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The lesson from the peace process in Sumatra. Lecture at Conference "Pluralism and Democracy after 9/11: Europe & India (Series VI), Delhi Policy Group (Dpg), New Delhi 27-28 November 2006
Organized by Dpg in collaboration with Jamia Millia Islamia and Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace & Conflict Resolution
(The Gate of India in Delhi, left)

Emanuele Giordana

Martedi' 28 Novembre 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, allow me to express my thanks to the Delhi Policy Group for inviting me here today. It gives me the opportunity to discuss an interesting and complex subject before a very distinguished gathering. The last few years have seen many positive changes, but have likewise been beset by tragic conflicts. We must attempt to draw constructive lessons from both.
Taken from this perspective, the Asian continent has beyond a doubt recently borne witness to several interesting political and negotiated settlements. Yet, in many cases, they have not been given the attention they deserved, especially in Europe. In fact, we have focused, I would venture to say almost entirely, upon the war in Iraq and the tragic events which for many decades have characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even the Afghan situation, where Europe, the United States as well as nations from many other parts of the world have committed men and resources, has received scant attention from Europeans. It is a situation which is euphemistically described as ‘on the way to being stabilized’. Are we truly unawares that it is becoming a dangerous legacy bequeathed to the future?
I think there is an overall problem concerning the information that filters out of crisis areas. I’m saying this, first and foremost, as a journalist. It is difficult to gain access to direct sources and reliable information, coupled with the objective difficulties in investigating what is happening in the field. In many cases, the impression I gained is that we are moving ahead without a coherent strategy and without seeking multilateral agreements. These always guarantee close collaboration, not only between those countries that are directly involved in conflict, but also among the whole international community.
I am convinced that even though multilateral organizations are undergoing a period of crisis, the international community is capable of finding a common direction. Strategies can be elaborated which enable influence to be exerted upon single cases and thus help steer conflicts towards the sphere of negotiation. In a nutshell: alliances. Alliances which develop and expand. In my opinion this to be the only possible solution unless we want the world we are about to hand over to our children to be a mayhem, governed by force and the relationships of power, rather than a place of tranquil cohabitation with the prospect of peace – a desire shared, I am sure, by all of us.
I should like to point out that, at the end of 2004, leaving aside the Middle East – an area the world has devoted great attention to - before the terrible tsunami hit the coasts of southern and eastern Asia and parts of East Africa, there were at least three serious conflicts on the Asian continent – very serious ones, in fact. In Sri Lanka, an uneasy negotiation process was moving forwards with difficulty, with sporadic dangerous violations of the ceasefire sanctioned by the 2002 agreements. In Nepal, apart from an evident crisis in the monarchy, a government in difficulty was facing the reality that an extensive part of its territory was under the control of Maoist guerrillas. And finally, in Indonesia, where a low intensity war had afflicted the northern province of Aceh since the 70s, there was a sudden upsurge in hostilities after the failure of the fragile negotiations which had been conducted under the auspices of the Swiss organization, Henry Dunant.
As of now, two of these serious conflicts have been largely resolved. It is obviously difficult to predict a future that is still uncertain, and it would be hasty to believe that, in the course of two years, it has been possible to heal the wounds of conflicts that, in some cases, have lasted for more than thirty years (in the case of Aceh we can even say…for centuries). What is certain, however, is that in both Nepal and Indonesia we are witnessing new developments that are extremely positive. Above all, the weapons lay silent. In Sri Lanka, unfortunately, not only this is not happening, but negotiations have floundered. The war has resumed in a devastating way and, as always, the civilian population is paying a high price. It is a situation in which, I’m afraid, I also feel responsible. Not individually, of course, but as a member of an international community which could perhaps have done more.
I would like to say more about Indonesia, a country that I know well and love. As I have already said, the tsunami tragedy has been ‘an opportunity for peace’ – a slogan that is clearly only half true. However, what has happened in Indonesia will help us understand a complex situation which is on the way to being resolved. In a few days, on the 11th of December, over two and a half million voters - such is the number of those eligible to vote - will go to the polls. It is an event whose significance goes well beyond that of a simple election process.
