clauses on resource use, another contentious issue?

Actually, there’s very little in the agreement on resources that wasn’t in the 2001 special agreement granting autonomy to Aceh. So when it says in the new agreement that Aceh will be able to keep 70 percent of its oil and gas resources, that was actually already in the autonomy agreement. There are a couple of new things: Aceh will be able to set its own interest rate, independent of Jakarta, and it will be able to attract and invite foreign investment without going through Jakarta.

Does that mean Aceh could sell its own oil and gas exploration rights?

I’m not sure. Some of those details have yet to be worked out. But it’s important to note that the decision-making authority rests with the provincial government of Aceh, not with GAM. So if they’re setting a new interest rate, or making revisions to the criminal code to bring it in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights–another provision of the agreement—it’s going to be the provincial parliament and the provincial government, both directly elected, that will make those decisions.

Does Aceh already have a provincial government and parliament, or will they be elected in the same round of local elections that the rest of Indonesia is going through this year?  

They don’t have a directly-elected governor now. They are going to have direct elections for governor and local officials, according to the agreement, in April 2006. That was designed to give enough time for GAM to field candidates if it wanted. In the agreement, Aceh has also been granted the right—which no other province has—to form local political parties with a view toward the 2009 [national] parliamentary elections.

I see. And how do you think the prisoner release will go?

Well, it’s already all messed up. It was supposed to start on Sunday, and then it turns out the presidential authorization of the amnesty hadn’t actually been signed. Then it was supposed to take place today, and it still wasn’t signed. The poor people trying to arrange the logistics for taking the prisoners back to their home villages…all of that has been placed on hold. This is related to the fact that this whole agreement was signed with major logistical implications which nobody thought through. There was no agency given implementing authority for it, and nobody had decided what the procedures were for enforcing each of the provisions. So people are flying by the seat of their pants now—and not doing a bad job—but it’s not surprising that, under the circumstances, you’ve had this kind of bureaucratic delay.

So overall, how would you evaluate this agreement versus previous agreements?

Well, as I say, I think it’s got a far greater chance than other agreements had. I would put the chances now at 55 or 60 percent that it’ll work, which is far higher than I would’ve put any previous agreement. It’s just a lot of history and bureaucratic problems to overcome. Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the two parties on the ground in Aceh—with the added complication of politicians in Jakarta—to determine whether this will actually succeed or not. But it’s got more of a chance than Aceh’s ever had before, no question.

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