Don’t Lay Down Your Arms, Aceh Edition

As part of a new paper, I’ve been doing research on decentralization in Aceh, Indonesia. Bringing to a conclusion an approximately 20-year insurgency, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Indonesian government came together in a spirit of comity following the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami and signed a peace deal giving the region ample new autonomy. Or so the usual story goes.

Here’s the reality. GAM came to terms with the Indonesian government because a brutal military offensive, paired with the imposition of martial law, had reduced their numbers significantly. Still, giving up their dream of independence for Aceh was a bitter pill. In the end, they agreed to the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding, which provided for the laying down of rebel weapons and new autonomy for Aceh.

That Memorandum of Understanding was never implemented in full. In particular, two provisions – the ability of Aceh to enact primary legislation without central government veto and the ability of Aceh to veto Indonesian treaties and other laws under certain circumstances, were not included in the final bill passed by the Indonesian legislature. In addition:

The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and dozens of NGOs complain that the new law falls short of the autonomy provisions in the 2005 accord and allows considerable interference by the central government:

Central government powers: Article 11 stipulates that the central government sets the norms, standards and procedures and also monitors all affairs of the Aceh regional administration.

Control over natural resources: Aceh is to retain 70 percent of revenues from its natural resources. But Article 160 stipulates that the management of oil and gas resources in Aceh will be done jointly by the provincial administration and the central government. This is a departure from earlier pledges by Indonesian lawmakers that the Acehnese administration could manage its own resources.

Role of the Indonesian military: The peace accord stipulated that the Indonesian military would be stationed in Aceh only for national defense and would not participate in provincial affairs. But Article 193 of the law gives the army powers within the province.

Human rights: Perpetrators of human rights violations will likely escape justice. An ad-hoc tribunal (Article 215) will only hear cases that occur after its establishment, rather than having retroactive powers.

Aceh even lacks the ability to levy its own taxes, apart from a trivial “alms” tax for poor relief. Thus, Aceh’s autonomy is far less than that enjoyed by, say, Rhode Island. The only new autonomy Aceh received in the peace deal was the right to form local political parties. Otherwise, the main provision was to transfer significant hydrocarbon revenues to the province. With one hand, the Indonesian government double-crossed the former rebels and took away their ability to go their own way on economic policy, and with the other, they bought them off — but of course, that bribe comes with an implicit threat: behave or else we take it back.

How did the Indonesian government get away with the double-cross? Simple: the rebels came down from the hills and gave up their arms before the government took up the autonomy law. There was nothing GAM could do to retaliate against the government’s perfidy.

The lesson for rebels is clear: don’t give up your arms. The implications for conflict-torn West Papua are depressing.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Lay Down Your Arms, Aceh Edition

    1. The war was terrible. Also, the Indonesian government went back on their promises to the rebels. Had GAM known what would happen after signing the peace agreement, they likely never would have done so.

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