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Post-Conflict Aceh

Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad
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Post-Conflict Aceh

After the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between GAM (the Free Aceh Movement) and the Indonesian government in Helsinki on 15 August 2005—ending decades of conflict—there have been many social changes in Aceh. The essay that follows will focus on some issues that continue to cause major problems in Aceh: the role of ex-combatants in socio-political life, the establishment of the office of Wali Nanggroe (the guardian of state), and the security situation, including crime and terrorism.

The Origin of Conflict

There have been many studies on the peace process in Aceh since 2001. Damien Kingsbury explains that “GAM is a nationalist organization the political goals of which are explicitly based on territory rather than religion” (Kingsbury, 166). The movement was founded by Dr. Tgk. Hasan di Tiro, a grandson of Tgk. Chik di Tiro, a national hero from Aceh during the war between Aceh and the Dutch. Hasan di Tiro insisted that Aceh should be an independent state, which he referred to as a “successor state.” As in many conflict areas in the Southeast Asian region such as southern Thailand and Mindanao, Hasan di Tiro claimed that Aceh was not a part of Indonesia. This ethno-nationalist movement began their activities in 1976, with Hasan di Tiro as Wali Nanggroe.

Hasan di Tiro recruited many young Acehnese as combatants. It is said by a former combatant that his troops were not likely to have read the Green Book authored by Muʿammar al-Qadhdhāfī, which explains why GAM’s members have been less radical than other young Muslims from other countries who have been trained in Libya. It is also reported that the Acehnese soldiers were inspired by the fact that Aceh had its own kingdom and was not a part of Indonesia. If they had been allowed to read Muʿammar al-Qadhdhāfī’s Green Book, their mission would possibly resemble what has transpired in Pattani and Mindanao. There have been reports that when Acehnese were being trained, many of the young members came from Pattani and Mindanao. Subsequently, after their training in Libya, they were also opposed to the central government in Thailand and the Philippines.


After more than thirty years of conflict, on 15 August 2005, GAM signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Indonesian government. On the same day, the International Crisis Group (ICG) released an Update Briefing highlighting some urgent issues that needed to be taken into account: “Finding appropriate channels for the widest possible dissemination of information about the agreement in Indonesian and Acehnese, with an explanation of how it differs from the failed 2002 agreement; coordinating the different agencies working on amnesty, disarmament, reintegration, monitoring and funding; ensuring that government promises of land, jobs, or social security to various groups are quickly kept; and protecting vulnerable groups, including those who report violations of the agreement” (International Crisis Group, 2005, p. 1.

However, the process of integrating ex-combatants into society has posed significant challenges. At the same time, it has opened an opportunity for GAM members to serve as governors or heads of districts. To make this process go smoothly, GAM changed the name of the organisation to KPA (Komite Peralihan Aceh, the Committee of Aceh Transition).

At the local level, the reintegration program provided ex-combatants with money as compensation. These funds allowed GAM to integrate as members of the larger Acehnese society.

Another part of the integration process was the opportunity offered to Hasan di Tiro to return to Aceh after more than thirty years in exile. In October 2009, he made the trip from Sweden. On the day of his arrival, more than 200,000 people from Aceh were waiting for him in front of the Bayturrahman mosque. He passed away in Banda Aceh on 3 June 2010 and was buried near his grandfather Tgk. Chik di Tiro.

The Aceh Party

On June 4 2007, The GAM established their political party, the Partai Aceh (Aceh Party), chaired by the commander in chief of GAM, Muzakir Manaf. In 2007, the party was able to nominate its own candidate as governor in Aceh. Moreover, in the 2009 local elections, the party won in every district in Aceh. In addition, many of the heads of the districts (seven out of nineteen) in Aceh were GAM members, or received support from GAM. ICG notes that “The KPA served as GAM’s main political machine for mobilising support in the district races and in selected areas in the gubernatorial election. . . . Most members had well-established roots in local communities. As local elections loomed, KPA geared up to follow the directive of GAM’s top body, the National Council (Majelis Nasional), to develop a political base in the spirit of the Helsinki peace agreement. It was KPA that chose candidates, designed campaign strategies and, most importantly, recruited thousands of village-based campaign workers.

However, many believe that the security in Aceh is fragile. There are some factors that have had a detrimental effect on the peace process. The first is the process of integration of ex-militia who fought against the GAM. Many members of this group were trained by the Indonesian military to ensure that Aceh could not be separated from Indonesia. This group played a major role in surrounding central Aceh in order to separate some districts from Aceh The second is the problem of crime, even as GAM has handed over their weapons to AMM (Aceh Monitoring Mission) after the signing of Memorandum of Understanding. It has been reported that GAM has given 1,021 weapons to AMM.

