‘Don’t Disturb The Peace’: Post-Conflict Politics In Aceh, Indonesia


When the tsunami came, tens of thousands of people were swallowed up in minutes by the waves. But here in this village, we were taken away two at a time, five at a time, ten at a time, for years. The families of those killed by the tsunami all have new houses, new motorbikes, new jobs. The whole world cried for them. But here we have nothing. And nobody knows what we have suffered.

– Woman in Bireuen District, Aceh, Indonesia


In August of 2010, I began an ethnographic project investigating how the internationally-lauded peace agreement signed in 2005 by the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka [GAM]) had transformed the cultural and political landscape of Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province. As an anthropologist specializing in issues of conflict, violence, and transitional justice in Southeast Asia, I had celebrated, along with colleagues from the Indonesian human rights movement, the seeming end to a devastating, decades-long armed conflict that had led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives and to the routinization of military violence, intimidation, corruption and the gross exploitation of Aceh’s extensive natural resources. The 2005 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), crafted in Finland with the help of an international negotiating team, promised not only to halt armed hostilities, but to provide Aceh with a level of autonomy unique among the nation’s provinces. The MoU offered Acehnese the rights to form local political parties, to implement shari’a law, and to control a far greater share of its own wealth, including revenues from timber, mining and the vast Arun natural gas fields that by the 1990s, before Mobil Oil’s 1999 merger with Exxon, were providing the company with 25% of its global profits and returning an estimated US$1.2 billion a year to Indonesia’s central treasury.1

However, early in my fieldwork, crowded under a bamboo shelter with a dozen Acehnese women survivors of the conflict, I began to grasp a much more complex story. For years, but especially from 1989-1998, when Aceh was declared a Military Operations Area (Daerah Operasi Militer [DOM]) and martial law was imposed on the province, the village I was visiting had been a site of fear and trauma. The Indonesian military, which at the height of the conflict deployed 50,000 troops to secure a population of around 4 million Acehnese, had turned their campaign against GAM into a program of widespread terror towards civilians, with men and boys “disappeared” in the night and women and girls subject to military surveillance, interrogation, and sexual abuse. These women told me of watching their daughters raped by soldiers, of nursing their sons’ wounds from conflict and torture, and of struggling to eke a living from their lands when access to fields and markets was barred by combat or by military roadblocks, where soldiers often extorted money from civilians.2 Peace had come to their village after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – which decimated Banda Aceh, the province’s capital, and took an estimated 170,000 lives – led GAM to declare a cease-fire and made it impossible for the government to continue to prohibit outside access to the province, opening the door for an internationally-mediated settlement.

But the hopes of these women that the violations that had been inflicted upon them would be addressed, and that their everyday needs and aspirations would be fulfilled, had not come to pass with the cessation of armed hostilities. Not only had they not been touched by the waves of international aid that had flooded tsunami-affected communities with reconstruction projects, they had been told by local and national elites that speaking about what had happened to them during the conflict, and how the effects of war and inequality still constrained their lives, would be disloyal to their communities and dangerous for a fragile peace process. Most parties to the conflict – including former GAM combatants now in power – seemed to prefer to “move on” from the past, consolidating their political influence and promoting a post-conflict development strategy that emphasized attracting outside investment to a newly secure and stable Aceh. “‘Don’t disturb the peace,’ that’s what they tell us,” one woman said to me. “‘Just move on from the past and don’t think about that anymore.’ But we cannot forget, especially when our lives are still filled with struggle.”

