The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that left almost a quarter of a million people dead and led to the world’s largest emergency aid program had a profound impact on two wars being fought in the region.
In Aceh, Indonesia, it contributed to the end of three decades of bloody conflict; in Sri Lanka, the tsunami ultimately led to the deaths of tens of thousands.
In Aceh, the Free Aceh movement (Gam) had been fighting the Indonesian government for a separate state. Gam retreated to the mountains following a declaration of martial law in 2002 and the escalation of the war by the Indonesian military.
In Sri Lanka, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, had similarly been fighting for a separate state in the north of the country. As a result of a 2002 Norwegian-brokered ceasefire, they managed to establish a semi-autonomous zone in the north of the country, but both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government had withdrawn into increasingly hard line positions.
A dispute over whether tsunami emergency aid funds should be autonomously administered by the Tamil Tigers in their area of control meant that already high levels of distrust were further entrenched. Shaky movement towards a negotiated settlement drifted.
By contrast, in Aceh, Gam declared a unilateral ceasefire. There was a sense that assisting the people to rebuild had to take priority. The newly elected Yudhoyono administration put out feelers towards a possible resolution.
While opposing groups in Sri Lanka squabbled and retreated from each other, the international community applied pressure to both Gam and the Indonesian government to find a way forward.
Aceh’s peace talks began in Helsinki in January 2005 and, over the next six months, worked towards a compromise in which Aceh could have a high degree of political and economic autonomy if it remained within Indonesia. Indonesia’s own democratisation was hugely important to this, with the principle of local political representation clinching the deal.
With only animosity in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers made the fatal error of stopping Tamils from voting in the 2005 presidential elections, which saw Mahinda Rajapaksa achieve the slimmest of victories, of 50.29%. Had Tamils voted, the more amenable Ranil Wickremesinghe would likely have won and negotiations could have resumed.
Rajapaksa’s victory ensured that a return to confrontation was all but inevitable. The Tamil Tigers own leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was equally combative, retaining unrealistic faith in the Tiger’s ability to defeat the numerically superior government forces.
As late as 2007, there remained a chance for a negotiated settlement in Sri Lanka, but this ended when government forces resumed their attacks. By early 2009, the Tamil Tigers had been routed, at the cost of some 40,000 lives, with Sri Lanka’s ethnic division continuing as a running sore in the country’s body politic.
In Aceh, meanwhile, post-tsunami rebuilding continued, and the province assumed something approximating normalcy for the first time in the modern era. The peace agreement led to local elections, comfortably won by former Gam combatants.
The devastation caused by the tsunami created organisational, economic and political pressure in two deeply troubled regions. In one, these pressures highlighted differences, drove opposing sides apart and ultimately led to a further human catastrophe; in the other it pushed opposing sides to seek compromise.
The outcome in Sri Lanka has since served as a model for how to militarily crush a separatist movement, but remains globally deplored by human rights advocates. The outcome in Aceh has, by contrast, been viewed as a model for using democracy to achieve peace.
The 2004 tsunami created two choices for achieving a genuine peace in the areas it affected. Only one of them can be said to have been successful.
The massive but, happily, largely benign earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Wednesday left millions of people in Aceh reliving the nightmare the engulfed them on Boxing Day 2004, when a similarly large but different type of earthquake sent a wall of water across the lowlands, killing around 180,000 people.
That the earthquake and fear of another massive tsunami came just two days after a local elections and a major political upheaval only added poignancy to the otherwise frightening occasion. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Aceh separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) reached a peace agreement with the government in Jakarta, ushering in a period not just of rebuilding but of relative peace and electoral politics.
Contrary to such opinion that exists on Aceh, the peace agreement was not a consequence of the tsunami as such. Rather, and agreement to start peace talks had been reached just days before the tsunami struck.
Informal results show that elections in Indonesia’s tsunami-devastated and war-ravaged province of Aceh have dumped the incumbent governor and put in office the political party of the former separatist guerrilla movement. This outcome marks a major victory for the political vehicle of the former separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the Aceh Party (PA).
In a sometimes violent campaign process, in which 13 people were killed and intimidation was widespread, preliminary results show that former GAM ‘foreign minister’ Dr Zaini Abdullah and his deputy, former GAM military commander, Muzakir Manaf, won 54% of the vote in a five cornered contest. Incumbent governor and former GAM intelligence chief, Irwandi Yusuf, secured 34% of the vote.
Indonesia’s province of Aceh goes to the polls on Monday, in what has been a bitterly contested election for the position of governor. In Indonesia’s other provinces the position of governor is important but, in the autonomous province of Aceh, following a three decade long separatist war, it is critical.
As a result of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, Aceh was also the site of the world’s largest ever emergency relief program, at $9 billion. The tsunami devastated large areas of the heavily populated coastal regions of Aceh, leaving around 170,000 dead and missing.
In early October, Aceh will hold its second gubanatorial elections since the 2005 peace agreement that ended almost three decades of separatist war. After five years of relative peace and stability, the main political tensions appear to be between competing factions of the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Other, more troubling tensions are, however, just below the surface.
There is little to divide the main factions competing in the elections. The incumbent governor, Irwandi Yusuf, has overseen the development of a universal health care system, expanded education, overseen underlying economic growth and banned logging in Aceh’s spectacular rainforest.
His main electoral opponent, GAM’s former ‘Foreign Minister’, Dr Zaini Abdullah, also supports such programs. Apart from personalities, the division between them might be characterised as one of the latter being more conservative and the former more progressive.
In a short couple of months, Aceh will again go to the polls to elect a governor and vice-governor, bupatis and local representatives. The election will mark a consolidation of the democratic process in Aceh, introduced as a result of the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement.
Even though the campaign period for the elections has not yet formally started, there is great interest in who will run, what they stand for and what their chances of success might be. It is healthy that people take an active interest in the political life of their community, as the political process determines how the people of the community are to live, within the constraints imposed by their circumstances.
That the political environment in Aceh has remained more or less peaceful since 2005 represents a victory for the idea of democratic, representative government. The electoral process itself represents a victory for accountability, which is the opposite of the imposed rule that Aceh once experienced.
Aceh has much to teach the world – including those engaged in the reconstruction of Haiti.
It is now six months since Haiti was devastated by an earthquake and six years since the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 devastated Aceh.
Attention in Haiti has moved to the reconstruction accompanied by well publicized frustration at how slowly these efforts are going.
Aceh independence leader
25-8-1925 – 3-6-2010
The death of Aceh independence leader Teungku (Lord) Hasan Muhammad di Tiro has put a final stamp on the peace that has descended on the long-troubled Indonesian province of Aceh. Di Tiro, 84, died from complications caused by leukemia. He had previously suffered two strokes which limited his activity in the final years of the Aceh separatist rebellion which he initiated in 1976.
Hasan di Tiro was born in the village of Tiro, near Pidie, Aceh from a long line of influential Muslim religious scholars. Notably, di Tiro was the grandson of Cik di Tiro, who was killed in 1899 leading Acehnese resistance to Dutch colonial forces which had invaded Aceh in 1873.