Wherein I make a crude, uninformed comparison

Arriving for my first time in Banda Aceh, after having only superficially followed developments over the past couple of years, I was rather in for a shock. The place is bigger, more prosperous and seemingly, well, “autonomous” from outside (read: international) influence than is East Timor.

Although Aceh is not independent from Indonesia (or free from its military), there are many potential comparisons to be made.

To start with more obvious contrasts.

In Timor the destruction was 100% work of man. The Timorese voted for independence in 1999 knowing full well what was waiting for them – scorched earth. People even knew who their butchers and torturers would be.

Timor’s population had been reduced over decades of violence, forced displacement, and hunger. Banda Aceh’s population was reduced by a third from one census to the next. (There was never even a proper death toll from the tsunami apparently.)

As much as clerics can say that the wave was caused by deterioration of religious values in Aceh, the place was destroyed by a natural force. Destiny, or God’s will, played a role in who died or survived. For example, the wave came on a Sunday when many people from higher-up settlements were at the beach, and when many people from the beach had gone to the hills to relax. But with the tidal wave came the end of the violent conflict between Acehnese nationalists and Jakarta.

Aceh received billions of dollars from outside, and yes, some of it was stolen locally and boomeranged out with INGO salaries and admin costs. In Aceh, there was massive inflation and fluctuation in prices with the sudden inflow of aid. But the place has had no UN Peacekeeping mission, or significant UN presence when compared to East Timor. One can feel in a sense that it is prosperous due to the money that was donated and spent here in a way that one could not feel for years in East Timor. (Aceh is still in 2004/5 on the Timor timeline.)

Reconstruction money from outside was spent on massively on housing in Aceh. One thing that is also particularly striking – and brazen – in Banda Aceh, is the way that international agencies were able to brand whole neighborhoods. You are driving down the street and you see a “pink” housing division, then you know that was the work of CARE, for example. And, “oh, there is a yellow ‘Oxfam’ neighborhood.”

Another feeling I got was the Acehnese entrepreneurial sector is much larger. The Chinese Indonesians are obviously present, but there were a number of Acehnese restaurants and hotels, more so than Timorese ones in Dili. I have absolutely no evidence for thinking this, but I even sense that money stolen in procurement-side corruption in Aceh was probably reinvested more in Aceh, particularly in rebuilding.

It would be fascinating to compare the economies and politics of “reconstruction” and aid in Aceh and East Timor. (Thanks to Peace Dividend Trust for getting me thinking about this.)

And now for the superficial similarities.

Aceh is full of women heroes, women warriors of the past. For example, the first female admiral in world history that I have heard of – Malahayati, who fought off the Portuguese in the 1600s. More recently, noblewomen Cut Nyak Dhien and Cut Nyak Meutia fought the Dutch after they became widows. Many poorer women resisted imperialism anonymously. Women fought with the GAM often under the same circumstances as they had in the past. But my colleagues told me, that in terms of recognition by the official veterans offices and processes, women have been entirely marginalized and essentially ignored.

Timor too is known for its women leaders and Queens in the past. And women also took up arms with Falintil, mostly when their husbands were killed. The exact same thing appears to be happening in Timor as well.

In both places, the Truth and Reconciliation Processes will have both advanced without any sense of [retributive or formal] justice. In Aceh the TRC appears to be permanently stalled, but one thing is clear, there will never be any justice for crimes of blood of the past.

In both places, there is a sense that the leadership is living it up – in the case of Aceh, having $10 beers in the “5 star” hotel basement while the rest live under the Shariah law that the leadership so eagerly sought [correction: I am totally wrong about this… read comment below… but I was clear that this is “uninformed”!]. In Banda Aceh, I got a superficial sense that people feel those who got political power (no longer) are really interested in the people. And most are hopelessly under-prepared and under-resourced, especially legislators.

Civil society is also used to protesting, confronting and combating, and establishing more nuanced and systematic ways of influencing is still a “challenge” (as we say in development speak).

The military that Acehnese live with are now “their own”, with the exception of some higher-ups from outside, and yet there is a real sense of unease with the presence of military. Are they really content to “go back to barracks” once and for all? There continues to reign a sense of superiority/impunity among security forces in relation to the general population. To add to it, the relationship between police and military has yet to be fully worked out from the sounds of things. Sound familiar?

Obviously the very comparison between Aceh and East Timor is enough to make Wiranto types drop their karaoke mics in horror. In fact, the 2007 visit of two ex-CAVR officials to Aceh on an exchange about Truth and Reconciliation was privately interpreted by the TNI as intended to “agitate/provoke a policy of separatism” (see this ICG report page 12.)


One thought on “Wherein I make a crude, uninformed comparison

  1. From the helpful folks at ETAN:

    “just re-read your blog post on Aceh/ET.

    One correction – GAM and many of those elected after the peace deal, including the governor, are opposed to Shariah law , which was first imposed by Jakarta prior to the Tsunami and then a stronger version was passed by the outgoing parliament and prior to the seating of the new one dominated by GAM successors. The Governor refused to sign the law. That said they do refuse to repeal, seeing some elements as popular.

    The situation in the West Aceh area, where the local gov’t has passed an even stronger version is less clear to me. But the Governor has said it has no legal force.”

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