Disturbed by the stories I heard from ordinary Acehnese, I returned to the province in the summer of 2011, with the support of George Mason University’s Center for Global Studies. This time, my aim was to delve more systematically into the sociopolitical tensions that were fragmenting “post-peace” Aceh. I was interested in exploring answers to a number of linked questions: How can the framings of conflict, peace and justice offered by international and national elites be reconciled with the needs and claims of conflict-affected communities? How do the narratives that are constructed to explain conflict, or to promote peace, amplify or constrain political possibility, foregrounding certain powerful sense-making practices while casting others as marginal, destabilizing or outside of the realms of logic or likelihood? How do these frameworks legitimize certain ways of addressing the past and structuring the future, while delegitimizing others? Hearing “don’t disturb the peace” echo across diverse social spaces, I wondered: why were stories like those of the women I met now being deemed unruly and problematic when tales of Acehnese suffering had, in years past, been the currency of Acehnese claims to autonomy? What did it mean, and whom did it empower, to view “peace” as a fragile entity that must be protected from memory, critique or counter-imagination? And what might happen, theoretically and politically, if we saw “peace” not as the endpoint to conflict, bringing closure on a past, but as an opening to new forms of narrative and narrative circulation?

I quickly realized that it would be difficult to really understand what was occurring in Aceh without considering the assemblage of practical and discursive technologies that made up the province’s humanitarian landscape. After the tsunami, Aceh became something of a laboratory for humanitarian aid, with almost 500 international organizations at work in the province. Not only was this reconstruction assistance crucial to rebuilding Aceh’s devastated infrastructure, many Acehnese now claim that this international attention to Aceh’s post-disaster plight was in large part responsible for creating conditions of visibility and concern that could ensure the rule of law and security provisions of the MoU would actually be implemented.

At the same time, humanitarian assistance also led to a number of problematic social reconfigurations. Foreign donor projects were not always oriented towards local needs, and the structural imperatives of development – e.g. pressures to increase “burn rate” and spend money faster rather than better, or donor competition to mark and market their efforts – often led to questionable outcomes. Expensive hospital machinery that staff didn’t know how to use, houses built with “modern” cement blocks too hot to be occupied during the daytime, and fishermen whose donated bright orange-painted boats, the color identifying the projects of that particular international NGO, scared away the catch were just some of a great many examples I encountered of this trend. Even more troubling was the extension into Aceh of what has been termed “disaster capitalism.”34 in which the needs of communities are marginalized in favor of neoliberal economic restructuring and the privatization of aid, a situation that Indonesian scholar George Aditjondro documented in a scathing overview of the crony capitalist networks linking multinational corporations, Indonesian government and business elites, and influential Acehnese to the post-tsunami political economy.5

But another issue that has received less critical attention concerns the frameworks that have been used to map and position Aceh and its troubles, with international donors often failing to sufficiently acknowledge that Acehnese were suffering not only the effects of natural disaster but of the “unnatural disaster” of an intense armed conflict. Less than 10% of donor aid was allocated for post-conflict projects or communities, leading to stark imbalances between coastal and inland areas and to strong social jealousies on the part of many conflict victims, who often simply could not understand why their damaged bodies, psyches, or property seemed to be valued at a lower rate than those of their tsunami-affected compatriots. Meanwhile, the post-conflict programs that were implemented tended to place far greater emphasis on the political and economic reintegration of GAM combatants than on providing for the needs of civilian conflict victims or promoting justice for past violations.67 Both the large sums of money circulating through Aceh in the form of post-disaster aid, and the shape that aid has and has not taken, have led to new local conflicts8, which in turn became far more difficult to publicly and honestly discuss when Acehnese were warned away from critique in the name of a fragile “peace.”

This narrowed space of discourse has clearly impacted possibilities for advocating and implementing reconciliation after the Aceh conflict. The 2005 MoU included, in addition to provisions for amnesty and reintegration assistance for former GAM fighters, a slate of transitional justice mechanisms, including the establishment of a Human Rights Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and the disbursement of reparations to civilian victims of the conflict.9 Yet as of today, many of these elements of the MoU have yet to be implemented. Some of the challenges have been procedural ones; the Aceh TRC was framed by the MoU as part of the national TRC authorized by Indonesia’s parliament in 2004, but declared unconstitutional by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in 2006 after human rights activists challenged the clause offering complete amnesty for perpetrators of human rights violations in exchange for testimony. Other hurdles have, however, reflected discursive constrictions similar to those that have blocked ordinary Acehnese from playing a fuller role in determining the shape of post-disaster and post-conflict development.

