BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFP) – When a tsunami engulfed Indonesia’s Aceh a decade ago, it not only killed tens of thousands of people but also wiped the slate clean in the conflict-racked, poverty-stricken province and paved the way for peace.
The province on the northern tip of Sumatra island was ill-prepared when disaster struck – in ruins, mired in poverty and with barely any functioning infrastructure after almost three decades of conflict.
Rebels in Aceh had spent years fighting against the central government for an independent state, a conflict that left at least 15,000 people dead, and a heavy military presence kept the area cut off from the outside world.
In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, triggered by a huge undersea earthquake off Sumatra on December 26, 2004, there was only a chilling silence from Aceh and it was not until several days later that the full scale of the destruction became clear.
Almost 170,000 people were killed in the archipelago, the vast majority in Aceh, by far the biggest death toll in any single country. More than 220,000 people died in countries around the Indian Ocean, with Thailand and Sri Lanka also hard hit.
The disaster triggered a huge global relief and reconstruction effort that has been a success in Aceh. But just as importantly, it finally persuaded the rebels and Jakarta to strike a peace deal that has held to this day.
“It’s clear that the tsunami hastened the peace process,” said Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta-based think-tank the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), adding that “the chances of returning to conflict are very, very, very small”.
Prospects for peace were already looking better before the tsunami, with a new government in Jakarta that seemed more determined to resolve the conflict and signs the rebels were growing weary, but the disaster provided the final push.
Under the deal between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Jakarta, which was signed in Helsinki in August, 2005, the rebels agreed to give up their demands for independence in exchange for greater autonomy.
The GAM fighters laid down their arms and Jakarta withdrew non-local troops and weapons and police from Aceh, and granted an amnesty to rebels and political prisoners.
After a decade of post-tsunami reconstruction and nine years of peace, Aceh has been transformed. Provincial capital Banda Aceh is a pleasant, mid-size Indonesian city with few visible scars remaining from the disaster.
While many remain poor, there are signs of increasing affluence that has accompanied years of stability and former rebels have been brought into mainstream politics.
Aceh’s governors are now directly elected by the people and both the current one, Zaini Abdullah, and his predecessor, Irwandi Yusuf, previously held senior positions in the rebel movement.
“We had no freedom and lived in fear during the conflict,” Ridwan, a bicycle rickshaw driver in the fishing community of Meulaboh, which was one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami, told AFP.
“It’s terrible to say that the tsunami was a blessing in disguise, but probably it was,” added the 56-year-old, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
Nevertheless, problems undoubtedly remain. The former rebels set up their own political party and have kept a stranglehold on power, with critics accusing them of being more concerned with bettering their own lot than helping ordinary Acehnese.
“We’ve had 10 years of really lousy governance in Aceh,” said IPAC’s Jones, pointing to problems in the education system, rising infant mortality rates and growing drug problems.
Violence still flares between local political parties formed as part of the peace deal, with several people killed in attacks before elections last year.
Critics also point to the strengthening of syariah laws in conservative Aceh, the only province in Indonesia allowed to implement Islamic regulations, such as one passed in September that makes gay sex punishable by 100 lashes of the cane.
For many Acehnese, there has also been a failure to bring closure after years of conflict, Amnesty International said in a report last year, noting that promises to set up a human rights court and a truth and reconciliation commission had not been honoured.
While a reintegration programme helped many former rebels, some have failed to benefit and a tiny number are so disillusioned they want to keep fighting the authorities, although serious violence is rare nowadays.
“We will keep this guerilla movement alive and fight the government until there is justice for ex-combatants and the people of Aceh,” Nurdin Ismail Amat, a former GAM fighter, told AFP.