‘Lasting peace between warring parties will be achieved only when stalemate occurs, not when checkmate happens’ – An interview with Irwandi Yusuf

The third in our series of practitioner interviews was with the popular Irwandi Yusuf, a former senior representative of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) during the conflict in Aceh, Indonesia, which was settled in 2005, and later became the first elected Governor of the province of Aceh in 2007. A pragmatist through and through, he began his career as a lecturer at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, and, with a passion for the environment and conservation, was the founder of Flora and Fauna International in Aceh. During his time as Governor, Aceh successfully completed post-conflict and post-disaster reconstruction following the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, implemented a tough anti-corruption campaign, rebuilt relations with the central government, implemented a universal health insurance scheme and made the protection and sustainable use of Aceh’s abundant natural resources a priority. Following his first term as Governor, he formally split with GAM/Partai Aceh and formed his own political party, Partai National Aceh. As a result, he was not elected to a second term as Governor. He has remained a popular fixture on the political scene at the provincial and national levels due to his quick wit and sharp tongue.

TiP:         Thank you for chatting with us today.

IY:           My pleasure.

TiP:         You were a senior member of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), and later became the first elected Governor of Aceh, serving from 2005-2012. What was it like for you to ‘change hats’ from fighting the Government of Indonesia to becoming part of the government – and constructively engaging with central government?

IY:           Unlike other members of GAM, who were “quite innocent” about Indonesian bureaucracy, I had been working as a lecturer at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh for years.  To some extent, I knew what the Government of Indonesia (GoI) was like – its bureaucratic system, its faults, its strength, and its weaknesses. In short, I was not new to the governing of Indonesia. So, when the peaceful settlement of the conflict between Indonesia and Aceh was finally reached and I then won the “lucky draw” (election) to become the first elected governor of Aceh, representing GAM, the governing environment did not seem unfamiliar.  I had also been a senior representative of GAM to the EU-led Aceh Monitoring Mission, and was already considered and treated by Acehnese, and functioning as, a shadow governor of Aceh to whom most ordinary Acehnese came to appeal prior to the elections. Through that process I was gaining governing experience – dealing with folks and having the sense being a leader. So, when it came the time for me to change hats it felt so natural – as if there was no hat changing at all. This knowledge and confidence made it easier to engage with the central government in a way that benefitted Aceh, although disputes arose frequently, without putting too much strain on the fragile Jakarta-Aceh relations.

TiP:         The concept of local political parties was lauded as an important component of the MoU. In theory, it provides for more ownership and autonomous governance. In practice, there have been a lot of negative consequences, such as domination by one party, electoral intimidation and violence, and increasingly autocratic and unaccountable government. In your opinion, have local political parties been a good or bad thing for Aceh’s development and maintain the peace?

IY:           The building of local parties is indeed meant to enable Acehnese to assert more ownership of Aceh affairs as stipulated in the MoU and the Law on Governing Aceh (LoGA) 2007. However, the post-conflict democratization process in Aceh also suffered from the legacy of a long and protracted conflict where victories were sought through violence, intimidation and terror. This mentality carried over to the post-conflict period – which is common in all areas in the world where armed conflicts have taken place. It takes approximately two decades to completely heal the psychological wounds and scars of conflict – and overcome conflict-era behaviours. What happened in Aceh is no worse than elsewhere in the world. Indeed, in terms of negative events, what happened in Aceh could be categorized as mild to medium forms when compared with other post-conflict regions. Acehnese are fast learners – and the local parties will learn, too, as they grow and mature.  Although there have been bumps in the road, and surely there will be more, in all, local parties are critical to sustaining peace in Aceh and continuing its development.

TiP:         The peace process in Aceh has been lauded as one of the most successful.  In your opinion, what were the factors?

IY:           A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a meeting to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka’s conflict. In one discussion, I was asked my opinion about how to end the armed conflict between Government of Sri Lanka and the now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). My answer was simple: ‘Are you tired of war?’  It might have sounded sarcastic, but indeed true, lasting peace between warring parties will be achieved only when stalemate occurs, not when checkmate happens. Face-saving factors are indeed needed, because stalemate in war is often concealed and each party always tries to show that imminent victory is theirs. Face-saving factors vary from place to place. International suggestions or pressure and/or catastrophes are “catalytic reasons” to bring parties to the negotiating table to identify a plan for peace. Aceh had both stalemate and a catastrophe (the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004 killed some 150,000 people in Aceh alone) plus an international broker (Martti Ahtisaari and the EU) who encouraged both sides to open their mouths to say ‘peace’.

TiP:         Over the past two to three years, cracks in the peace are increasingly apparent. Why is this? Can we look back to the MoU – what was missing?

IY:           It is important to note that the cracks between Jakarta and Aceh are not leading to gaps. There are indeed several items in the MoU that have failed to be taken into the LoGA by the central government. On the other side, the LoGA has not been fully implemented by the Government of Aceh. Dissatisfaction due to broken promises by Jakarata and by the Government of Aceh is now felt everywhere in Aceh. GAM, though not dissolved as it was not required by the MoU, is currently very weak due to the low quality of its current leaders. It should always have been a guardian of the MoU because it is co-signatory, but it was not. So, when the GoI plays down the MoU and the LoGA, GAM leaders do not understand how to engage constructively and strategically, nor do they really have the tools or authority to do so, and have no other tactic except squawking pointlessly, picking unnecessary fights.

TiP:         In your opinion, how could the international community have improved its response to post-conflict Aceh? What can be learned by other conflict-affected regions?

IY:           The international community has a moral obligation to respond to deficiencies in the implementation of the peace agreement that binds both sides. Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative and the EU, as drivers of the peace process, should also not leave it completely to the domestic affairs of Indonesia.  The (peace) broker has a responsibility to ensure that the ‘commodities’ it has are sold receive appropriate long-term care.

TiP:         It has been nine years since the MoU was signed. How are you feeling about continued prospects for peace and improving the lives of Acehnese people today?

IY:           I am optimistic about the prospects for continuing peace and improving the lives of Acehnese folks provided that politicians and bureaucrats in Jakarta and Banda Aceh are of sufficient quality. But thinking about politicians and bureaucrats makes me tired… (laughs)!

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