The MoU itself was the result of a highly exclusive negotiation process that saw very little civil society participation and that participants and commentators have claimed was driven by pressure to come to a quick and minimalist agreement while the eyes of the world were still on Aceh in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, limiting the scope of human rights and transitional justice provisions in the final document.10 Consultation and debate were not part of the peace process, nor have they been universally welcomed in its aftermath, with many Acehnese activists and ordinary citizens convinced that both the Government of Indonesia and former GAM politicians fear the repercussions of a more robust dialogue about the abuses that occurred during the conflict years. For these critics, painting “peace” as a tenuous gain, easily undone by references to the past or alternate visions of the future, often seems an intentional strategy to guard elite power against challenges.

Similar issues can be seen at work in the arena of resource extraction and the circulation of resource profits. Since the early 1970s, when the Arun gas fields were opened to exploration, and both the Indonesian military and the newly-formed GAM began to illegally log Aceh’s forests to financially fuel their armed campaigns, a highly skewed distribution of resource revenues and the desire to secure profits has been intimately linked to the conflict. During the decades of fighting, the vast majority of Aceh’s wealth went directly to Jakarta, with less then 5% returned to Aceh in the form of funding for the provincial government, whose officials were themselves appointed from the capital. Maintenance of such striking inequality required a heavy-handed security approach, with the Indonesian military entering into close alliance with multinational corporate actors to safeguard their unimpeded access to the province. Given such histories, it was unsurprising that crucial keys to GAM’s agreement to the MoU were the provisions to allocate 70% of this wealth to the provincial government, to allow Aceh to negotiate and contract directly for foreign direct investment, and to allow local political parties, whose elected officials would be positioned to influence economic development decisions.

Yet this process has been fraught with problems. Despite GAM’s long history of often-violent opposition to Exxon-Mobil’s operations for returning little to the Acehnese people, the post-MoU period has seen an explosion of resource extraction activities, including what environmental activists cite as 200-plus new contracts signed with mining companies to tap Aceh’s mineral wealth. New corporate players, including Chinese and Malaysian companies, are now operating in the province, many of them conducting open-pit operations shipping raw materials directly overseas for processing, leaving little benefit to local communities and substantial environmental and social damage. Local NGO personnel, who in 2011 occupied the governor’s office to call an end to mining in Aceh, claim that this expansion of extractive industry has fueled conflict not only between companies and local communities, who have often been pressured to give up their land for minimal compensation, but in the political domain, as lucrative “bonuses” paid to contracting government officials drive campaign rivalries. The decentralization of these agreements has made them more difficult for activists to track, and more difficult to challenge when local officials evoke the fragile gains of peace and accuse critics of disloyalty to those who fought for an end to conflict.

But perhaps the most glaring example of the language of “protecting the peace” being used to derail criticism can be found in the case against Exxon-Mobil. In 2001, an international team of lawyers used the Alien Tort Claims Act to file suit against Exxon-Mobil in the U.S. courts on behalf of 11 Acehnese plaintiffs claiming to have been illegally detained and tortured by Indonesian military forces contracted by the company to provide security for the Arun gas fields.11 Exxon-Mobil’s first line of defense was that they were forced by the Indonesian government to contract with its armed forces for security, and that the company had no knowledge or control over the alleged abuses. But reporting on the case by the International Center for Transitional Justice details how Exxon-Mobil also raised the specter of a derailed peace to deflect the charges against it:

A secondary argument raised by Exxon Mobil is that post-conflict initiatives in Aceh following the 2005 Helsinki MoU have provided a suitable framework for redress and compensation. As a result lawyers for Exxon Mobil argue it is inappropriate for the U.S. litigation to proceed, since it could result in a disparity in outcome for the 11 plaintiffs over other Acehnese victims. The ensuing imbalance, the company argued, might undermine post-conflict reconciliation….Exxon Mobil argues that the litigation would undermine the success of post-Helsinki initiatives and have negative impacts on Aceh’s fragile peace process.12

A rather glaring logical flaw in Exxon-Mobil’s argument is, of course, the fact that the reconciliation processes agreed to in the MoU have not, in fact, taken place, and indeed have been hindered in part by such claims as to the “fragility” of peace.

