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The challenges of reintegration in Aceh

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Lina Frödin highlights a number of problems with the reintegration process in Aceh relating to the precise function of assistance, the impact of post-tsunami reconstruction, and transitional justice.

The 2005 Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Indonesia (GoI) and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) includes clauses on reintegration. These focus on three key groups: GAM ex-combatants and supporters; amnestied political prisoners; and civilians affected by the conflict. The GoI provided €68 million for reintegration. Frödin highlights a number of problems with the reintegration process, relating to the precise function of assistance, the impact of post-tsunami reconstruction, and transitional justice. Defining and identifying beneficiaries has been particularly difficult, with the number of ex-GAM combatants and affiliates estimated at approximately 25,000 people, many more than the 3,000 armed combatants claimed by the GAM during negotiations. 

The MoU and reintegration

The August 2005 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Government of Indonesia (GoI) and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), included several clauses (under heading 3.2) on 'reintegration into society'. Under the terms of the MoU reintegration assistance was to be focused on three key groups: GAM ex-combatants and supporters, amnestied political prisoners and civilians affected by the conflict, termed 'victims of the conflict'. A national reintegration fund, established by the central government but managed by the provincial government of Aceh, was mandated to cover economic facilitation, employment, allocation of suitable farming land and social security benefits for incapacitated individuals. In the MoU the GoI also committed itself to funding the rehabilitation of property damaged and destroyed in the conflict; central government funding allocated for reintegration, moreover, was both forthcoming and significant at approximately €68 million, allocated in three phases between 2005-2007.

When almost three decades of armed and political struggle ended in 2005 there were few sectors in the Acehnese society unaffected by the conflict. The number of ex-GAM combatants, active supporters and associated dependents has been estimated at approximately 25,000 people, a figure far in excess of the 3000 armed combatants claimed by GAM during the peace negotiations (itself a figure related to the 840 weapons that GAM agreed to submit, a quantification of weaponry approved by the GoI). This raised the issue of how to distribute reintegration funds among a much larger population of ex-combatants and supporters than originally envisioned. Political prisoners granted amnesty after the signing of the MoU amounted to a further 2000. Arriving at a number for the third category of 'victims of conflict' and defining this concept proved to be more challenging. This article identifies problems in defining and identifying both the beneficiaries and precise function of reintegration assistance, the impact of parallel post-tsunami reconstruction efforts, and institutional problems hampering a comprehensive reintegration process.

The Aceh Reintegration Agency (BRA)

In February 2006 the Acehnese provincial government established the Aceh Reintegration Board (BRA, Badan Reintegrasi Aceh ). Its mandate is regulated by gubernatorial decree but its activities are closely followed and directed by Indonesia's national development planning agency, BAPPENAS.

One of the immediate issues confronting BRA was establishing who would be entitled to reintegration assistance. This led directly to the question of what a reintegration programme was aiming to achieve in Aceh. Was the aim compensation, providing reparations for the loss or hardship suffered by particular individuals, and if so to what extent? Or was the aim to enhance longer-term social and economic opportunities for vulnerable groups whose vulnerability could make them spoilers? A compensation programme would allocate reparations to all those suffering losses regardless of their socio-economic situation. Upon payment the programme would be complete. By contrast a reintegration programme would aim to improve the socio-economic situation of former combatants and victims of the conflict at risk of resorting to violence or incapacitated as a result of the conflict, and would rely on an individual needs assessment. Targeting and prioritisation criteria for reintegration assistance would rely on these needs assessments.

The who? question


Early in the peace process GAM was ambivalent about the concept of reintegration, arguing that its members had never been dislocated from their society and therefore needed no 're-introduction.' On the contrary GAM members saw themselves as the defenders of Acehnese society. At various times and locations GAM had established shadow governments and in all districts there had been a shadow GAM governor. However, by 2005 many, particularly younger, combatants had very limited or no education or work experience. Many were severely traumatised by extremely stressful experiences, still carried bullets in their bodies or had other conflict-related disabilities restricting their capacity for work. Due to their socialisation into military life many Acehnese men are familiar with weaponry and a communal existence where following orders, solidarity and loyalty are the bedrock of social cohesion. While direct orders require no consensus, all wider issues relating to the whole unit were determined through popular opinion. Under such circumstances the transition to civilian life can be challenging, and without proper training and sustainable integration into local economies, reintegration efforts run the risk of failure. Some observers believe that Acehnese civilians still have access to weaponry, in the form of residual weapons caches held since the MoU. Familiarity with and access to this weaponry can represent a desperate choice for former combatants left alienated and destitute after the cessation of hostilities.

