Peace and reconstruction in Aceh

The slow process of rebuilding still needs focused international attention.

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Following extensive coverage of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and its one-year anniversary, the global media spotlight has moved on to other crises. But in Aceh, the Indonesian province that took the brunt of the waves' destructive power, two closely related issues demand close scrutiny. One is reconstruction. The other is implementation of the August 2005 "memorandum of understanding" (MOU). This peace deal ended a brutal 29-year conflict between the central government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) - and was made possible by changed attitudes in the wake of the disaster.

Peace is critical to reinvigorating an economy marked by rampant unemployment and reducing poverty that afflicts some 40 percent of the Acehnese population. And swift reconstruction and economic revival are essential for absorbing several thousand former GAM fighters, taking care of victims of the tsunami and the conflict, and giving people a stake in peace.

Flush with unprecedented levels of aid, the reconstruction catch phrase is "building back better." Yet progress on the ground has been agonizingly slow. Meuraxa, an area on the outskirts of the capital Banda Aceh, was still desolate when I visited last December. Across Aceh, only about 16,000 out of 120,000 houses needed have been built, leaving many survivors stuck in dreary barracks and rickety tents. Moreover, in March some 10,000 of the new houses were found to be so poorly built and equipped that they may need to be done over.

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Rebuilding has been marred by land and property disputes, corruption, and turf wars among foreign aid agencies that have promised more than they can deliver. The government and aid groups have proclaimed 2006 to be the year when rebuilding will hit its stride. Making good on this promise is imperative to prevent growing resentment.

In contrast, the first phase of the peace process was an outstanding success. In accordance with the MOU, GAM fighters turned in their weapons, and the government sharply reduced its security forces in Aceh. It is the next phase, focused on political and human rights issues, that represents treacherous territory.

A new Aceh governing law is to incorporate key provisions of the MOU and lead the province to greater self-government. But the legislation submitted by the Indonesian government to parliament for final approval is much weaker than the initial draft that was drawn up in Aceh with popular consultation. Parliamentary deliberations have been slow - marked by a tug of war between those wanting to strengthen several provisions and those displeased with what they regard as unwarranted concessions to Acehnese separatism.

Recognizing the need to give GAM and Aceh's civil society a stake in the political process, the draft law endorses the establishment of local political parties. (Indonesian law ordinarily requires that parties have offices in at least half the country's provinces.) However, new parties may not be up and running in time to contest gubernatorial elections, which were scheduled for April but will now be held in August at the earliest. Discussion has therefore shifted to the controversial idea of allowing independent candidates.

Strenuous opposition by the military and some parliamentarians delayed another measure stipulated by the MOU, establishment of a human rights court and a commission for truth and reconciliation. Their creation is imperative to end the reign of impunity. During my visit, I found many Acehnese eager to talk about their suffering during martial law, but also concerned that speaking up might get them in trouble. Indeed, a recent poll shows half the population still worried about arbitrary arrests by security forces.

The struggle to resolve these difficult issues makes for less spectacular news than killer tsunami waves do. But the international community's continued attention is required nonetheless. Donors need to do more to ensure adequate speed and quality in reconstruction and progress in the peace process.

In leading the Aceh Monitoring Mission, the European Union has played an important role overseeing implementation of the MOU. The monitors' presence is to end by June 15. Indonesia's Vice President Yusuf Kalla has offered an extension to August. But to ensure a fair and stable political process, the EU should press for a considerably longer mandate.

The Bush administration has been eager to restore ties with Indonesia's Army. But this is ill-advised. Foreign military aid should be put on hold until democratization and peacemaking are much further along.

Peace is not yet irreversible and reconstruction has a long way to go. But in sharp contrast to Sri Lanka - where the aftermath of the tsunami has actually led to a deepening of the civil war divide - Aceh has the potential to become a success story: a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Michael Renner is director of the Global Security Project at the Worldwatch Institute, a research and policy organization based in Washington.

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