Updates from Aceh

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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. 

 

Greetings from Indonesia

Belatedly. The blog is up-and-running, albeit it several weeks past the promised delivery date. For those unfamiliar, welcome to the world of development. Lacking connection to the internet for several weeks can be liberating, but returning from that kind of isolation is a huge pain in the butt.

More to the point: the goal of my summer project is to explore the intersection of conflict, political reform/transition, and social development. In Myanmar, where I spent the first several weeks of the summer as a correspondent for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting (more on that soon), I intended to focus on how political reform can impact conflict (in the form of ethnic insurgencies) and wound up paying far more attention to how conflict, in turn, can influence political transitions. In Indonesia, through my work with the World Bank, I anticipate studying how community-driven development (the PNPM project is the world’s largest such CDD program) impacts conflict and post-conflict communities. But who knows what the coming months will bring.

This blog will be my attempt to articulate my observations and findings, as well as any other things I feel might be of interest to others. Hopefully it will be interesting. First up, Myanmar (retrospectively)…

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