'Victims of the conflict'

Defining, conceptualising and identifying civilians affected by the conflict proved to be a major undertaking. Most people living in Aceh had been affected by the conflict: many had lost land, been displaced, recruited to provide intelligence under duress or simply assaulted. Questions abounded: was someone facially scarred following an incident related to the conflict a victim of the conflict? Where should the line be drawn? Being limited by the budget and the political sensitivity surrounding Aceh's relationship with Jakarta, the BRA did not manage to define, conceptualise or identify victims of the conflict in any satisfactory way. Rather, the BRA kept the category broad and undefined. Significantly, this hazy definition still allowed for the exclusion of one group: women suffering rape as an act of war. Social taboos and stigmatisation of rape limited reporting of rape to the BRA, which had not established special mechanisms for addressing such sensitive issues.

The what? question

A second key issue was defining what reintegration assistance would entail and what 'successful' reintegration would look like: reparations for losses inflicted by the conflict or the creation of longer-term opportunities. The BRA established two components within its structure, the socio-cultural and economic departments, indicating that its programming was intended to go beyond cash grants. Due to time constraints, continued central control over its spending and the lack of capacity to design a comprehensive needs-based reintegration programme including land-reform, recovery of livelihoods or creation of employment opportunities, the BRA resorted to cash allocations for all beneficiaries. In doing so the BRA opted for the immediate gratification of vulnerable stakeholders, rather than the sustainable economic development of its target community.

Another issue is the definition of jobs or employment. According to the MoU the former combatants are entitled to 'employment'. Yet when asked about their work, most ex-combatants report that they are unemployed, as are their friends. Employment for many Acehnese means formal employment in an office, industry or being self-employed. However, when asked about their sources of income, many report that they sell fish in the fish market, have a small chilli farm or are members of a cooperative – occupations not regarded as a formal job. Micro-credits and in-kind assistance tend to consolidate the informal sector in this context and do not necessarily contribute to 'employment' or a 'job' in the interpretation given by many ex-combatants to these words in the MoU.

Funding and post-settlement/post-tsunami contradictions

Other problems befalling the reintegration process derived from institutional funding arrangements and the parallel process of post-tsunami reconstruction. The BRA's capacity for long-term planning was compromised by the annual basis of its funding. Since its inception the BRA has had to make decisions bearing in mind the uncertainty of continued funding, and more significantly, it cannot commit to long-term allocations or the release of funds in tranches.

The BRA was, of course, operating in the same context as the massive effort to reconstruct post-tsunami Aceh, and in the footprints of the leading post-tsunami recovery agency, the Agency for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation (BRR). The BRR has enjoyed incomparably more resources and funding, a ministerial mandate and technical assistance from experts from all over the world. For example, while €7000 (2007 rates) would be allocated for the reconstruction of a house destroyed by the tsunami, only €3500 would be allocated for the same house destroyed in the conflict. Simultaneous but unequally resourced processes led to an uneven pace of reconstruction and an unnatural divide between post-tsunami and post-settlement recovery at provincial and community levels. Lessons learnt in one process were not incorporated into the other, as the reintegration effort has remained largely disconnected from the broader stream of planned social and economic development.

Agencies mandated to address post-tsunami reconstruction have been careful not to become involved in the post-conflict reconstruction. Post-tsunami funding has hitherto remained rigorously restricted to tsunami-related reconstruction and has not allowed for integrated work addressing both tsunami- and conflict-related damage. One of the consequences of this bifurcation has been an uneven development between the hardest-hit tsunami area, namely Banda Aceh and the south-west coast, and the most conflict-afflicted areas on the north-east coast and in the central highlands.

International organisations were initially reluctant to get involved in the reintegration process. Those that did have tended to provide either direct assistance to former combatants and victims of conflict or technical assistance to the BRA. Few or none have provided assistance to the local governmental agencies such as the social affairs department, housing department, health department and so on, in order to form a programme linked to longer-term development and service provision.

With funding from the European Commission, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) designed a reinsertion and reintegration programme for 2000 amnestied prisoners and 3000 former combatants. In its initial phase the programme covered a health check-up, small grant, a set of clothes and toiletries; the next phase included skills training and in-kind assistance. But as the post-tsunami recovery evolved and created an enormous labour market in Aceh, many former combatants were hired by the BRR and became involved in projects as labourers or contractors. In a number of cases former combatants are alleged to have extorted money from reconstruction projects or even a standard share of the contracts. Many INGO and donor reconstruction programmes have reported instances of disruption to contractor construction activities in villages, usually involving violent threats against workers and sometimes leading to the suspension of works for lengthy periods. Most of these occurrences appear to be related to the demands of individuals or small disaffected groups for financial gain, employment of favoured individuals or preferential purchase of materials from local cartels. Broadly speaking, crime rates in Aceh have increased significantly since the signing of the MoU. Illegal logging is also an emerging market providing quick revenues in domestic and nearby international markets.


The question of reintegration and compensation leads indirectly, through the payment of reparations, to the question of transitional justice. Reintegration funds in Aceh have been used primarily for cash compensation, without formal official acknowledgments or ceremonies. The MoU stipulates the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Although not the main purpose of the work of TRCs, reparation payments to victims are a common follow-up. Clearly, the payment of reparations is a process more closely linked to justice and fact-finding than reintegration.

The inclusion of the concept of 'victims of conflict' in the MoU's section on reintegration has somewhat blurred the two processes. Victims of conflict are arguably not primarily in need of reintegration formally understood as a process aiming for stability and security, following disarmament and demobilisation. A reintegration process commonly includes income-generating activities, basic health provisions and other interventions for former combatants in order to facilitate their transition from combatants to normal civilians. Reintegration does not necessarily target the poorest or most economically vulnerable, but should target individuals prone to resorting to violence who may jeopardise the peace process.

It is indeed justified to facilitate social and economic opportunities for all those who have suffered significant losses, and, as established in the MoU, their losses should be recognised in a TRC if they so wish. Now, what is happening in Aceh is something in-between. The BRA transfers between €300 and €1000 to the natural heirs of the deceased or missing, the disabled, the internally displaced and those orphaned by the conflict. Former combatants receive €2500, whereas political prisoners, GAM supporters and militia members receive €1000.

BRA, being an ad hoc reintegration agency, distributing funds allocated by central government at provincial level, needs to be clear about its function and mandate as well as its limitations. By the end of the reintegration process, the GoI can claim that it has also fulfilled its commitment to reconciliation by allocating funding to victims of the conflict, and could thereby argue that there is no need for a separate truth and reconciliation process. The reintegration process has therefore been balanced between the GoI's wariness of giving money to its former enemy, the BRA's lack of vision and goals, and longer term needs for the solidification of the peace process.


Although gloomy conclusions might be drawn from the above analysis and much indeed remains to be done in terms of reconciliation, socio-economic development, security sector reform and the relationship between central government and the local Acehnese administration, it has to be acknowledged that the progress achieved since the signing of the MoU is significant, not to say dramatic.

For many ex-combatants the transition has not necessarily been easy and many recall with nostalgia the camaraderie, loyalty to the movement and friendships forged in war. Ex-combatants are now challenged by dichotomies between hierarchical and communal loyalties of the conflict era and new imperatives of individual responsibility and providing for families. Post-settlement varieties of criminality (extortion, robbery, illegal logging, irregular involvement in contracting procedures) are rampant and challenge the promotion of Aceh as a stable and safe area, also in the eyes of potential investors.

Legitimate leadership and the development of an Acehnese cultural identity will be key for the further consolidation of the peace process, including the development of a pluralistic yet integrated Acehnese society. The absence of armed vertical conflict does not necessarily mean that the root causes are resolved, only that the tools are different. When asked whether they would take up arms again and under what circumstances, ex-combatants commonly state that should their former commanders order them to do so, should the central government cheat them again, should Aceh not receive what it is entitled to in terms of control over its economy and resources, they would be ready to fight again. However, when asked to what extent they identify as combatants or "normal" civilians, most of the former combatants said that they feel three-quarters normal civilian and one-quarter former combatant, and emphasised the enormous toll renewed conflict would take on them as individuals and on the Acehnese as a people.