REPUSM is located within the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang, Malaysia. It was set up in 1995 to facilitate peace research and education at the university. It has an outreach programme and had been involved in peace support activities, not only within Malaysia but also throughout the Southeast Asian region. In 2001 REPUSM became the Regional Secretariat for the Southeast Asian Conflict Studies Network (SEACSN), tasked with enhancing the study of peace and conflict in the region and fostering collaborations between peace academics and researchers. Four special peace programmes were created at REPUSM, including the APP, Mediation and Reconciliation Services, the Mindanao Peace Programme and the Southern Thailand Peace Programme.
The APP was launched in 2001 for five main reasons. Firstly, Aceh’s proximity to Malaysia means there has been a substantial Acehnese community in the country, particularly in Penang, for many years. Many Achenese have also been forced to cross the Straits of Malacca because of ongoing conflict. Between 1999 and 2004, newer ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ included members of civil society, including NGO leaders who had fled persecution in Aceh, GAM members, activists, exiles, combatants, refugees and students.
Some of these refugees, especially those that used to work in academia or NGOs, enrolled at USM. It made perfect sense to harness their energy, spirit and experience to help design a peace programme that would be implemented by them. Older generations of Acehnese living in Malaysia were active in helping out the newcomers. For example, a support group called the Aceh Society of Malaysia (IMAM) was created by Malaysians of Acehnese descent and supported by some prominent Malaysian politicians with Acehnese ties, such as the former Chief Minister of Kedah state, Tan Sri Sanusi Junid.
Secondly, because of insecurity in Aceh, it was difficult to organise peacebuilding programmes in Aceh itself, especially after the escalation of violence from 1999 and the collapse of the peace talks in 2003. Penang provided a safe haven to continue peacebuilding activities. REPUSM, and especially its coordinator, played an important role in promoting Acehnese issues in Malaysia and protecting the Acehnese in Penang. For example, articles were written in newspapers and other popular media to explain the Aceh conflict and the plight of the Acehnese refugees. These explained the importance of defining Acehnese refugees differently from other migrants, especially economic ones. Attempts were also made to gain Malaysian public support, especially humanitarian support.
Thirdly, there was need to strengthen regional and international support for peace in Aceh. A study was conducted by the APP to determine the strength of the peacebuilding support work for Aceh. It concluded that there was a need first to consolidate the positions of the various NGOs working on Aceh, and second to connect Acehnese activists and peacebuilders to the national and international peacebuilding community. This was facilitated through the SEACSN, which had extensive contacts in the region.
Fourthly, it was important to enhance the capacities of peace activists, especially in the areas of advocacy, language, strategic planning, and theories and practices of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. This was part of a strategy to develop strategic thinking about Aceh: to envision a peaceful Aceh and ways to get there. As academic institutions, REPUSM and SEACSN were in the position to contribute to these efforts.
Lastly, there was a need to engage with GAM members and sympathisers, many of whom were based in Malaysia, and connect them with Acehnese civil society members, especially those present in Penang. The rationale behind this was: first, to evaluate the proclivity for peace among GAM members and sympathisers, especially the younger leaders, and identify their potential inclusion in future peace-related activities; second, to create solidarity among the Acehnese and consolidate their various positions in anticipation of future peace talks.