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Aceh’s peace agreement under threat

Approaching the tenth anniversary of what has otherwise been described as one of the most successful peace agreements of recent times, Indonesia’s province of Aceh is on the verge of again being plunged into bloody conflict. Indonesia’s Defence Minister, the former hardline general Ryamizard Ryacudu, has threatened to return Aceh to military conflict status following the recent murder of two Indonesian ,military intelligence officers.

The murder of the two officers last month has been formally blamed on the ‘Din Minimi’ gang, a small group of former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) guerrillas. The gang, which is led by Nurdin Ismail (also known as ‘Din abu Minimi’ after the light machinegun), claims it is using violence to protest against the poor treatment of former combatants.

The two murdered officers, Sgts Hendri and Indra, had been investigating the activities of the Din Minimi gang in the former GAM stronghold of North Aceh. However, based on a reliable report and a photo taken of the killers soon after they murdered the two officers, while linked to the old GAM, the organisational basis of their killers has a more shadowy basis.

In all of this, it appears that the TNI is keen to re-assert its military presence in Aceh. The TNI has three reasons to want open access to Aceh, and does not mind re-starting conflict in the province to do it.

The first reason the TNI wants to return to Aceh is because the 2005 peace agreement limited its numbers and mobility, which in turn limited Aceh as the second most lucrative area for the military’s illegal income generation, after West Papua. The TNI’s illegal activities have been more limited following Indonesia’s democratisation, reducing discretionary income to senior army officers. They now want to change that back.

The second reason for the army wanting to return to Aceh is because by having an ‘enemy’ of the state to fight, the TNI can again reinsert itself into the political fabric of the state. While there were some reformers who wanted to reduce the TNI’s involvement in political affairs, its more hard-line elements, of whom the current defence minister was a prominent member, have always bridled against this restriction.

The third reason why the TNI wants to return to Aceh is because it had opposed the peace process from the start and was only obliged to accept it under pressure from then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. However, despite earlier hopes, President Joko Widodo is now proving to be much less reformist than his predecessor, and much more influenced by his party, the PDI-P and its leader, former president, Megawati Sukarnoptri.

As president, Megawati oversaw Indonesia’s largest ever military operation, which was a massive escalation of operations in Aceh in 2002. She, and her party, were always more sympathetic to a military rather than a political solution to that three decade long conflict.

While Aceh has been relatively peaceful since the peace agreement in 2005, there has been growing disaffection, often by former combatants who have not benefited from the ‘peace dividend’. This has been seized on by an organisation that had split from GAM in 1999, then known as the Acheh-Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF). The ASNLF gave up that name for that of GAM in 2002.

This new organisation called itself the Governing Council of GAM (MP-GAM), but has recently renamed itself as the ASNLF. It has used this name, and much of the original material and claims of ASNLF/GAM, to recruit disaffected former GAM guerrillas.

Soon after splitting, the MP-GAM had entered into negotiations with the Indonesian government and its senior leaders have been welcome in Jakarta since. Some of the leaders of the new ‘ASNLF’ are understood to have had and retained a close relationship with the State Intelligence Agency (BIN).

This has led to disturbing scenario whereby the TNI’s is not just taking advantage of the unstable situation is that has been developing, it and BIN appear to be at least in part manipulating disaffected militants. If this seems extraordinary, it is important to remember that both precursor military and intelligence organisations have a long history of activity in infiltrating and manipulating sections of the West Papua independence movement and, in a previous guise, were active in infiltrating and manipulating the precursor of the terrorist organisation Jema’ah Islamiyah.

A significant part f the appeal of this newly constituted ASNLF has come from what has been widely perceived to be the ‘betrayal’ of the peace agreement and Aceh’s wider struggle for recognition by its symbolic head, former GAM ‘prime minister’ Malik Mahmud and his deputy and current Aceh governor Zaini Abdullah. Zaini’s campaign for the governorship was supported by sections of the TNI and was strongly endorsed by Jakarta’s conservative elites. In this, the TNI is playing both sides, fomenting discord for its own longer term aims.

This new ‘ASNLF’ has formed a small military force, by way of returning to the simpler goal of struggling for a ‘free’ Aceh. Apart from abandoning Aceh’s democratic processes – the first in its history – for violence, the problem with this new movement is that it has no possible chance of success. Even if all Acehnese supported it, Aceh’s population of four and a half million remains hopelessly overwhelmed by Indonesian’s 240 million.

But it appears that most Acehnese do not want to return to the repression, loss and suffering that characterised its previous three decades of military conflict. Despite disappointment with what some Acehnese call the ‘selling out’ of Aceh by its current government, most recognise they can change that come the next elections.

The question is, however, whether they will be given that chance. It appears that as the tenth anniversary of the Aceh peace agreement moves closer, the TNI might use that date to claim that the peace has ultimately failed and use that as an excuse to return Aceh to war .

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