The Wali Nanggroe

Another crucial problem in Aceh is the establishment of the office of Wali Nanggroe. The Helsinki MOU states, in point 1.1.6, that “Kanūn Aceh will be re-established for Aceh respecting the historical traditions and customs of the people of Aceh and reflecting legal requirements of Aceh”. It continues, in point 1.1.7: “The Institution of Wali Nanggroe with all its ceremonial attributes and entitlements will be established” (Aspinnall, p. 75). This is the highest institution in Aceh as proposed by the MOU. Historically, the term Wali Nanggroe is the head a state declared in the Piagam Bate Kureng (the Bate Kureng Charter), a charter on Piagam Tentang Berdirinja Negara Bahagian Atjeh dalam Lingkungan Neara Islâm Indonesia (The Charter on the Establishment of Aceh Federal State under State of Indonesian Islâm) signed on 21 September 1953 by Daud Beureu-eh. Section 3 of this charter explains that the Wali Nanggroe is the title of the head of the federal state and the head of the executive of state, elected by the people of the federal state. When this charter was signed, the first Wali Nanggroe was Tengku Muhammad Daud Beureueh.

Tgk. Hassan di Tiro appointed himself in the role, claiming to be continuing the spirit of Tgk. Daud Beureueh. Indeed, on 22 May 1977 at Halimon Mountain of Aceh Pidie, GAM, which was then called RIA (The Islamic Republic of Aceh) used this title (Wali Nanggroe) for Tgk. Hasan di Tiro and his deputy (Waki Wali Nanggroe), Tgk. Muchtar Yahya Hasbi Geudong. Surprisingly, RIA gave another new title for Tgk. Daud Beureueh, that of Mufti Empat (Fourth Islamic Jurist Council).

Lately, the revival of adat institutions has been promoted under the institution of MAA (Majelis Adat Aceh). Again, it is unclear about the repositioning of adat institutions in Aceh. Recently, there have been qanūns and laws passed as part of the implementation of the point from the MOU to revive the adat institution in Aceh. Qanūn No. 8 of 2008 on Development of Custom (chapter IV, article 6, point 1) states that: “The Wali Nanggroe is responsible to sustain, develop, protect, and to maintain adat, customs and cultures.” Furthermore, Qanūn No.10 of 2008 on Customary Institutions states that: The institution of Wali Nanggroe is an adat leadership institution intended to unify society and to sustain custom and cultural lives.

The Terrorism Issue

In February 2010, there was a terrorist attack in Aceh. Two months earlier, the police had been warned about a terrorist military camp in Jalin, a village eighteen miles (thirty kilometers) from Jantho city. The warnings went unheeded, largely because it was assumed that terrorist activities associated with the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were more concentrated in Java, rather than in Aceh. Jones argues that the reason the terrorists set up a military camp in Aceh is they wanted to build qaidah aminah (safety area) in the province, an argument supported by the fact that Aceh has since begun to implement Islamic law (Jones, 2010). The arrival of terrorists can be traced to the period after the 2004 tsunami when they had established the network among the ustaz in Aceh.

This development has had a negative impact on the peace process in Aceh. Many have accused the Acehnese of terrorism, placing not only national but also international attention on the region. The government responded to terrorist activity by conducting military operations in the area. Many suspected JI terrorists were killed by Densus 88 (Special Detachment 88) during their operations near Seulawah mountain, in Lhoknga, and in Medan. In Jakarta, the most wanted man in Southeast Asia, Dulmatin, was killed in Banten province on 9 March 2010; police believed that he had opened a cell in Aceh, and that he, along with his friends (Jaja and Sunata), intended to establish a military camp for a new generation of JI in Aceh.

In a meeting among NGO members in Aceh, it was reported that the terrorists wanted to attack international organization offices in Aceh. In the months leading up to the meeting, there had been several attacks on international staff in Banda Aceh, including on an English teacher near UNSYIAH (Syiah Kuala University), and on a German citizen. Some believed that this was a part of a widespread terror campaign against international agencies in Aceh, being waged by an unidentified group in Aceh. However, after some young terrorists were arrested, they claimed responsibility for the attacks.

In addition, there were serious attacks on KPA members in 2009 before the national election, to which neither GAM nor KPA responded adequately. At the same time, President Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, made several trips to Aceh to monitor the peace process amid the ongoing violence. Ahtisaari warned the Indonesian government to take this situation into account, especially the intelligence operations in Aceh. The KPA realized that if they responded through violence, this would give an opportunity for the central government to run a new military operation in Aceh. Finally after the election the Partai Aceh (PA), a GAM party, won in every district as described above. However, violent criminal activity remains.

Finally, there has been an internal conflict among former combatants, a potential source of conflict in the future. In this context, GAM members can be classified into four groups (with some overlap). The first opposes the peace process; the second group agrees with the peace process and enjoys some “integration” in Aceh by serving in parliament and the executive branch; the third group focuses on the daily needs of the people in the region, eschewing politics; and a fourth group consists of those who are likely to be new combatants in near future. This group is not coordinated by the elite of the GAM, and have engaged in some criminal activities in Aceh. Ultimately, an improved economic climate in the region could help to alleviate some of the circumstances that compel people to be a part of this fourth group.

Still, the issue of terrorist and Islamic hardline movements in Aceh during the peace process is still regarded as a religious problem. Some believe that allowing Aceh to implement Islamic law would give an opportunity for the movements to be involved in the peace process. A great deal has changed in Aceh since the Helsinki peace agreement was signed in August of 2005, and it seems clear that many Acehnese embrace these changes at a very basic level. The leaders and financial backers of al-Qaʿida in Aceh have underestimated this, and it would seem that they did not understand the Acehnese struggle was always as much nationalist as Islamist and that a shared rhetoric of jihād does not necessarily imply a shared political agenda.


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