Conflict in Aceh and the Helsinki peace process: peacebuilding or building peace?

Presentation of the case study and problem statement

On August 15th 2005, the Government of Indonesia (GoI) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka – “Free Aceh Movement” (GAM),  putting an end to almost three decades of conflict in the Indonesian province of Aceh. While two previous attempts to peacefully settle the conflict had failed, the so-called Helsinki Peace Process proved successful: Aceh has passed the “five years” test and remains peaceful fifteen years after the MoU’s signature. The Acehnese case has been taken as an example for conflict resolution in South-East Asia, with numerous studies comparing its resolution with attempts to solve conflict in Sri Lanka or West Papua. However, the peace achieved in Aceh remains fragile, it has been argued. Therefore, we will ask ourselves what enabled the Helsinki Peace Process to succeed and to what extent the current peace in Aceh is sustainable.

Successful Helsinki negotiations
Why did the Helsinki negotiations succeed?

One potential explanation for the Helsinki negotiations’ success can be provided by Zartman’s theory of ripeness. The author explains that conflicts are ripe for negotiations when there is a “mutually hurting stalemate (Zartman, 1985). That is, when “both sides […] realize that they cannot achieve their aims by further violence and that it is costly to go on” (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2016). In the Acehnese case, GAM “realized that its strategy of armed struggle had reached an impasse” (Aspinall and Crouch, 2005, Tunçer-Kılavuz, 2017). Severely weakened by the 2003 military crackdown as well as the 2004 tsunami, the movement did not have the military capacity to escalate the conflict. Moreover, battle fatigue was growing among its ranks (Tunçer-Kılavuz, 2017). The GoI, for its part, came to the conclusion that it would never manage to completely get rid of GAM (Tunçer-Kılavuz, 2017).

Zartman’s ripeness theory has been complemented by Pruitt’s readiness theory (2007), which focuses on each party’s beliefs and internal composition. Pruitt argues that for negotiations to bare fruits, each actor’s leadership has to have both the “motivation to end the conflict and optimism about the outcome of conciliation” (Cantekin, 2016). The author also highlights the need for “doves” (members in favour of peace) to be in power and to exert control over potential spoilers to the peace process.  In our case, the president Yudhoyono and vice-president Kalla, elected in 2004, were highly committed to peace. That vision led them, for instance, to dismiss the chief commander of the armed forces, seen as a threat to the negotiations. As Tunçer-Kılavuz (2017) puts it: “the new government was successful in taking these spoiler groups under control” (that is, “nationalist politicians in the parliament and military commanders in the field”). As for the GAM, its elites also demonstrated a great willingness to reach an agreement. The party was “unified”, “disciplined” and showed “loyalty to its political leadership exiled in Sweden” (Tunçer-Kılavuz, 2017).

Besides, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami acted as a critical juncture that prompted parties to join the negotiations table (Conciliation Resources, 2008). Both sides were severely weakened, and had to “shift their priorities” (Wallensteen, 2011) from armed struggle to reconstruction. Moreover, the natural hazard devastated Aceh, putting the province under international spotlight. Conflict parties were thus receiving pressure from humanitarian actors and the international community to reach an agreement (Grayman, 2012). International scrutiny has been regarded as a positive incentive for parties not only to negotiate, but also to respect their commitments. Thus, the creation of the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM), composed of ASEAN and EU personnel, responsible for monitoring the agreement has been regarded as a crucial factor in the Helsinki process’ success. All the more so as the AMM was made “more robust” than in the previous agreements, with a “well-defined” role (Schultze, 2007). The third party enjoyed “broad support by the international community”, and its impartiality managed to inspire confidence in “both GAM and the Indonesian military (Schultze, 2007).

The crucial role played by the mediatior Marti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, has also been stressed. His presidential stature as well as his career in peacebuilding had made him very familiar with negotiation processes (Conciliation Resources, 2008). Moreover, the charismatic man enjoyed an easier access to high level UN and EU officials. Ahtisaari also insisted that “nothing [was] agreed until everything [was agreed]”, forcing the parties to come up with “necessary compromises, but also creative trade-offs, as part of a larger deal” (Conciliation Resources, 2008). Thus, GAM abandoned its claims for independence and instead accepted the idea of “self-government” that would go beyond the “special autonomy” that had been accorded to the province until then, with all too familiar consequences (Conciliation Resources, 2008). According to Senanyake (2009), Ahtisaari’s formula led to a “more comprehensive document” that better addressed the “core issues in the conflict”. Finally, the researcher also evokes the role played by previous attempts to peacefully resolve the conflict. Former “failed” peace talks, as Grayman (2012) explains, “laid the groundwork” to positive outcomes (Grayman, 2012) as contacts between parties had already been established and several solutions had been explored. 

Conflict resolution and elite peacemaking?
The Acehnese case: a paradigmatic example of elite-peacemaking and peacebuilding understood mainly in institutional terms?

Civil society’s exclusion

Civil society is absolutely central in building a sustainable peace, as it “has an important supportive [and facilitating] role” (Pattenholz, 2009). A growing number of studies thus stress the need to better include civilian actors in peace processes and advocate for a bottom-up approach to peacebuilding (Prügl et al., 2019). In Aceh, however, civil society was regrettably excluded from the negotiations process (Conciliation Resources, 2008, Schultz, 2005), which mostly relied on track I diplomacy. The Helsinki negotiations indeed involved GoI representatives as well as GAM leaders solely. They reflected a top-down approach to conflict resolution, according to which peace was to be made by the elites.

