Withdrawal Symptoms: The struggle for Aceh ten years after the tsunami

Women soldiers of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) pose with commander Abdullah Syafei'i in 1999 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)Women soldiers of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) pose with commander Abdullah Syafei'i in 1999 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The first step in any recovery programme is admitting there is a problem.

Aceh, Indonesia’s northern, gas rich, conservative province, however, has struggled to do so.  Ironically, these problems were caused by the very solutions created in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 to address the three decades of separatist conflict and the devastation wrought by a major natural disaster.

Two of the solutions were particularly transformative, and initially almost entirely positive.  Firstly, there was a huge influx of aid and support from across the world, involving nearly 500 agencies and totalling around US$7.7bn. Secondly, there were major concessions by both parties to the conflict:  the Indonesian government granted significant autonomy and political freedom to the Acehnese while the Achenese rebels ceased their acts of violence without full independence. This ultimately led to what has been described as “one of the most successful peace agreements of modern times”.

However, while these solutions provided some temporary relief for the people of Aceh, they are now facing withdrawal symptoms three-times over: withdrawal of the aid that had propped up the post-tsunami economy, withdrawal of the rebel leaders from conflict into politics, and the consequences of withdrawing from the Indonesian state as Aceh’s regional autonomy becomes more established.

Withdrawal from the Indonesian state

The most dramatic political consequence of the tsunami on Aceh was that it prompted a peaceful conclusion to a 30-year conflict over Acehnese independence. The devastation of the tsunami, along with great pressure from the newly attuned international community who added a condition of peace to the delivery of aid money, made previously unthinkable concessions palatable.

Before the tsunami, Aceh was in a constant state of conflict. One local even described how in the early 2000s he became so used to seeing bodies in the street that he would merely turn the corpses over to check they were not friends or relatives. The Indonesian state ruled the region through repressive means, and refused to let any foreigners visit or any direct elections to take place.

By contrast, just 7 months after the tsunami, the Indonesian government granted Aceh a significant expansion of autonomy, an increase in its share of government revenue and the liberalisation of the political system, including allowing political parties to operate for the first time in direct regional elections.

A generator ship washed some 5km inland by the tsunami in Aceh Province (Source: Andy Doyle)

A generator ship washed some 5km inland by the tsunami in Aceh Province (Source: Andy Doyle)


The increased autonomy from the Indonesian state, however, has been accompanied by some adverse side effects, especially in relation to the provision in the peace deal that allowed Aceh to institute Sharia law.  Although popular with much of the devout local population, the application and enforcement of Sharia law has become more and more extreme in the ten years following the tsunami. ‘Offences’ ranging from tight clothing to homosexuality are now punished with canings, fines and prison sentences. New by-laws passed in September 2014 mean that Sharia law will in the coming year also be applied to the 90,000 non-Muslims who live in Aceh. Applications of Sharia law are likely to get more intense over time.  Professor Edward Aspinall points out that “it is very difficult for people to oppose it because there is a sense that Sharia is a part of Acehnese identity”.

Moreover, the tsunami relief operations may have inadvertently weakened any potential opposition by co-opting large numbers of local workers to help with the relief and reconstruction initiatives who otherwise may have provided effective opposition to the hardline Islamists through the creation and maintenance of civil society networks and groups.

The application of strict Islamic jurisdiction has not only created some serious human rights problems for the area, but has also impacted negatively on the economy by deterring tourism and foreign investment.

Withdrawal from Aid Addiction

It has been said that the Acehnese locals talk of three different tsunamis. The first is the tsunami itself and the terrible devastation it wrought: over 150,000 Acehnese people lost their lives and around 700,000 were displaced.  The second tsunami refers to the unprecedented surge of aid money that flooded in from around the world in the immediate aftermath of the wave, totalling US$7.7bn. Around $6.4bn of this fund had been allocated by late 2007. The third tsunami refers to the sudden reduction in aid in the post-2007 period.

The impact of aid withdrawal from the region has been stark. Locals have lamented the change in dynamics that came as a result of the aid money, and the consequences of that change when the money dried up.  They describe how volunteers in the post-tsunami period expect cash for any volunteer work, where before the tsunami they worked to support the local community. One 2009 World Bank project, for example, offered participants $50 for work that had significant benefits for the local community. However, the organisers found that many of the locals refused to undertake the work on the basis that they had been paid around $300 for such work in the immediate post-tsunami period.

