Aceh, a testing ground for Susilo's promises

1 Nov 2004
Aguswandi, TAPOL
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Aceh will be the best place to judge whether the new government will be any different from previous regimes in Indonesia. One of the biggest challenges for Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono's government is to resolve the conflict in Aceh peacefully. The way in which Susilo approaches the resolution of the almost 30 years of conflict in Aceh will show whether he is indeed different. Not long after the election, Susilo met with an audience of teachers. He promised he would work to settle the conflict by peaceful means, saying "let us not just go ahead with the military operation". However, he has shown considerable ambiguity. He also stated that the country must remain united, and that there could be no compromise on this. However, Aceh is a place where actions are infinitely more important than words. In the past, many Indonesian politicians have made numerous promises about Aceh while rarely, if ever, doing anything to deliver on them. In Megawati Soekarnoputri's acceptance speech after her election to the presidency, the new leader wept in public and promised that no blood would fall in Aceh during her time in office. Contrary to these tears and promises, the situation in Aceh was allowed to deteriorate afresh until she declared martial law in May 2003.

As in most other places in Indonesia, Susilo won the second round of the presidential election in Aceh. The Acehnese vote for Susilo, however, was largely due to the population's desperation on a number of fronts. The Megawati administration's "solution" to the situation in Aceh not only led to bitter disappointment and more failed promises but to the worsening of daily existence on a scale not even seen under Soeharto. Under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters opted for the only change available and voted for Susilo.

Yet, Susilo was endorsed only reluctantly by the Acehnese. He did not win in the first round of the presidential election. That round saw the majority of votes go to Amien Rais, due in large part to his well-known criticism of the Megawati government's policy in the province. The vote for him was also stimulated by his close association with Muhammadiyah, whose local and national leaders have vigorously criticized military operations in Aceh.

The vote was an effort to send an indisputable message to Jakarta, showing an unequivocal majority rejection of the government's approach to Aceh. Once Amien was knocked out at the national level, Aceh lost their only reasonably representative candidate, and recognized that an overt rejection of Megawati was the best remaining option.

Susilo should immediately work to improve the situation in Aceh. His much touted legitimacy, as the country's first directly elected president, provides him with a powerful platform from which to pursue peace. Re-engaging in dialogue with GAM, and giving the non-partisan population space at the negotiating table, will always be hugely unpopular for nationalistic Indonesia, but Susilo's unique position may mean he can take this path to a peaceful solution.

Susilo needs to assess the current military approach immediately. The new government should stop and evaluate the administration of martial law from May 2003 to May 2004, as well as monitoring and reviewing the events of the civil emergency administration to date. It is imperative that an impartial assessment be made as to how these military operations were conducted. How many civilian have been killed? Susilo should also immediately respond to rampant human rights violations in Aceh, which were allegedly committed by government troops as reported by Komnas HAM, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch.

The government should show its commitment to a new and productive approach in Aceh by opening access to the province. Independent rights groups that are currently not allowed into the province can make clear and credible assessments of the human rights situation in Aceh. Aceh should also be accessible to national and international journalists.

The other critical way to move forward in Aceh requires the new government to lay out their strategy for a viable, credible peace process. Susilo has stated, on many occasions, that he would like to see the situation in Aceh improve. What is not clear yet is what actions he will be taking to bring about this improvement.

On the contrary, he continues to cling to ambiguity and abstract commitments. It is now imperative that Susilo shows the Acehnese that he really does want to bring about peace and positive changes in Aceh.

The writer is an Acehnese Human Rights Activist and Researcher at TAPOL, The Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, based in London. He can be reached at

Tagged: Aceh