Saturday, August 21, 2010

Aceh: The maintenance and dividends of peace

Nearly five years after the signing of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding that ended three decades of war between the Government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), it is crucial to deeply reflect on this agreement: how has it contributed to peace? Who are the real beneficiaries of its dividends? And in particular, what has peace meant for women?

There is no denying that the people of Aceh are faring much better today as compared to the time of violent conflict. But the fact that, for ordinary people, peace is always better than war whatever the circumstances, is a simple truism. The reality in Aceh is that the peace agreement was triggered and pushed by the 2004 tsunami. And its current sustainability is also due also to the massive and sudden tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction funds injected into a small community. The fact that the bubble did not burst when the reconstruction programmes ended is due to the inherent Acehnese business acumen that used these funds wisely in local investments. However, economic improvement, especially when it is limited to the elite in Aceh, does not automatically translate into improved well-being for ordinary people, given that equal political rights, justice and social welfare remain weak or absent. If no clear and specific goals are set, Aceh is faced with a “frameless transition”.[1]

Women who bore the brunt of atrocities during the conflict are still being left out of key decision-making processes – just as they were from the peace process.

Acehnese women, for instance, were unable to critically react against the discriminative implementation of the so-called Sharia law. GAM, as a former fighting force, is by nature a male dominated organisation. This transpired into all its actions during the war, the peace negotiations and peace time. To its credit, it did include a woman (myself) in its nine member negotiating team in Helsinki. A lot more could have been done however to include women’s perspectives and priorities.

Woefully, the ‘subject’ of women and gender never made it onto GAM’s agenda, or in the peace negotiations and following peace process, despite women playing a range of significant roles in the war . The Indonesian Government did not help much either. Not only did it allow atrocities committed by its armed forces against women during the conflict to remain unaddressed, but it did not include any women in its negotiating team. It is now also silencing dissent by providing assistance only to women’s organisations dealing with what some cynics call “neutral assistance”: micro-financing projects for home industries and similar projects. Those working to enhance political awareness amongst women are generally and deliberately neglected, unless they are part of a wing of male-dominated organisations such as a political party. Women are given token seats in official bodies such as the Parliament, in order to adhere to the Indonesian electoral regulation that calls for, but does not oblige political parties participating in elections to include at least 30% of women candidates.

Compounding these frustrations is the weakness of the international community. Unfortunately, even United Nations (UN) bodies, foreign missions and large international NGOs have adopted the Government’s approach in disbursing funding assistance, under the pretext of not wanting to interfere in local political matters. While Western powers are constantly protesting against the radicalization of Islam in Aceh, they are unwilling to lift a finger to help those fighting against such phenomenon.

Aceh has transformed itself back into “a real Indonesian province” given that many crucial clauses of the Helsinki Agreement pointing to self-government have been watered down in the Law on Governing Aceh (Undang Undang pemerintahan Aceh/2006). There has been, and is, a failure to produce the essential democratic movement fought for and supposedly won in Helsinki. Those currently holding power in Aceh are blaming the Indonesian Government for failing to implement the true nature of democracy in Aceh, which is partly true. But then, the practice of democracy cannot be “given”; one has to embrace it. For women in Aceh, a whole new set of problems has emerged in the peace we longed for through three decades. This has led to our diverse needs being further marginalized and diminished. What we need are courageous allies and strategic support. Could we perhaps find them in the celebration of the 10th year of SCR 1325?

[1] Olle Tornquist (2008), The Role of Democracy in Post Tsunami Efforts at Peace and Reconstruction in Aceh and Sri Lanka, University of Oslo.

About the author: Shadia Marhaban was a member of the support group for the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) during the Helsinki negotiations (2005). She was the only female representative in the peace talks. After the peace agreement was signed, she returned to Aceh from her exile in the United States. Since 2006, she has been the president of the Aceh Women’s League (LINA), which works to assist female ex-combatants take part in reintegration and political processes in post-conflict Aceh. Ms. Marhaban also co-founded the executive board of the School of Peace and Democracy Aceh in 2007

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