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Lessons from Aceh: Early Focus on Institutions Critical to Cementing Peace

June 12, 2013

By Patrick Barron

Aceh – Indonesia’s western-most province which endured three decades of a secessionist civil war that left at least 15,000 dead – is frequently cited as the best recent example in Asia of a successful peace process. However, eight years after the Helsinki accord brought an end to the conflict, new forms of localized violence are now emerging. Aceh’s experience shows how conflicts can evolve rather than disappear, even with successful peace processes, and how a lack of sufficient early focus on building strong state institutions can lead to new problems. As the Philippines and Thailand embark on peace processes to end long-running subnational conflicts inside their borders, lessons from the successful – and the not-so-successful – efforts to support peace in Aceh will have increasing relevance.

Traffic in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and largest city in the province of Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh is frequently cited as the best recent example in Asia of a successful peace process. Photo/Flickr user ILATeam

A new study by The Asia Foundation, “The Contested Corners of Asia,” shows how supporting war-to-peace transitions requires a focus on two things: building the confidence of formerly warring parties in the nascent peace and strengthening institutions to secure peaceful development. Confidence can be enhanced by a range of actions, including the timely delivery of assistance to former combatants and conflict-hit communities. Reforming institutions requires deeper – and often more challenging – efforts to develop the ability of the state to deliver services, ensure security, and promote equitable growth.

Typically the focus of international development agencies on these two goals changes over time. In the early peace agreement years, confidence-building is viewed as being most important. Quick wins, such as providing a tangible peace dividend in conflict-affected areas, are often prioritized over building institutions. Reinsertion and reintegration programs can help buy the commitment of former belligerents to peace. To ensure rapid delivery, aid is often channeled through ad-hoc, short-term government bodies, such as newly created peace agencies. Building the capacity and performance of regular government line ministries is viewed as a longer-term endeavor, to be commenced after initial confidence-building work has finished.

The case of Aceh – one of three subnational conflict areas researched in the new study – shows both the pros and cons of this sequencing. After the peace accord was signed in 2005, following international practice, the donors in Aceh and the Indonesian government focused primarily on providing rapid support to the three groups mentioned in the peace agreement as requiring assistance: former rebel combatants, released political prisoners, and conflict victims. Between 2005 and 2009, around $365 million was spent on peacebuilding in Aceh, with almost equal shares contributed by the national and local government and by international donors. Most of this money went to programs that provided benefits to conflict-affected individuals. Existing state structures, which were widely seen as weak, were avoided, with donors instead focusing on building the capacity of a new temporary reintegration agency, known as BRA (Badan Reintegrasi Aceh).

No doubt, these funds played a significant role in supporting peace, and allowed rebel leaders and foot soldiers alike to see that the Indonesian government was committed to the peace accord. Rural villagers, many of whom received new houses or economic funds, saw their lives improve. Other factors, most notably strong commitment from former rebel leaders and the Indonesian government to the accord, were critical in ensuring the accord held.

However, the failure to focus on institution-building in the early years made it harder to address new challenges as the peace process matured. Over time, issues related to cementing peace and sources of conflict in the province have changed. As powers and resources have been devolved to Aceh under the peace deal, tensions between Aceh and Jakarta have largely disappeared. But new forms of contestation have emerged. With Aceh receiving increased public funds and more political autonomy, conflict between local elites within Aceh has increased. A result has been higher levels of electoral violence than in most other areas of Indonesia.

The accession of former rebel leaders to political power in the province has not improved the quality of governance in Aceh. Eighty-five percent of respondents to a 2010 Transparency International Indonesia survey said that current corruption levels were either the same as or even worse than before the peace accord. With many of Aceh’s new leaders seen as focusing on self-enrichment and satisfying their patronage base, poverty reduction and growth have continued to lag in Aceh. As inequalities within the old rebel movement have grown sharply – with former commanders widely reported to be driving Mercedes and taking overseas shopping trips while those in the village scramble for low-paid work – tensions have increased sharply. The Asia Foundation study suggests that growing distrust in local leaders has led to a series of violent incidents and a spike in crime.

Addressing these new problems requires building impartial and effective local government institutions that manage elite competition, support equitable growth, and deliver services and goods to Aceh’s population. In recent years, donors have recognized this need. But their ability to support improvements in governance is now limited. Facing significant declines in funding (international post-conflict programs now have a collective budget of under $2 million a year (less than 0.1% of the Aceh province and districts’ annual expenditures), donors have limited opportunity to support change in local government. Furthermore, as former rebel leaders have gained near-oligarchic political and economic control of Aceh, they have little short-term reason to change their illicit practices.

If donors had focused on governance issues earlier when funding was substantial and local elites were not as entrenched, it may have been possible to avoid some of the problems that have emerged in Aceh. However, supporting such institution-building is tricky, even in the best of times. We need to be humble about the limits of international agencies’ capabilities in this area. Yet focusing on these issues earlier on, and being more creative and politically engaged when thinking about how to develop governance programs, could have had a positive impact.

As peace processes develop in Mindanao and Southern Thailand, aid agencies and central governments must focus not only on short-term confidence-building activities. These are certainly important. But limiting the new forms of local conflict that can emerge after peace agreements is also vital if peace is to consolidate and this requires up-front thinking and focus on building effective institutions.

Patrick Barron is co-author of “The Contested Corners of Asia: The Case of Aceh, Indonesia,” and is a doctoral fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


  1. Is it possible to email me a copy of the repot?

    I am interested.

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