Grassroots Reconciliation and Truth Seeking Initiatives

Aceh still retains a lively civil society sector, with a large number of organisations oriented specifically to human rights, most of which can trace their origins to the immediate post-Suharto period of 1998-2001. In the absence of formal government initiatives, several such local NGOs and victims’ organisations, with support from national and international bodies, have tried to launch their own activities to push forward the transitional justice agenda.

In pursuing these activities, local groups have had to confront the two-sided nature of the conflict in Aceh. The conventional understanding of the conflict was that it pitted members of local communities, and the GAM rebels in particular, against the central government and its security agencies. In this Aceh-versus-Jakarta ‘vertical’ struggle, many ordinary Acehnese citizens became victims of the state’s security forces. Yet at the same time, the conflict also involved considerable violence within Acehnese society itself, even if this is not often acknowledged today (especially by former adherents of GAM). Such violence could involve threats and retribution by GAM fighters against citizens who assisted the security forces, or in some parts of the province abusive behaviours (theft, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, etc.) by GAM fighters against ordinary citizens. It also involved violence by members of pro-government militias against individuals who were believed to be sympathetic to GAM. These conflicts within Acehnese society were especially severe in ethnically mixed parts of the province, where GAM was often understood in ethnic terms and seen as representing the ethnically Acehnese sector of the population, rather than the various minority groups, and where the conflict sometimes took on the character of a ‘horizontal’ conflict between ethnic communities.

During the early post-conflict years, there were many symbolic actions designed to facilitate community-level healing in the wake of such intracommunity conflicts. In particular, at many events in which former GAM fighters were welcomed back to their communities, local religious leaders held peusijeuk ceremonies in which participants were sprinkled with water and flour and clasped hands as signs of reconciliation.[1] Most of these events did not thus involve truth telling, even if they sometimes implied that participants forgave one another for past sins. In most places, however, reconciliation efforts ended with such one-off events, such that ordinary members of the community are sometimes still required to live side by side with individuals who once perpetrated serious abuses against them or family members.

One example of a more recent and sustained initiative to pursue grassroots reconciliation has been organised in the central highlands district of Bener Meriah by Kontra Aceh and the Peace Loving Women’s Group (Kelompok Perempuan Cinta Damai, KPCD). This multi-ethnic district was a site of serious communal conflict and gross abuses committed by GAM, the security forces and pro-government militias during the conflict years. The reconciliation program is designed to involve all three major ethnic groups in the district - Acehnese, Gayo and Javanese - which used to be in conflict during the years of violence, to work together in livelihoods programs, such as in vegetable production, fish farming and handicrafts, as well as in discussion groups on various aspects of transitional justice. This program began in 2008. At first it targeted only the women in the three communities. Later on, it was supported by many prominent people in the area, and has extended its activities to target various other community groups as well as ordinary villagers throughout the highlands.

In an example of what John Braithwaite and colleagues have described as bottom-up reconciliation characteristic of post-conflict regions of Indonesia (which happens ‘as a micro-politics massively dispersed among thousands of leaders of villages, clans, churches, mosques and subdistricts’[2]), this program appears to have achieved significant results. For example, former GAM combatants and their enemies in the pro-government militia group PETA have been working together in the same caucus in the district’s local parliament, in part a product of the cooperation fostered by this and similar programs. Participants have also noted that interethnic mixing and communication have also increased, spreading from the formal settings of the program, such as in seminars, classes and trainings, to informal settings such as markets, schools or other public places.

As for truth seeking, although various official inquiries and investigations of past human rights abuses were held in Aceh in the brief opening between the collapse of the Suharto government and the intensification of military operations in 2000 to 2001, since the Helsinki MoU there have been no more official investigations.[3] Given the stalling of the official TRC agenda, the only serious attempts to investigate past abuses and to allow victims to speak out about their experiences have been organised by local civil society groups. The best known such attempt was initiated by the Association of Victims of Human Rights Violations of North Aceh (KP2HAU) and was a direct response to the government’s failure to establish a TRC. KP2HAU set up a series of public hearings around the time of the eleventh anniversary of the so-called Simpang KKA (KKA Junction) massacre in North Aceh, a terrible event in May 1999 when military units opened fire on a crowd of several hundred demonstrators, at a junction close to the PT Kertas Kraft Aceh (KKA) paper mill, just outside the industrial city of Lhokseumawe, North Aceh, killing at least 49 people and wounding 156 others. Those speaking out at the hearing included relatives of those killed as well as individuals who had suffered both mild and serious injuries, though in the end only five persons were willing to speak out given the lack of legal protection they could expect. Several hundred villagers and local officials witnessed their very moving testimony. Strikingly, those speaking mostly rejected the ‘forgive and forget’ discourse that is prominent when such matters are discussed by cultural and political leaders in Aceh, instead calling for trials of the perpetrators. As one of them (R, a 28-year-old female) put it: ‘I will forgive them, but they have to be sent to court first’; another explained, ‘I will not forgive them, until they are sentenced’ (HS, female, 46). After the public hearing, representatives of the community and the local government set a stone to begin construction of a memorial.[4]