They are first and foremost an exercise in participatory democracy, with at least three new features with respect to the past. The first concrete development is the fact that the people of Indonesia will vote for the new governor and deputy governor, to be chosen from among eight pairs of candidates (as well as for district deputies and mayors), in the first elections in which the running candidates are not tied to a national political party. This effectively allows candidates from the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or Free Aceh Movement (or Gam), the former guerrilla movement, to run for the post of governor. This is a provisional measure, while waiting for a political party to be formed from the remains of Gam. Even though it was foreseen in the Helsinki agreements of 2005, an obstacle which seemed difficult to resolve in this case has been overcome.
The second important point is that the elections and the difficult task of organizing them in a short space of time have reconciled the province to the rest of the country.
Thirdly, these elections represent the first concrete test of the strength of the peace agreement. Although caution is still necessary, the information coming from Aceh is quite reassuring, as there is a general wish to respect the holding of free and peaceful elections.
Allow me to take a step back and describe briefly what happened in Indonesia before the tsunami of December 2004 - a date which was an important, but also painful, watershed in what I’ve referred to in my articles as Aceh’s ‘silent war’.
Towards the end of May 2003 the situation had deteriorated. With the agreement of Parliament, President Megawati Sukarnoputri imposed marshal law at midnight on the 18th. This constitutional/institutional/administrative step paved the way for the deployment of military units to destroy guerrilla forces “at their roots”. This last part is a quote from General Sutarto. I don’t want to analyze the motives that led President Megawati and the Indonesian Parliament to take this measure. I just want to point out that the deployment of forty thousand men, together with marine and air forces, is not an operation easily prepared in the space of a few hours. This leads us to the conclusion – with the scepticism that belongs to our disillusioned profession - that, while talks were still being held in a last ditch attempt to bring about a negotiated settlement, the fragile thread had, in fact, already been broken. I do not wish to suggest that a war was being prepared while the government and the guerrillas were reaching an agreement in December of the previous year, under the auspices of the association for the promotion of dialogue, Henry Dunant (an organization inspired by the founder of the Red Cross). Nevertheless, I want to stress that, while talks were being held about the strength of the December agreement in Jakarta at the end of May, the five hundred paratroopers that landed in Aceh on the morning of 19 May – and thus initiating the macabre rite of war - must have been put on the alert weeks before. I would like to point out that these paratroopers were the forefront of a force equal to a third of that deployed in Iraq.
With hindsight, we could say that Iraq was a forerunner of the war in Aceh, with the advantage that Jakarta was playing at home and was not, therefore, in violation of any international law. Not only this, but the Indonesians immediately put some of the lessons learned from Iraq into operation: the ban on intervention by humanitarian organizations and the extreme difficulty that journalists had doing their work unless they were embedded (a term we are by now accustomed to). Moreover, the international uproar over Iraq took the attention away from Aceh’s little war. This prevented the small amount of protest that managed to filter through from reaching the eyes and ears – distracted as they were - of the media and the political decision makers.
This serious neglect, this deafening silence turned the conflict in Aceh into a silently fought war. The little that was known, and this thanks to the work of local NGOs and international bodies such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, pointed to the perpetration of horrible atrocities: extrajudicial executions, the bombing of civilians – patent violations of human rights. But who had the time or desire to deal with it? Was the general public informed of the events? Can you name a journalist that was given space by his newspaper to write about a war whose outbreak wasn’t even heard of and which lacked images of any kind?
Coming back to the pint, this is why the tsunami represented an opportunity. As you know well the solidarity following the tidal wave was the result, in the West, of the media attention given to an event wrongly described as the biggest catastrophe in recent history and that will be quite rightly remembered as the most highly funded humanitarian action ever. The presence of many European tourists on the beaches of Thailand and the Maldives forced national broadcasters to become interested in countries and places sometimes only known by tour operators. There were two main effects of this international aid operation: one financial and one geopolitical. Many countries were driven to play roles they had never played before. China, for example, became a humanitarian aid donor and India publicly refused any foreign aid. Suddenly light was shed not only on the tragedy brought about by the sea, but also on several conflicts in the region.
Paradoxically, the controversy surrounding the use of the tsunami funds in Sri Lanka helped reignite the conflict in this country, whereas in Indonesia the opposite took place. With regard to peace in Indonesia, the tsunami obviously only acted as a catalyst that fed on several significant political events. Megawati had been replaced by a new President, who had been directly elected by the people for the first time. The former general Susilo Bambang Yudoyhono, although coming from the military, had not relied upon the support or the apparatus of the Tentara Nasional Indonesia. In addition, the war had perhaps come to a standstill. Forty thousand soldiers had failed to get the better of the approximately five thousand men fighting for Gam, who were also struggling. Gam forces were not only facing military problems, but also lacked consensus, because long conflicts damage relations between guerrillas and the civilian population, which is often exposed to the injustice and blackmailing of those who, at first, gave hope of improvement.
