Aceh – building on peace

7 October 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

‘Fifty-fifty’, says Darlin, my driver. I have asked him how the governor of Indonesia’s Aceh province – whose offices we are passing – is doing. Darlin reflects on the question further. ‘Fifty-fifty’, he repeats, laughing, perhaps at his own little insubordination or my impertinence in asking.

The governor in question is Irwandi Yusuf, veterinarian and environmentalist. In 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami found Irwandi in his prison cell. He had been put there by Indonesian security forces, arrested the previous year as a senior operative in Aceh’s separatist movement. Irwandi escaped the rising waters by punching his way through the prison roof.

Irwandi’s problems today are of a more prosaic variety: Endemic unemployment, investment issues, the mild censure of passing drivers.

Darlin withholds his approval but doesn’t begrudge the governor his status. ‘The king of Banda Aceh!’, he declares, gesturing at the large, pleasant building, which is bedecked in the red and white of the Indonesian flag.

It is the week after Indonesia’s independence day. Across this vast archipelago of 17,000 islands and 230 million people, 65 years of independence from Holland has just been celebrated.

This is where things get complicated. Banda Aceh may now fly the same patriotic banners as the Javanese cities of Bogor, Bandung and Jakarta, but its history is very different. Soon after the Dutch colonialists left, an Islamic insurgency began fighting the new, secular Indonesian government in Aceh. That rebellion was put down in 1962.

A new rebel movement asserted Acehnese independence in 1976. ‘We intend to be the masters in our own house’, declared the leader of the Free Aceh Movement, Hasan di Tiro. ‘The only way life is worth living’. The rebels accused the Indonesian government of looting Aceh’s natural resource wealth.

For the next three decades the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) fought an intermittent guerrilla war against Indonesian security forces. The conflict ended when the tsunami struck, killing an estimated 170,000 people in Aceh and devastating the province. GAM declared a unilateral ceasefire. Within a year, in 2005, a peace deal had been agreed and Aceh had been promised unique autonomy within Indonesia. GAM leader di Tiro blessed the peace from his exile in Sweden.

The peace allowed for a massive reconstruction effort, coordinated by the Indonesian government, fuelled by billions in foreign aid and carried out by hundreds of NGOs working with the Acehnese.

More than five years later, that effort is winding down. Houses and roads have been rebuilt and new trees have grown. There is an air of normalcy about the city. Cafes and markets crowd with people after dark when the Ramadan fast is broken. Few foreigners are left, and most of them will be gone after 2011, once the remaining World Bank-coordinated programmes end.

I meet one such foreigner at a pizza restaurant called Pace Bene – contracted from the Latin, it is the motto of St Francis of Assisi: ‘peace and all good’. Here, project workers in small groups eat, drink and talk. Some are enjoying the advertised pizzas. ‘Wash it down with a glass of wine’, suggests the restaurant guide sent to me in lieu of directions. This defies the Sharia law which Aceh’s autonomous legislature voted to enforce (and as the man in this photo could attest, enforced it certainly is).

We discuss cooperation with the local authorities, the creation of small businesses focused on recycling and the uses to which tsunami wood has been put (furniture for tourists, in some cases).

A number of foreigners I speak to stress that the Acehnese deserve most of the credit for the recovery. The chance to meet some local policymakers arrives the next night in a hotel lobby. It’s a very different scene to Pace Bene. Large groups huddle around tables drinking coffee and smoking while music blares from speakers, making conversations completely private.

Two of the governor’s advisers tell me about their plans to attract investment and make Aceh an environmental innovator. A member of the legislature passes, wearing a songkok – the traditional black cap favoured by Indonesian men of affairs. The young officials stand to acknowledge him. Their enthusiasm for their projects sounds genuine. Like their governor and like the foreign aid workers, they are (as Teddy Roosevelt said) in the arena. And a senior adviser to the governor who has a Facebook page that you can ‘like’ must have something going for him.

The rebel leader Hasan di Tiro died in June, a day after his Indonesian citizenship was reinstated. The Aceh he leaves behind faces tough challenges but a peace to confront them in and reasons to be hopeful.

Stephen Minas graduated from the London School of Economics in 2009. He has written for various publications in Australia and the UK and has reported on-air for Radio Television Hong Kong. He was recently on assignment in Aceh. You can follow him on Twitter @StephenMinas