Today, it is difficult to predict precisely what the future holds for Aceh. After years of stalled transitional justice efforts, a provincial truth and reconciliation commission may be back on the political agenda following the April 2012 Aceh elections, which saw the installation of a new governor, Zaini Abdullah, a former GAM foreign minister who has expressed support for increased implementation of the reconciliation provisions of the 2005 MoU. Local human rights organizations, most notably KontraS Aceh (The Commission on the Disappeared and Victims of Violence), have been holding “local truth and reconciliation commissions” to allow conflict survivors to share their stories. And while it remains highly unlikely that the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Indonesian military in Aceh – or, for that matter, elsewhere in the country – will soon be addressed in Indonesian courts, the case against Exxon-Mobil winding its way through the U.S. justice system promises to focus a modicum of international attention on the ongoing struggle to achieve recognition of Acehnese suffering, as well to highlight the roles of unrestrained resource exploitation and corporate complicity in exacerbating violent conflicts.

At the same time, there are a number of unresolved challenges facing Aceh. Local human rights and environmental activists face the difficult task of devising strategies to challenge the actions of corporations from “emerging donor”13 countries, entities that may prove even less vulnerable to international pressure or legal process than Western multinationals. Increasing frustration at the unfulfilled promises of local politicians to ensure a more just distribution of resources and to halt entrenched legacies of corruption and impunity have lent credence to local Islamist leaders, who have promoted rigid, anti-pluralist interpretations of shari’a as a panacea for Aceh’s continuing social ills. And for ordinary Acehnese, like the women whose stories first inspired my research commitments, a future in which peace extends to the provision of legal and social justice, as well as spaces through which to circulate their own narratives of what Aceh might learn from its past, remains a distant hope.

Leslie Dwyer is an Assistant Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. A cultural anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Princeton University, her work has focused on issues of violence, post-conflict social life, transitional justice, the politics of memory and identity, gender, and globalizing discourses of human rights and psychosocial repair. Her research on mass violence, transitional justice and post-conflict politics in Indonesia has been supported by a MacArthur Foundation International Peace and Security fellowship, a H.F. Guggenheim Foundation grant, and grants from the United States Institute of Peace. Her current project is a documentary film called “The American Road” that investigates life along the 150-kilometer highway funded by the United States Agency for International Development as the centerpiece of its post-disaster aid efforts in Aceh.

Jill Foley is a graduate of Boston University’s Master of Science in Photojournalism program. She also holds a BA in Anthropology, Latin American Studies and Spanish from Haverford College in Pennsylvania. In the summer of 2011, she traveled to Aceh, along with Dr. Leslie Dwyer, to document the post-conflict reconstruction process.