At this stage, however, strong action was needed by the international community and the national players/actors themselves. These national players/actors resumed negotiations in a new mood – a strong will to resolve the conflict without hesitation or second thoughts - thanks to the mediation of the Crisis Management Initiative, a Finnish NGO headed by former President Marti Ahtisaari. To a certain extent, the suffering caused by the tsunami and the solidarity quickly and openly showed by all Indonesians, who became involved thanks to a wide network of local NGOs, pushed the negotiators to work harder and more efficiently than they would have done in other circumstances. The European Union also played an important role in offering to help the negotiation process by establishing the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM), with the task of supervising the various steps agreed in the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’, signed by the government and Gam on August 15th 2005 in Helsinki. The demobilization of the guerrilla forces and the surrender of weapons followed. At the same time, the government committed itself to a reintegration plan for Gam’s military cadres. It also guaranteed an amnesty and, on the legal front, called for an election to be monitored by the new Indonesian National Election Commission (Komisi Penyiaran Indonesia).
The Indonesian case, therefore, seems to show that a chain of internal and external factors can transform the nightmare of war into a tale of political success. What lessons can we draw from all of this?
Obviously, the political will of the opponents is the main factor. This is clear in the Indonesian case as it is, once the king is left aside, in the Nepalese case. The two main players/actors in these conflicts want - and I stress ‘want’ - to reach a peaceful solution. But there are also the international players/actors to be considered, together with minor national players/actors, otherwise known as the “civil society”. This includes associations, NGOs, local solidarity networks, religious groups and big and small local institutions. These are ‘minor’ only with respect to the principal players/actors, but it seems to me that their role is decisive. If the international community can play a crucial role by financing reconstruction work, assisting the government and, at the same time, monitoring the outcome of the negotiations, all the more important is the role of the grassroots organizations. These organizations are an expression of civilian society in all its diversity, often fragmented and confused, but still representing the positive action, characteristic of our modern, complex and disorganized society in which people have an ever increasing desire to participate.
We are often dealing with local networks that, nevertheless, build international alliances, making use of funds from other countries or with UN agencies. This allows them to embrace other realities. All this - and it seems to me to be one of the issues confronted by this gathering - helps to build bridges and guarantee, as should be the case in mature democracies, that there aren’t only actions existing at government level, but also negotiations based on consensus and widespread participation.
This new reality should be examined with greater attention and these new associative formulas, each containing a small seed of democracy and participation, ought to be supported. Once again, we come round to the question of alliances. A key word - and not only for the resolution of conflict.
I’ve already tried your patience, but I should like to ask you to bear with me for a few minutes more. I would just like to say a few words about a project recently begun in Italy, but not yet officially announced in my country. It concerns the creation of an association called Asia Maior, after the name the Romans gave to this great continent. It grew out of the experience of an annual publication, started 15 year ago by two Italian scholars, Giorgio Borsa and Paolo Beonio Broccheri. Every year this publication has informed us about the events that have taken place in different Asian countries over the past year. However, this newly established association, presided over by Professor Michelguglielmo Torri, and of which I am the vice-president, aspires to become something more. We are hoping to build an alliance between different professional bodies: academics, who constitute its majority, and specialized journalists, which is my personal case. This project is on the way to becoming the first Italian think-tank entirely devoted to Asia and the basic idea is that there is a need to open doors and windows – to bring in fresh air. It is necessary to be able to communicate with a large public and involve it in the great transformations that are sweeping across the world. The only means of achieving this are through new and ever wider alliances: meeting places for academics, diplomats, journalists and politicians, but also including businessmen and young researchers. Above all, it is important that all this occurs within a flexible framework, with the contribution of friends that have been shaped by different experiences and, obviously, come from different countries. Just like what is happening here today.
This is why I have such pleasure in announcing, here in India, the birth of Asia Maior in Italy. It’s taking place thousands of miles away from New Delhi, but it feels as if it’s happening next door.
Thank you
Emanuele Giordana

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