Some argue that the highly polarized political context allowed no middle ground for non-violent initiatives from civilian actors, who became marginalized (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2006, Grayman, 2012, Taqwadin, 2013). However, civil society activists were instrumental in ensuring the smooth implementation of the peace agreement (especially in making sure that the 2006 elections would run smoothly) (Ansori, 2012, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2006). What is more, civil society organizations (CSOs) were also “significant in building trust in the new institutions” and in accepting the CMI mediation.

Several authors particularly deplore the lack of inclusion of women in the peace process (Lee-Koo, 2012, 2018, Rahmawati, Susilastuti, Mas’oed and Darwin, 2018, Conciliation Resources, 2018), whereas “women’s groups made some of the first organised efforts towards openly discussing the move towards peace” (Lee-Koo, 2012). Particularly interesting is the role of the Inong Balee, former GAM female combatants that have now engaged in peacebuilding. Their activities and identities has “produced hope for a future without ethno-nationalistic conflict or separatist movements” (Rahmawati, Susilastuti, Mas’oed and Darwin, 2018) and give confidence in the possibility to achieve social change through non-violent means. As Lee-Koo (2012) puts it: “sustainable and comprehensive peace in Aceh cannot be secured without recognising and accounting for the impact that the conflict has upon gendered identities”. The author further affirms that the lack of inclusivity at the negotiators’ table resulted not only in the “marginalisation of a number of actors invested in peace, but also in the sidelining of a range of issues central to the possibilities of organic and sustainable peace” (Lee-Ko, 2012). That strong statement therefore urges to examine the very content of the peace agreement.

The Memorandum of Understanding: focus on power-sharing and institutions
The MoU mainly focused on economic and political power-sharing (Lee-Ko, 2012). Despite a few provisions on reintegration and human-rights, most of the text related to institutional arrangements. The MoU indeed set out the principles of effective “self-government” in Aceh (Conciliation Resources, 2008), which would be further detailed in the the Law on the Governing of Aceh (LoGA). The province would thus enjoy extended political and economic autonomy within Indonesia while definitively renouncing to its independence. Moreover, “70 percent of the country’s natural resources would stay in Aceh” (Lee, 2020). The agreement also stated that elections should be held in April 2006. Local political parties would be authorized – an exception in Indonesia (Lee, 2020). On top of that, the MoU also contained security arrangements, including the relocation of non-organic military and police forces (that is, non-locally recruited officers), as well as GAM demobilization and “decommissioning” of weapons (Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement, 2005). The document also established the AMM, a monitoring body responsible for weapons collection and destruction. Finally, the last section of the text addresses human-rights, proposing the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) among others. The future of the TRC – together with the limited number of provisions dealing with reconciliation in the MoU – let us question the extent the Helsinki process fostered a sustainable peace in Aceh.

“Peace without justice?”  (Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2008)
Despite the letter of the MoU, it took eight years for the TRC to take shape. In December 2013, the Aceh’s provincial legislature “finally voted to create the commission, with a mandate to run from 2016 until 2021” (Hart, 2020). Yet, “the absence of a TRC Law at the national level” has rendered the institution’s work “ineffective” (Putri Budiatri, 2020).  Both former GAM members, as well as the Indonesian military are showing “great reluctance to engage in truth-telling process”. (Aspinall and Zain, 2013). The International Centre for Transitional Justice further exposes a “lack of will to address the involvement of state institutions in serious crimes against civilians” (International Center for Transitional Justice, KontraS, 2011). The failure of transitional justice in Aceh, however, is “breeding resentment that could sow the seeds of a future return to violence” (Hart, 2020). This holds especially true considering that human-rights abuses lied at the very heart of and fuelled the Acehnese conflict. Peace and justice are two complementary notions, which, rather than opposed, need to be reconciled. As Umar Hamid, Indonesia director of Amnesty International, sums up: “peace is not enough if no truth is established about the past and victims are left to suffer without reparation” (Hamid, 2018).

New conflict patterns and perceptible tensions
The resolution of the conflict between the GoI and the GAM does not mean that violence or tensions have disappeared. Conflict resolution does not equate to conflict transformation (Wallensteen, 2011). While the former often refers to the conclusion of an agreement to end violence (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2016), conflict transformation, for its part, goes beyond the mere ending of violence as it seeks constructive change. Not only does it aim at transforming the violent dynamic, but also the actors, their relationship as well as the broader context (Salamanca, 2021).Conflict transformation focuses on addressing the root causes of conflict, and satisfying the core needs of people.

Resolving conflict in Aceh has given birth to new patterns of conflict (Ansori, 2012). First of all, former GAM elites have started to compete for economic and political power (The New Humanitarian, 2014). Such tensions can be illustrated by the party’s split in 2012.

Un avis sur « Conflict in Aceh and the Helsinki peace process: peacebuilding or building peace? »

  1. Coucou Mélina,

    Super intéressant ça 😊

    Tu en ferais pas un post LinkedIn ?

    Ca commencera à te rendre visible à des personnes qui ont ce centre d’intérêt en commun avec toi.

    J’espère que tu es toujours en forme comme ta mère t’a vue le week-end dernier.

    Bisous ❤



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