  1. International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). 2008. A Matter of Complicity? Exxon Mobil on Trial for its Role in Human Rights Violations in Aceh. New York: International Center for Transitional Justice Case Studies. []
  2. Aspinall, Edward. 2005. Aceh/Indonesia Conflict Analysis and Options for Systemic Conflict Transformation. Berlin: Berghof Foundation for Peace Support working papers. []
  3. Adams, Vincanne 2012. “The Other Road to Serfdom: Recovery by the Market and the Affect Economy in New Orleans.” Public Culture 24 (1 66): 185-216. []
  4. Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Holt. []
  5. Aditjondro, George Junus 2007. Profiting from Peace: The Political Economy of Aceh’s Post-Helsinki Reconstruction. Working Paper No. 3. Brussels: International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development. []
  6. Aspinall, Edward. 2008. Peace Without Justice? The Helsinki Peace Process in Aceh. Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue Report, April 2008. []
  7. As Aspinall (2008) notes, both the reintegration and reparations process have been plagued by multiple ills, some stemming from the fact that the 2005 MoU provided for assistance packages for only 3,000 GAM combatants when the actual number of fighters was much higher, and others stemming from the vagueness of the MoU itself, which left the delivery of reparations up to the Government of Indonesia, which after several failed and controversial attempts to work with civilian victims and communities ultimately coordinated with a World Bank village development program to offer social development aid to conflict-affected communities rather than reparations for individuals or families. []
  8. A comprehensive analysis of these “post-peace conflicts” is outside of the scope of this brief discussion, but these have included contestations over reconstruction contracts and management, disagreements about the role and authority of the so-called “syariah police,” protests against proliferating mining operations, and conflicts surrounding allegations of misappropriated donor funds and “signing bonuses” for corporate contracts, funds that also fueled infighting among factions of Aceh’s new political parties leading to high tensions and sporadic violence around the 2012 provincial elections. []
  9. According to the MoU, “all civilians who have suffered a demonstrable loss due to the conflict will receive an allocation of suitable farming land, employment or, in the case of incapacity to work, adequate social security from the authorities of Aceh.” []
  10. Aspinall, Edward. 2008. Peace Without Justice? The Helsinki Peace Process in Aceh. Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue Report, April 2008. []
  11. See the ICTJ report “A Matter of Complicity? Exxon Mobil on Trial for its Role in Human Rights Violations in Aceh” (ICTJ 2008) for a detailed discussion of the case. The Acehnese plaintiffs’ counsel first filed claims in the U.S. in 2001, both in federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and the Torture Victims’ Protection Act (TVPA) and in Washington D.C. district court under common law tort for offences including wrongful death, assault and arbitrary detention. A motion by Exxon-Mobil to dismiss the first two cases was successful after the U.S. State Department submitted legal opinions claiming that proceeding with the cases would adversely affect U.S. interests, including maintaining Indonesian state support for the U.S.-led “war on terror” and promoting U.S. investment in Indonesia. Most recently, however, a federal appeals court in Washington D.C. ruled that the claims under the ATCA can indeed now go to trial (Wall Street Journal 2011. “Exxon Hit by Reversal in Human Rights Case.” July 9, 2011.). []
  12. International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) 2008. A Matter of Complicity? Exxon Mobil on Trial for its Role in Human Rights Violations in Aceh. New York: International Center for Transitional Justice Case Studies. []
  13. Paczynska, Agnieszka. 2011. “Emerging Donors and Post-Conflict Reconstruction.” Global Studies Review 7(3). []


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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 30th, 2012 at 12:42 am and is filed under Asia, Ethnicity, Foreign Aid, Human Rights, NGO, Peace and Conflict, Resources, Transitional Justice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


One Response to “‘Don’t Disturb The Peace’: Post-Conflict Politics In Aceh, Indonesia”

  1. John Morhall Says:

    I am totally new to the area of conflict resolution, undertaking it as part of an LLM at Singapore Management University. I was interested to read in the Jakarta Post last week that the Indonesian Government has advised the UNHCR that they will establish a truth and reconciliation commission, presumably to deal with Aceh, Papua, Timor Leste et al. I would be interested to know your thoughts in relation to Aceh as to whether this will be part of a healing process in relation to the abuses and violations during the hostilities; or whether it will open old wounds and exacerbate tensions. I intend to write a short paper (500 words) and really want to briefly compare the Geneva and Helsinki Peace Agreements in terms of their successes and why, but more especially to concentrate on the post peace period and try to understand whether the main reasons for the conflict are still in place: I sense that they might be. the Arun production is scheduled to come to an end in 2014 and I cannot imagine Jakarta substituting revenue in lieu. I note the references to Mobil and presume that the same protections afforded to US involvement in the international conflict stage will still prevail. I would be interested to hear your thought if you have the time, but in the interim thanks for posting a window into Aceh, where clearly the aftermath of the conflict still touches lives and livelihoods.

    Kind regards

    John Morhall

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