Almost 20 years since Reformasi, Aceh and Papua still face major stumbling blocks to development and peace, writes Fabio Scarpello.

Almost 20 years since the student-led reformasi movement contributed to the fall of the Suharto regime in May 1998, the two restive regions of Aceh and Papua remain troubled. Both regions have experienced long-lasting separatist movements that grew in momentum after the end of authoritarianism. They have since followed different trajectories and are now experiencing different sets of problem.

Post-Suharto, the secessionist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) grew to control much of Aceh’s countryside, leading to the government placing the province under martial law and launching its largest ever military operation in 2003. The conflict, which had started in 1979, eventually ended when the magnitude of the December 2004 Tsunami dwarfed both Jakarta and GAM’s political ambitions and forced them to sit at the negotiation table. On 5 August 2005, representatives of the Indonesian government and GAM reached a peace settlement as GAM dropped its call for independence, and Jakarta conceded a large amount of autonomy to the province and withdrew most of the military (TNI).

On 11 July 2006, the Indonesian House of Representatives adopted the Law on Governing Aceh (LoGA), a document that codified some of the key points of the peace agreement. This laid the foundation for lasting peace by dealing with some of the grievances of Acehnese. In particular, the national government financially compensated and supported Aceh by increasing its share of national budget streams until 2028. The LoGA crucially also allowed GAM members to partake in electoral politics as independent candidates at first, and then via the establishment of local political parties later on. Both were exceptions in the Indonesian context at that time

GAM became Partai Aceh in 2008, but even prior to that former GAM rapidly rose to control the political and economic landscape at provincial and district levels. This did not lead to a happy ending, though, as GAM quickly fragmented into factions competing for access to power and resources and intra-GAM political violence has since escalated. The Aceh Election Supervisory Committee recorded 57 cases of political violence during the 2006 gubernatorial election, 91 during the 2009 legislative and presidential election, and 167 during the 2012 gubernatorial election. These include politically motivated killings, kidnapping, vandalism, as well as widespread intimidation and threats to voters. The most recent intra-GAM split has emerged between current governor, Zaini Abdullah, and vice governor, Muzzakir Manaf, both of whom are jostling for position for the forthcoming gubernatorial election, as documented by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

In the meantime, the benefits of peace are yet to trickle down to the 4.4 million people with corruption and patronage still endemic. Aceh remains among Indonesia’s poorest provinces with almost one-third of households in the rural areas living below the poverty line, according to the UNDP. Many Acehnese now openly say that GAM has failed to introduce clean and good governance and pro-poor initiatives, but simply replaced the military and Jakarta’s lackeys in exploiting local resources. As I was able to ascertain during a recent fieldtrip to the province, some among the former rebels openly talk about returning to war. It is unclear who their enemy is, though.

Papua has followed a different trajectory. In this easternmost region of Indonesia, the end of the Suharto regime was greeted with a renewed push for independence. Pro-independence sympathy is widespread in Papua, and the province has experienced sporadic violence since its incorporation into Indonesia in 1969. Indigenous Papuans have resented both the settling of migrants from other areas of Indonesia and the exploitation of Papua’s natural resources by the Indonesian government and international corporations.

However, Papua’s rebel group – the Free Papua Movement (OPM) – has never commanded the support that GAM enjoyed, nor has it been as disciplined, well-trained and active as its Acehnese counterpart. The OPM’s main weakness has always been its fragmentation, which is rooted in Papua’s extreme level of social diversity. The roughly 1.8 million native Papuans are splintered into more than 312 tribes, and although anti-Indonesian sentiments have helped create an overarching Papuan identity, it has not dislodged primary loyalty to separate tribes.

Partly because of OPM’s weakness, the pro-independence movement has mostly be driven by non-violent, political means with the most vocal pro-independence voices found in the student organisations, and various Christian churches present in the region where most of the population is Christian.

After the fall of Suharto, a delegation of 100 Papuans met Indonesian president BJ Habibie in Jakarta in February 1999 and stated their wish for independence. The climax of this peaceful push for freedom was the Second Papua People’s Congress, in Jayapura, a few months later, attended by an estimated 15,000 people. But Papua suffered no tsunami, and there has been no real catalyst for meaningful changes.

A 2001 Special Autonomy Law was the central government’s only significant attempt to reach out to the Papuans. Although wide in principle, autonomy has never been implemented and has only served to further increase Papuans distrust of Jakarta. On the other hand, Jakarta has continued to militarise the region; split the region into two separate provinces (Papua and West Papua) contravening its own Special Autonomy Law; and never stopped facilitating the migration of Muslim Javanese to the region. According to the 2010 census, the combined population of Papua and West Papua is now 3,593,803, of which slightly more than half are non-Papuan Indonesian settlers and their offspring.

Papuans have told me that they believe they are victims of a slow “cultural and religious genocide”. The word “genocide” was used in this context in a 2004 Yale University report, which argued that the influx of non-Papuan Indonesians was diluting the ethnic Papuans to a point that could be considered “the act element of genocide”.

Among the pro-independence activists the hope is to involve the international community to force Indonesia to hold a referendum on independence. This internationalisation strategy has so far only gathered the support of some Pacific Island nations and isolated western politicians. During last September’s meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Forum, said that West Papua is a sensitive issue for some Pacific governments, but one that needs to be debated.

Jakarta is not listening though, and geopolitical reasons mean that neither is the United Nations or the regional democratic powers, Australia and New Zealand.

Fabio Scarpello is a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University. 

This article is a translation from Italian and based on a paper published in RISE — a publication on Southeast Asia from the Torino World Affairs Institute (Twai).