This problem of aid withdrawal was exacerbated by the failure of the Acehnese government and the aid agencies to utilise the funds provided in the immediate post-tsunami period for long-term development projects. There was no new investment in any of the major industries of Aceh including tourism, mining and manufacturing.  This was largely the result of the high-profile nature of the funding. As Dollar and Pritchett have pointed out, aid agencies aim to maximise funding by satisfying key constituencies and clients. This involves quick, visible results, often at the cost of long-term development work. In Aceh’s case, this meant investment in short- and medium-term reconstruction to the detriment of long-term development plans. Moreover, the large numbers of reconstruction projects and agencies (2,200 of the former; 463 of the latter), each with their own management structures and support services, made for high levels of duplication and overlap, and thus a less efficient use of reconstruction funds. High levels of spending in the immediate post-tsunami period also created inefficiency by fuelling inflation, which rose to more than 40% in November 2005. This significantly reduced the purchasing power of the vast sums of aid money and forced reductions in the delivery of reconstruction.

An Acehnese woman searches through the debris of where her house once stood (Source: Chuck Simmins)

An Acehnese woman searches through the debris of where her house once stood (Source: Chuck Simmins)


Consequently, Aceh has experienced a low level of economic growth compared to Indonesia. In the five years to 2013 Aceh grew in real terms by 11% while Indonesia grew 33%. Even more worryingly, Aceh’s economy is only just returning to pre-tsunami levels.  In 2013 – the last full year for which data is available – the economy was still 6% below its pre-tsunami size.

This sluggish growth and high inflation has had some severe side effects for the people of Aceh. Work undertaken by John McCarthy, Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, for instance, found that over 50% of people were still suffering a hunger season in 2014.

Withdrawal of the Acehnese rebels from a State of Conflict to a State of Politics

There is no doubt that the transformation of Aceh from a region at war to a region at peace has been dramatic. However, many of the wartime structures and key players still remain, mainly due to the endemic corruption that plagues post-tsunami Aceh.

Interestingly, even during the war there were reports of collusion between the armed rebels – known locally as Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM – and the Indonesian military. Elizabeth Drexler has argued that the resistance in Aceh between 1975 and 2000 was largely considered to be a fabrication created by the Indonesian military in order to justify repression in the region and thereby prevent any civil means of achieving independence. She reports that the initial separatist movement – Aceh Merdeka – was severely limited, citing news reports from 1979: “what is called Aceh Merdeka now has only six people remaining”.

Ironically, however, the Indonesian government’s exaggeration of the rebel violence became a rallying point for dissention across the region, and thus a movement that began with dubious origins became a real source of protest by 1999/2000. Something, then, that had largely operated as an agent provocateur became something real, though alleged collusion between GAM rebels and the Indonesian military continued into the early 2000s. By the time GAM had become strong enough to present an effective challenge, the 2004 tsunami completely devastated the region and wiped out large swathes of the movement.  No longer able to represent a legitimate challenge to the Indonesian military, GAM accepted Special Autonomy for Aceh. The collusion, however, continued throughout the early 2000s and beyond the 2004 tsunami.

The rebel leaders of wartime Aceh used their substantial political influence in the immediate post-tsunami period to undertake what Professor Edward Aspinall has called “predatory exploitation” in their quest for lucrative government contracts, limited jobs and international aid. Wartime issues not only continued on in the post-tsunami era, but were exacerbated by the aid money flowing in. Intimidation, extortion and informal taxation all remain significant problems despite the end of hostilities. The continuation of such ineffective governance has further aggravated the region’s structural problems, including slow growth and low-level violence.

Although there has been growing dissatisfaction with the GAM politicians and the May 2014 elections saw a significant reduction in support, the GAM politicians still have never been held fully to account for their weak governance. Arguably, lack of education about how peacetime political and governmental structures are supposed to work has contributed to a lack of accountability for the former rebel leaders.

The old adage: it all gets better with time…or does it?

This is not to say, however, that Aceh is doomed forever to sluggish growth, human rights abuses and poor governance: any state or region undergoing such significant change is bound to experience some initial withdrawal symptoms.  The major swings in the May 2014 elections, for instance, suggest that the Acehnese population are increasingly less loyal to GAM for their autonomy from the Indonesian state, and thus more open to holding their politicians to account for their performance in office. This in turn may lead to better development and investment in the future, as well as a reduction in pressure to maintain and strengthen the major distinction between Aceh and Indonesia: its use of hard-line Sharia law.  Perhaps this is a sign that Aceh is taking the first steps towards admitting there is a problem.