Peace in Aceh: What it Means for the U.S.

Report Asia

Peace in Aceh: What it Means for the U.S.

July 27, 2005 4 min read
Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon
Policy Analyst

After 29 years and the loss of an estimated 15,000 lives, the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement ("GAM" for its Indonesian name, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) may finally end a war that frequently damaged U.S.-Indonesian relations and nearly landed GAM on the list of foreign terrorist groups. Both parties announced they had reached a negotiated agreement on July 15th and plan to sign it on August 15th in Helsinki, Finland. If successful, this peace agreement will have far-reaching benefits to the U.S.-Indonesian relationship.


The conflict began in 1976 when GAM called for independence from Indonesia. The group's demands, grounded in what its members see as their historical right to Aceh, have evolved into complaints about mistreatment by the Indonesian government, including claims that Aceh was not benefiting from the profits of its oil-rich lands. For its part, the Indonesian military (called TNI) has also been implicated in a wide range of human rights abuses, such as executions, torture, rape, and collective punishment of civilians. Both sides, however, have committed atrocities.


The December 2004 tsunami reignited hope that GAM would reconcile with Indonesia. The tsunami destroyed much of Sumatra's coast and killed an estimated 130,000 Acehnese.[1] GAM quickly called for a ceasefire that was honored by TNI, which itself provided substantial support for post-tsunami recovery efforts. As one peace activist in Aceh, Dede Oetomo, said of the situation, "This disaster is going to give the Indonesian army a good reputation. Since the disaster, all you read about is army, army, army."[2] On the heels of the tragedy, negotiations between the warring factions resumed with greater intensity and an apparent willingness, on both sides, to reach a definitive peace agreement.


Sticking Points

Whether or not this agreement will end 29 years of bloodshed is another question. In 2003, talks between Indonesia and GAM broke down after both sides failed lived up to their responsibilities under a similar peace deal. Following the collapse of that agreement, the Indonesian military launched a massive offensive against GAM, sending thousands of troops to secure the province. Things may be different this time. Previously, GAM had demanded independence for Aceh; in the current peace proposal, however, GAM has agreed to accept autonomy inside the Indonesian state. In return, Indonesia has given GAM the right to form a political party.


Such concessions have breathed life into what seemed a hopeless situation, but many obstacles remain to a lasting peace:


  1. Indonesia's House of Representatives must ratify the treaty, which faces opposition from the second- and third-largest parties in the government. Especially contentious within the Indonesian House is the provision giving GAM the right to form its own political party. If the House votes down the agreement, GAM may not disarm.
  2. After the peace agreement was negotiated, ten people-five GAM fighters, three TNI fighters, and two civilians-were killed in firefights between GAM and TNI. TNI suspended offensive military operations in the province to meet the requirements of the treaty, but a considerable number of troops are still in Aceh, leaving open an opportunity for resumed fighting.
  3. Much depends on the ability of GAM leadership, headquartered in faraway Sweden, to control its subordinate organizations. GAM is not monolithic, and breakaway units may continue their struggle despite the peace agreement.

The Washington View

If the agreement holds, the benefits to regional peace and the U.S.-Indonesian relationship are considerable.


One of the main sticking points in U.S.-Indonesian military relations has been TNI's human rights record, which has been greatly tarnished by its operations in Aceh. Without an insurgency to fight, TNI can accelerate internal reforms, begin to train and equip as a professional military tasked with defending Indonesia against external foes, and abandon its myopic obsession with internal security. For the American military in the Pacific, the Indonesian military could become a partner for regional security. Also, the U.S. could support a more professional TNI if it took part in U.N. peacekeeping and other international missions.


The fight against terrorism would benefit as well. Although GAM did not directly participate in Al Qaeda-linked terrorist attacks, it did maintain contacts with a number of Al Qaeda-linked organizations. Moreover, GAM's various terrorist and insurgent activities, including arms smuggling, money laundering, and training fighters, contributed economies of scale to the regional terrorist network. A peace deal would put a hole in the spider web of terrorist contacts in Southeast Asia.


A successful peace treaty could also bring some relief from rampant maritime piracy in the region. Piracy in the Malacca Straits, which Aceh borders, is so bad that Lloyd's recently added the region to its list of 21 areas worldwide that are at risk for war and terror attacks; with this designation, insurance underwriters can, on short notice, cancel or increase insurance prices for ships transiting the straits. Because 50,000 vessels a year transit Malacca, the cost to shipping could be significant. There is considerable evidence that GAM is involved in at least some of the piracy in the straits, but a peace deal should reduce such activity.


Whether or not the peace agreement will work is yet to be seen, but all indications are that both sides are ready to put the past behind them and move forward. With GAM's assimilation into mainstream Jakarta politics will hopefully come a lasting peace.


Dana R. Dillon is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] "Disaster May Spur Indonesia Peace Prospects," Associated press, December 28, 2004; "Indonesia rebels plan peace agreement," The Globe & Mail, Slobodan Lekic, July 18, 2005; and "Aceh rebels say 10 dead in post-peace deal clashes," Reuters, July 20, 2005.

[2] "Disaster May Spur Indonesia Peace Prospects," Associated Press, December 28, 2004.


Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst