Peacebuilding is a relatively new role for civil society in Aceh compared to more conventional activities such as human rights advocacy, community development and economic development. Despite this, Acehnese civil society organisations (CSOs) have become actively involved in the peace process.
The Humanitarian Pause
The Joint Understanding on a Humanitarian Pause for Aceh of June 2000-January 2001 was the first chance for Acehnese civil society to become involved. Activists participated in both the formal bodies established for the Pause, the Joint Committee for Humanitarian Action (JCHA) and the Joint Committee for Security Capital (JCSC), as well as the monitoring teams established for each. The duties of the JCHA were mainly to distribute emergency aid to internally displaced persons (IDPs), and this benefited from access to the NGO humanitarian volunteers' network. The JCSC, whose tasks were to ensure no military offensive actions took place, was also helped by the NGO human rights monitoring network, which effectively became the JCSC's eyes and ears in monitoring the security situation in the field. The independent monitoring mission also received valuable inputs from a large network of civil society institutions in the field.
Explaining the peace process
As peacemaking efforts developed, the demands on civil society increased further, with the burden of continuously building and maintaining the trust of the population in the peace process itself. From within both the conflict parties and the general public, there were many who believed more in violence as the final solution to the political conflict in Aceh. CSOs encouraged people to adopt a more pro-peace orientation by facilitating many open discussions focused on humanitarian issues and the termination of violence. They also persuaded people to temporarily postpone resolution of the sensitive issue of 'independence versus unified national integrity'. This question had in the past increased tension and weakened trust in the process. CSOs worked to explain to the public that less sensitive issues, such as humanitarian concerns, the conditions of IDPs and the security of civilians, were easier topics on which to begin dialogue and build momentum in the peace talks.
CSOs were also significant in building trust in the institutions behind the ongoing peace process. Many people were initially sceptical about a peace process mediated by international NGOs and expressed concerns about their capacity compared to 'state-sponsored mediation'. Again, CSOs encouraged pragmatic acceptance of the mediation on offer. They argued that while it might look as though only a small NGO was in charge, actually the backbone of the process included some important international actors including the Japanese government, the European Union and the World Bank.
Following the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), CSOs also played significant roles in minimising the potential for new conflict by promoting dialogue on sensitive issues, such as the potential further splitting of Aceh into new territorial units (ALA/ABAS). They also encouraged change in public perceptions of violence. In the post-agreement period, spoilers presented a real challenge to the consolidation of peace. CSOs tried to portray violence by spoilers as criminal rather than political violence that should be dealt with by the police and institutions of law, so as to prevent the peace process being undermined.
Long and substantial experience in supporting communities' economic empowerment has also proved important in supporting the peace efforts. CSOs have been involved in reintegration efforts for ex-combatants, through activities such as the provision of loans for small businesses or jobs in the agricultural sector or other small businesses, as well as in conducting trainings on small business management skills.
Democratic participation and local mediation
Various civil society institutions have made determined efforts to strengthen democracy through forms of critical education, including increasing public awareness and trust in the contents of the MoU, and in the political process (including elections) that followed.
The drafting of the Law on the Governing of Aceh (LoGA) can be seen as a high point for people's engagement in the peace process and provided an opportunity for extensive public participation in its drafting and development. CSOs actively conducted various public consultation forums, trying to reach a wide constituency to ensure that the draft would secure as many inputs as possible. CSOs were involved in pushing forward important issues to be addressed in the law, such as proposals on how to make the Acehnese government more participative and accountable. They also pushed forward a formal democratisation agenda in the form of direct general elections. It is notable that despite concerns that the final draft of the law was weakened on aspects related to the division of powers between the central government and Aceh, there is general satisfaction with the articles on participation and accountability issues with regard to the local democratic process.
One of the genuine innovations of Acehnese civil society has been the capacity-building of informal leaders and the strengthening of customary institutions such as the Geuchiks (village chiefs) and Mukim (subdistrict chiefs), enabling them to defuse dissatisfaction at the local level. This was significant in the process of ex-combatants' reintegration into communities. The presence and roles of local leaders and customary institutions serving as mediators to directly solve problems at the first level were important and effective.
Acehnese civil society was not well-equipped to engage in the peace process, particularly in terms of knowledge and experience in conflict management. As a result some CSOs became pawns in the political game played between the conflicting parties. This created negative perceptions among CSO members, and among less experienced individuals, frustration with slow progress in the peace process occasionally resulted in radicalisation and regression to militaristic approaches. There is also a lack of records of these experiences. It is a source of concern that so many invaluable experiences and lessons might be diminished one day because they have not been adequately documented and recorded.
Positive and negative impacts of civil society engagement
Some Acehnese CSOs believe that their engagement in the peace process in Aceh resulted in it receiving strong international support. Some even claimed that international involvement was the result of years of tireless campaigning on Aceh's issues in various international forums.
Internally, involvement in the peace process offered substantial experience and many lessons which will certainly be useful in the future. Just recently some Acehnese CSOs were entrusted with providing expertise and know-how for peace processes in other countries by sharing their experiences and lessons learned.
However, there were also significant negative impacts on civil society. These included pressure and even violence towards CSOs who were involved in peace process mechanisms, with some becoming targets of violence ranging from threats to murder. Some of those within the conflict parties directed their anger at unarmed civil society groups. However, these developments were considered by individuals within Acehnese civil society as intrinsic risks deriving from their own choice to be engaged in peacebuilding in the midst of armed conflict.