Rumors of Aceh: Post-Tsunami Impressions from Medan
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"Have you been to Meulaboh yet?"
I cannot count the number of times that someone has asked me this question during the past eight weeks. Although I still receive the English-language greeting, "Hello Mister"—the most common one I have heard from strangers on past visits to Indonesia—this year I have almost as frequently been greeted with, "Have you been to Meulaboh yet?"
Meulaboh is on the west coast of Aceh, the far northwest province of Indonesia devastated by the December 26, 2004 tsunami. It is probably the city most affected by the disaster. I have spent the past two months living in the city of Medan, North Sumatra, just south of the Acehnese border, studying Acehnese language and acquainting myself with the Acehnese community here. Medan is a large multi-ethnic city filled with Acehnese, Minangkabau, Padang, Batak, Malay, Chinese, and Javanese, to name just the largest ethnic groups. There are probably at least 100,000 Acehnese here.
I visited Medan for just under two weeks in the summer of 2004. At that time, pre-tsunami, I had never heard of Meulaboh, and no one thought to ask me about it. Since the tsunami, Medan has become a staging and transit point for many relief efforts. Most of those asking whether I had been to Meulaboh seem to assume that I am an aid worker. But if this new question represents a change in the way some in Medan are thinking about Aceh, it also represents a certain continuity. Aceh has long been the focal point of rumors and concerns in this city. Following the Dutch invasion of Aceh in 1873, colonial planters and authorities in and around Medan expressed worries that the Dutch-Aceh war, which raged for decades, would spill-over to North Sumatra. In the 1950s and 60s, Acehnese regularly traveled to Medan searching for work, and the city became involved in the Acehnese-led branch of the Darul Islam rebellion, an armed movement that aimed to create an Indonesian Islamic state. This year, I found rumors of Aceh continuing to float around the city, in food stalls and coffee shops, on public transportation and in offices, as well as in the local media. Some rumors represented distinctly post-tsunami views on the province; others seemed old and familiar.
Storm Clouds, Celebrities and NGOs
There has been a lot of rain in Medan recently. More than one person has noted that this is unusual. "It's been like this since the tsunami," a neighbor tells me. I am not quite certain if she is suggesting that the tsunami has caused the rain or if the two events are connected in another way. A man I briefly meet offers a rather sophisticated explanation of how the tsunami, the rains, and global warming are all linked, but I am not quite able to follow every detail of his explanation. What is certain is that the rains are real, and they are not just affecting North Sumatra. Aceh has been affected by them. They have made relief work difficult in some areas and flooded displaced persons camps. This was the case at the end of June when I picked up the Aceh section of the local Medan newspaper, Waspada. The lead story was about one of these recent floods and included a photograph of several men and women living in a camp with flood waters reaching mid-way to their knees.
Celebrity visits to Aceh are a hot topic of discussion as well. This is true for both the Acehnese and non-Acehnese communities. Within a few weeks of my arrival in Medan, former U.S. President Bill Clinton made his second visit to the province. His picture was plastered on the front page of nearly every newspaper. While perusing some of these papers at a local Acehnese coffee shop, several middle-aged men of various ethnicities related stories about the former American president's two trips to the province. "He (Clinton) is coming back for a third visit," one of them noted in anticipation. Other celebrities are mentioned as well: George H.W. Bush, Miss Universe, Jackie Chan, the list goes on. All have come to Aceh, and people in Medan have taken notice.
The number of daily flights to Banda Aceh from Medan is still much higher than their pre-tsunami levels, indicating that Medan remains a transit point for many moving into Aceh to help with reconstruction. I have met a few people working for UNICEF and some Australians who practice alternative medicine with tsunami victims. Some international NGOs have offices here (the French Red Cross, the International Office for Migration) as do some United Nations agencies. There are local NGOs such as the Humanitarian Relief Center (HRC). Administered and staffed by Acehnese in partnership with ACT International (Action by Churches Together), HRC delivers food and supplies to displaced persons camps. If one travels to Aceh, one can see truckloads of food, mattresses, and other supplies at various warehouses. Much of this is to be delivered to Aceh, either free to camps or to various retail sellers in the province. Medan is also full of contractors, many Acehnese themselves, eager to take on building jobs in the province. I have talked to several of these contractors and relief workers who offer stories of success and opportunity in the post-tsunami reconstruction efforts.
But not all stories of relief and reconstruction have happy endings, and I have heard equally as many tales of corruption, greed, and neglect on the part of security forces, various parties participating in reconstruction, and the government. One evening while eating dinner, a friend shared this story with me. "You know," he said, "There is a village on a beach in Banda Aceh. This village was created by locals who lost everything in the tsunami: family, homes, everything. A group from the government in Jakarta came out to see them, studied their situation, wrote down a lot of numbers, and promised them help. But help never came. Then a group of reporters from Jakarta came out to see them, studied their situation, wrote down a lot of numbers, and promised them help. But help never came. Now do you know what they say when people come to 'study' them?" "What?" I asked. He responded in English: "Fuck off!"
Given a long history of neglect and abuse of Acehnese by the Indonesian central government, most notably the military, combined with allegations of corruption and inefficiency that continue to plague Indonesian political and economic institutions, this story may well be true. I can neither confirm it nor fully understand all the dynamics that may have been at play in what remains a complex and uncertain set of circumstances. My friend's story, however, points to another dynamic in post-tsunami Aceh: the persistence of a strong distrust between many Acehnese and the Indonesian government.
