Friday, November 6, 2009


I've been spending 10-12 hours a day with three Acehnese who are part of our research team. Through our research we've gone through areas where there was intense damage from the tsunami, as well as damage from the 30 year conflict that ended soon after the tsunami. Very simply, the conflict was between the Indonesian government (GoI) and The Free Aceh Movement (GAM), Gam wanted Aceh to be free from Indonesia, and the government disagreed. Depending on who you ask the conflict had political, religious, cultural and/or economic motives. After the peace agreement was signed in 2005, Aceh was given a good deal of autonomy and former GAM leaders and combatants were elected to local government. For many, though not all, people, GAM members are still local heroes. I went to a cafe run by an ex-combatant and the walls were covered with pictures of him in uniform holding a Kalishnikov rifle. I've sat with mayors who were leaders and members of farming cooperatives who were soldiers.  However, the years of violence and even longer history of tensions hasn't been forgotten, but on the other hand it seems like communities and people who were affected by the conflict are trying to move forward, while holding onto their loyalty to what is now Partai Aceh (political party of GAM). Here's a story I heard more than once over the course of the week with new details being added each time, and from several different people (general gist from a bule (westerner) details from team members).

A while ago, after the peace agreement had been signed, the organization that hired my research team was working in a rural area of Aceh Utara, where the former center of GAM activity was based. This organization hired a new security director who saw it fit to hire security to send to the schools in the former GAM area. He claimed that this security was to protect the school children. However the villagers were suspicious and questioned the security officers. They found ID cards in their bags that identified them as members of the GoI military, then they found disassembled guns. The security officers claimed innocence, saying the guns were broken. While the "security officers", now identified as GoI soldiers (TNI), were tied to a tree, ex-combatants reassembled the guns and shot them into the air. A driver who is still with the organization was my driver this day and he talked about how he was also tied to a tree because he had driven the security to the village, not knowing they were TNI. So with evidence of foul play in hand and soldiers tied to trees, the villagers went to the government with proof that the military was trying to spy on them.
It was later found out that the head of security was in fact high up in the Indonesian military.

A terrible mistake by the organization that could potentially have restarted the conflict. Yet somehow these same villagers, including ex-combatants, spent upwards of an hour telling us how much the organization had helped and how all they really wanted was to earn a living and help the school. They started a farmers' cooperative and 10% of all profits go to the elementary school. Amazing.

Next time... more about GAM, TNI and where Exxon Mobile fits in...

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