Breathtaking as it is, Aceh is more often associated with violence and suffering than beauty. This is not without good reason: Nearly eight years ago, waves reaching 90 feet, resulting from a Mw 9.1–9.3 earthquake not far off the coast, literally wiped out entire communities along these beaches in one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. In total, some 170,000 Indonesians were lost, and some 500,000 were made homeless as a result.
The tsunami changed the course of every Acehnese life, mostly for the worst. But it also helped set in motion a dialogue between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government to bring to an end a 29-year war for succession, which took its toll on the local population–almost 15,000 casualties. Today, six years after the signing of the Helinski peace deal between the Acehnese and Indonesian governments, Aceh is transformed. Recent gubenatorial elections, which were carried out peacefully, freely and fairly, demonstrated just how far Aceh has come.
I’m not suggesting Aceh is free of problems. A significant finding of the World Bank’s National Violence Monitoring System–which has recorded every violent incident from 1998-2008 across 16 Indonesian provinces–is that post-conflict areas continue to experience higher levels of violence, motivated by similar grievances, but through smaller scale, “routine” violence.
And perhaps Aceh’s tsunami experience makes comparison with other, similar conflicts fraught. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to be working here now, particularly after my experience in Myanmar earlier this summer, where several wars for greater autonomy of ethnic groups in border areas are being waged simultaneously (for more on my trip and on these conflicts, here is an article I wrote for Al Jazeera:http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/07/201271772035329568.html). Both situations involved protracted conflicts (in Myanmar, many have been waged intermittently since the 1960s, or earlier), as well as areas with significant natural resources, making them particularly valuable to the central government. As Myanmar undergoes democratic transition, it will at least be interesting to see how it manages to deal with the many voices calling for greater autonomy from the central government, and whether the Achenese experience cannot perhaps help to inform it.