Indonesia: A Triumph for the Government


Edward Aspinall

The government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is not even a year old, and yet it may already have achieved its greatest triumph. Not long ago, most observers thought that peace in Aceh was a fanciful dream. Now it seems possible. The Memorandum of Understanding signed between representatives of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the government in August sets out the broad outlines of a comprehensive political settlement to this decades-old conflict. The first month of implementation has gone very smoothly.

How did this happen? For many years now, Aceh has had all the hallmarks of an intractable conflict. The two sides seemed equally intransigent on their end-goals, and were staring at each other over a gulf of distrust and hatred.

The first key concession was in fact made by the leaders of GAM. At the second round of talks in Helsinki last February they said that they were willing to abandon their independence goal and accept a solution based on Aceh's continued incorporation within the Indonesian republic. This was a key breakthrough and it made the subsequent progress possible.

But leadership on the government side was also crucial. In previous attempts to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict, government negotiators have complained that they lacked clear guidance and support from the senior levels of government. In such circumstances, it became easy for military officers and nationalist politicians to set the agenda, leading to a reliance on security operations.

This time around, the most senior government leaders actively sponsored the peace talks. The role played by the vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, was especially crucial. When nationalist politicians from Indonesia's parliament criticized the government for 'internationalizing' the conflict by holding talks in Helsinki, Kalla explained in simple and straightforward language why talks were necessary and what the costs of continued war would be. He also played an active role setting the agenda for the talks and guiding the negotiators, although he did not attend in person. The president, although one step removed from the process, also put his authority on the line by publicly endorsing it. This attitude took real political courage in circumstances where nationalist out-bidding has made most politicians afraid to lay themselves open to the charge that they were endangering the unitary state.

There are many more challenges ahead. The government still needs to shepherd a new 'Law for Governing Aceh' through the national parliament and it will have to resist the inevitable pressures to be tough on former GAM fighters.

Of course, there are many other problems looming. The Aceh conflict has never been at the heart of Indonesia's reform program. Rooting out corruption, cleaning up the legal system and restoring economic growth all pose challenges no less daunting than the Aceh conflict. But the conflict has caused great human misery in the past, and resolving it will help in other areas, too, especially security sector reform. The government and its leaders deserve praise for their boldness of vision.

WATCHPOINT: The Aceh peace deal is a great achievement for the government, but it does not go to the heart of the challenges confronting Indonesia.


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