"Finally Getting Back to Normal"
Before I left Jakarta for Medan, I met a non-Acehnese friend living in the Indonesian capital who optimistically claimed, "Yes, things are finally getting back to normal in Aceh." It was clear that my friend did not mean that things were getting back to normal simply in the sense that Aceh's infrastructure was being redeveloped and its population returning to daily activities. He was talking about another kind of normalcy, one connected to political questions that have long plagued Aceh's relationship with the Indonesian central government. These questions may have been momentarily forgotten at the height of shock after the disaster, but quickly began to become of central importance again not only in their own right, but due to their relationship to the post-tsunami reconstruction.
Since 1873 Aceh has been a region racked by conflict, as mentioned earlier. When the tsunami occurred in December 2004, Aceh was again in the midst of conflict. The Indonesian military had been fighting guerrillas of the Gerakan Acheh Merdeka (GAM), or Free Acheh Movement, which claims to have been founded in 1976 to secure an independent Acehnese state. The most intense fighting occurred in the 1990s, but the conflict was renewed again in May 2003 when peace talks between the two sides broke down. During these periods of intense violence, human rights abuses were common, including but not limited to torture, rape, and extra-judicial killings.
Following the tsunami, a strange sort of hope emerged. International NGOs and reporters, who generally had been banned from the province since May 2003, were now allowed to enter. GAM leadership called an immediate ceasefire and the Indonesian military followed suit a few weeks later. Plans were made for a series of peace talks to occur between the two warring factions and over the next few months several rounds of these talks occurred.
These talks were the focus of attention for many whom I met in Medan, especially Acehnese. The fourth round of talks, held in Helsinki, Finland, also roughly coincided with Clinton's visit and my own arrival. By the end of the fourth round, the official government line was already well known. The two sides were "90 percent agreed and 10 percent not agreed." The final 10 percent would be discussed at a fifth round of talks in July. In early June, some Acehnese with whom I spoke expressed optimism. "I am planning on going home again at the end of August" one of my interlocutors said, noting that once an agreement was signed, he would feel safe traveling in Aceh again. But a friend was quick to offer him this reminder: "'10 percent not agreed' means no agreement."
In mid-July a memorandum of understanding was signed by GAM and the Indonesian government. This set an August 15 date for the official signing of a peace agreement. The agreement, though not yet made public at the time I am writing this, promises to be a breakthrough. Both GAM and the Indonesian government have made major concessions. But in Medan, many Acehnese reacted cautiously. Preliminary agreements have failed before. Distrust of the government, and especially the military, continues to run high. And some Acehnese suggest that some GAM guerillas will not be satisfied with anything less than independence.
Despite the on-going peace talks, some discourses about Aceh and Acehnese had not changed much since my previous visit to Medan in 2004. Questions about whether I had been to Meulaboh aside, many of my interactions with non-Acehnese consisted of warnings about why I might want to change my future field site. Time and time again, after revealing my purpose for living in Medan, I was warned that Aceh is a dangerous place and that GAM might abduct me. My assertions that GAM generally avoids interfering with Westerners, because the organization wishes desperately to gain allies in international forums such as the UN, were usually met with skepticism. Others were more aggressive, accusing me of being a GAM sympathizer. Acehnese, stereotypically known throughout much of the Indonesian archipelago for their piety, were branded religious fanatics and terrorists by some I met. Others made another claim, playing on the same perceptions: Aceh had suffered the tsunami because Acehnese had fallen from God's way and were leading lives of debauchery not worthy of their pious ancestors.
I had expected such responses. GAM is frequently portrayed as a terrorist organization by government and military officials. The organization has abducted Indonesians and been accused of assassinating civilians. Perceptions of Acehnese religious fanaticism may have been strengthened by the June 24 implementation of syariat (Islamic law) in Bireuen, along Aceh's northeast coast, in which several gamblers were publicly caned. Of even greater concern than these perceptions are various recent reports from the province. I periodically encounter stories about harassment or intimidation of civilians, including those in post-tsunami displaced persons' camps, by armed groups. Despite the peace talks and their recent success, there has been fighting in Aceh since my arrival in Medan. The same weekend that the memorandum of understanding was signed in Helsinki the Indonesian military claims to have killed five GAM fighters. At the end of June, Eva Yeung, a Red Cross worker from Hong Kong, was shot and seriously wounded. She survived, as did a Dutch woman who was also in Aceh, but such events might portend problems for future reconstruction efforts. The Indonesian military has expressed its resistance to the on-going peace talks. "Military Vows to Continue Struggle in Aceh" was the headline of the lead story in the June 9th issue of Jakarta Post, following the fourth round. I have yet to notice any public responses by military figures to the recent memorandum of understanding.
Clearly, the future of Aceh's reconstruction depends greatly on the future of the political conflict. Even if I had spent the past summer in Aceh rather than Medan, it would be impossible for me to offer a prediction about what might happen there over the next several months. If the current schedule is honored, an official agreement will have been signed. This is cause for real optimism. But my optimism is tempered by the cautious and cynical reactions of some of my Acehnese friends. Just what will the final agreement look like? Will it be implemented or will it fail like previous preliminary ones? I am also reminded of watching a convoy of Indonesian army troops head off towards Aceh a few weeks ago while I sat in an Acehnese food stall along Gatot Subroto Street. I could not help but reflect on the words of my friend in Jakarta. Surely, things are getting back to normal in Aceh. But will this be the normalcy of the regular and brutal violence of the pre-tsunami status quo? Or that of a reconstructed and peaceful Aceh? Will this be the normalcy of the often-invoked "unitary state of Indonesia" that I sense was at least an implied aspect of the view of my friend in Jakarta? Or some other vision, yet to find its way into public discourse, perhaps to be worked out in the details of an August peace agreement?
Daniel Andrew Birchok is a Ph.D. candidate in the Departments of History and Anthropology at U-M.
Author's Note: On August 15, 2005, a memorandum of understanding was signed between GAM and the Indonesian government, initiating a peace process that will begin to be implemented over the next several months.