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Aceh Struggles With Economy, Graft and Reparations After Decade of Peace

By Nurdin Hasan
2015-08-14
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A group of workers load tuna onto a rickshaw in Banda Aceh, Aug. 9, 2015.
BenarNews

Ten years after an armed conflict ended between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatist group and the Indonesian government, the province at the northern tip of Sumatra is still reeling from a lackluster economy, corruption and concerns over a failure by the authorities to provide full reparations to tens of thousands of victims.

The 30-year conflict ended in 2005, when GAM disarmed following the signing of a peace agreement in Helsinki, Finland. But despite its rich natural resources, Aceh lacks interest from investors and its economic growth languishes at Indonesia’s lowest levels.

Blaming the local administration for lacking focus on generating growth, Aceh Regional Representatives Council Deputy Chairman Sulaiman Abda lamented that the province's economic development has remained stagnant over the past decade.

In the last 10 years, Aceh’s state budget reached more than 100 trillion rupiah (U.S. $7.2 billion), including a special autonomy budget of a mere 42 trillion rupiah (U.S. $3 billion) that allegedly was not well spent.

"Whether or not they realize it, the special autonomy budget is the final result of GAM's struggle that brought blood and tears to the Acehnese people during the conflict,” Sulaiman told BenarNews. “But there are still many people, including the ex-combatants, facing a tough life. They are left behind without jobs."

According to the Central Statistics Board, Aceh's economic growth was only 1.65 percent last year. It is far below the average national growth rate of 5.02 percent.

In the first half of 2015, the province's economic growth has been the lowest in the Sumatra region, at 1.9 percent.

The unemployment rate was also high at nine percent, well above the national average of 5.9 percent.

Suliaman, a senior politician of the former ruling Golkar Party, said the poor growth stemmed from what he called a misallocation of the autonomy budget.

He believed the money was spent on projects that provided minimal benefit to the province's economic growth.

Sulaiman also admitted a lack of supervision by parliament that resulted in many infrastructure projects being completed below standards or being even abandoned.

He hoped 2016 would see the development budget revamped to increase economic growth so that the Acehnese people could enjoy better living standards in line with the peace accord signed in Helsinki on Aug. 15, 2005.

"The special autonomy budget has its limits. In 2028, Aceh will no longer receive the budget. If we fail to build a strong economic growth foundation now, there will be worse problems when the period is over," he stated.

Corruption Still Major Issue

Aryos Nivada, an expert from Syiah Kuala University on political and security issues, claimed the autonomy budget had solely been enjoyed by political elites since its first allocation in 2008.

"The budget is susceptible to corruption because of its exclusivity and lack of reporting to the local administration about its use," he told BenarNews.

Citing nepotism, the researcher from the Initiative Survey Network said he believed that political elites were linked to the autonomy budget abuse through infrastructure programs.

On top of this, tens of thousand of families affected by the devastating Aceh conflict are in the dark about the fate of loved ones and without justice, truth and full reparation, according to global human rights group Amnesty International.

Despite promises by successive Indonesian governments, victims are still left to fend for themselves while authorities show little interest in addressing past crimes, the group said in a statement ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the conflict’s end.

“This has been a lost decade for far too many people affected by the Aceh conflict,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Campaigns Director for South East Asia.

“The 10-year anniversary of the conflict’s end must become the start of a genuine effort to address these issues. Indonesian authorities cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand and shirk responsibility – it is only prolonging the suffering in Aceh.”

Between 10,000 and 30,000 people, including many civilians, were killed during the Aceh conflict between Indonesian government forces and the pro-independence GAM.

Governor Acknowledges Challenges

Aceh Gov. Zaini Abdullah admitted that the province has been facing huge challenges. He cited economic growth and poverty reduction as leading issues.

"Ten years of peace, we have seen changes in Aceh and [we] hope [we have laid the foundation for] eternal peace," Zaini told reporters after officially opening an international symposium Aceh Peace Forum in the capital Banda Aceh this week.

Asked for comments on Aceh's future challenges, Zaini said, "We still have many, including reintegration and poverty reduction. We should work harder to weather them in the near future."

The local government, he said, had done its best to overcome problems restricting growth and spending provincial budget more wisely.

Gubernatorial Policies

Fadhli Abdullah, 52, a former commander of GAM's local unit in Bireuen District regretted Zaini's policy on addressing the issues of former combatants.

Despite his good life, Fadhli admitted he was upset with the current local government for “abandoning” former combatants, whom he said lived in poverty because of lack of attention by the government.

"Their attention to former combatants is very poor. It seems they have forgotten all the struggles to bring better lives for Acehnese people," he said.

This had led to an increase in crimes in Aceh involving former GAM members, such as kidnappings and robberies.

"There should be a more humane approach to the former GAM members as they demand justice. The governor should prepare a human resource empowerment program that involves them and the conflict's victims," Fadhli said.

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