Civil society groups have taken other actions to keep the transitional justice agenda alive. Several groups have continued to document past acts of violence and other human rights abuses, in preparation for the day when a formal transitional justice process might begin. The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) assists several local NGOs (Koalisi NGO HAM, Kontras Aceh, Relawan Perempuan untuk Per- damaian [RPuK], and SPKP HAM)[5] in updating and managing relevant data using the Maltus Program so that it is available in an internationally recognized format and ready to be used for future advocacy. Some of these groups also supported an initiative by a local cultural organization, Tikar Pandan, to establish a Human Rights Museum (an initiative that attracted unwelcome attention from local security forces) and proposed the commemoration of several major human rights violations, as part of the memorialisation of victims of human rights abuses.

Another important step has been the organising of victims’ group. While waiting for the establishment of the TRC, civil society groups started organising solidarity and communication between victims of abuses. About ten such groups have been established. The most active include Brotherhood Solidarity of the Victims of Human Rights Violations in Aceh (Solidaritas Persaudaraan Korban Pelangaran HAM Aceh, SPKP HAM Aceh) and Community for Missing People in Aceh (Komunitas Ureung Gadoh Aceh, KAGUNDAH), which claims about 200 members. These groups undertake various activities such as writing workshops that enable conflict survivors to record their own experiences systematically; psychosocial advocacy for conflict survivors; focus group discussions on topics such as understanding TRCs and victim-based reparation principles; and building statues to memorialize such events as the Simpang KKA tragedy. Members of these groups have also demonstrated vociferously in favour of government action on the formal TRC process, such as when several hundred members of the Aliansi Korban Pelang- garan HAM Aceh (Alliance of Human Rights Abuse Victims of Aceh) occupied the Aceh parliament building in late 2010, urging its members to pass a regulation establishing a TRC.[6]

  • [1] John Braithwaite, Valerie Braithwaite, Michael Cookson and Leah Dunn, Anomie andViolence: Non-truth and Reconciliation in Indonesian Peacebuilding (Canberra: ANUE-Press, 2010), pp. 389-391;see also Leena Avonius, ‘Reconciliation and Human Rightsin Post-conflict Aceh’, in Birgit Brauchler (ed.), Reconciling Indonesia: GrassrootsAgency for Peace (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2009), pp. 121-137.
  • [2] Avonius, ‘Reconciliation and Human Rights in Post-conflict Aceh’, p. 42.
  • [3] There were three major fact-finding commissions in 1998 to 1999. The first was sentby the national parliament and contributed to the ending of the ‘military operationszone’ status that (at least informally) to that time applied in Aceh. After only four daysof hearings provisional findings were released which stated that at least 1,700 casesof human rights violations had occurred in Aceh, including 426 torture cases and 320unlawful killings. The second was led by the National Human Rights Commissionand involved dramatic unearthing of several mass graves. After only three days ofhearings the commission released its own provisional findings that at least 781 peoplehad been killed, 163 people were missing, 368 people had been tortured, 3,000 hadbeen widowed, 15,000 to 20,000 had been orphaned, 98 houses had been burnt downand 102 women had been raped. A third investigation was held by the Commissionon Violence in Aceh (Komisi Independen Pengusutan Tindak Kekerasan di Aceh,KIPTKA, established by Presidential Decree No. 88, 1999). This team produced afigure of at least 5,000 cases of serious human rights violations and identified five strongcases which should immediately be brought to trial.
  • [4] Information on this event is taken from direct observation by one of us (Fajran Zain).Further details are in Fabian Junge, ‘Public Commemoration for Victims of the AcehConflict,’ Watch Indonesia! Information and Analysis, 9 June 2010, at
  • [5] Of these organisations, Koalisi NGO HAM (Human Rights NGO Coalition) is particularly noteworthy. It was established on 7 August 1998 and supervises twenty-nine localorganisations in Aceh. Its main mandate is to collect data and information regardinghuman rights violations in Aceh and to provide advocacy for victims and their families.It is currently investigating 1,388 cases across fourteen districts in Aceh.
  • [6] Serambi Indonesia, 9 December 2010.
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