Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Real Meaning of Sustainability, Part IV

Part IV: Cultural Survival and a Post-Conflict Update

Today, just to keep a bit on top of things in this narrative, I looked up Steven Shewfelt, who as you recall did his dissertation (in 2007) on the different attitudes people had towards returning towards their homes in Aceh after the peace accord, and conducted an examination of their respective emotional and perceived economic states. As I read further in his dissertation I think I’m seeing that this study may not be as useful to us as I first thought, because it seems that he did not interview a representative sample of the communities, which include many women, children, and elderly/disabled. I believe that everyone he interviewed was from Java. It’s true that great many people from Java lived in and continue to live in Aceh (and Aceh Timur); this is mostly as a result of the transmigration program initiated by Jakarta in order to alleviate overcrowding in Java and populate the more “troublesome”regions of the country (cf East Timor during the 1979-99 occupation). So although many Javanese consider Aceh their home, their responses are by no means indicative of the thoughts, fears, hopes, aspirations, or collective memory of the Gayo and other indigenous groups who had inhabited those areas for generations.

For example, here’s some world factbook information on Aceh:
Ethnic Groups: 45% Javanese, 14% Sundanese, 7.5% Malays 7.5% Madurese,
26% , Other
26% “Other.” That’s a lot of “other!!!”
Languages: Bahasa Indonesia (official), English, Dutch, over 1,000 indigenous languages
One Thousand. Count ‘em.
Motto: Unity in Diversity
And yet . . . a post-conflict assessment that studies only half of 45% of the population (Javanese women being excluded)?

He reports at one point during his field interviews, “As the peace agreement has been implemented with considerable success, people who live in the province and see the day-to-day improvements in the security situation, even if they have not returned to their homes of origin, are less likely to hold on to the polarized sentiments through which they see a potential enemy in everyone who is not a known compatriot. This dynamic was evident in a focus group discussion with people who were still displaced but lived in Aceh." [I believe all these “people” were from Java; I must ask him about this.]

Interviewer: “Now, after the MOU, are you worried, afraid of experiencing prejudice or something?”

Respondent 1: “There is no prejudice anymore, because it’s not only Javanese here, there are also people from Gayo, Sumatra and Aceh. No matter here or anywhere else, the people of Aceh are now united. And there are ex-GAM members, for example in Sindang Balik, and they live here now, so [there is] no more prejudice and we are not worried.”

This type of finding is hard to evaluate, because Javanese would be far less likely to be the subject of any prejudice and could comfortably say that they felt no prejudice and so that because Gayo were living with them, everything was fine. That sounds vaguely like whites arguing that there isn’t any discrimination anymore because they see people of color everywhere. So I’ll have to talk to him about that if he responds.

But now, as promised, we go back a week or so when I was still trying to find information about how the province was faring post-conflict. Cultural Survivial is an interesting group and I grew excited when I found their web page with information on the Aceh Conflict.

Here is an excerpt.

It is easy to understand why the Indonesian nation-state has denied Aceh independence. Jakarta wishes not only to preserve national unity, but also to develop other areas of Indonesia using profits derived from exploitation of the oil and gas deposits in Aceh. Aceh supplies 50 percent of Indonesian oil and gas. Aceh territory is also considered resettlement ground for Javanese migrants. The Acehnese, however, are opposed to this use of their land and have long aspired to independence. [my italics added.]

I was glad to read this because it gets closer to what we need to point out to more people in the position of affecting public and social policy regarding smallholder and indigenous rights in Aceh Timur.

However, as I feared, the article did not go far enough, in that these days, in fact for many years now, the Aceh provincial government wants to exploit this for themselves. This is what is thwarting attempts to assist the rural poor in these resource-rich areas of the province. This is why we can’t get a good-sized sustainable development grant for smallholders to save our souls. The Acehnese, it turns out, are NOT “opposed to this use of their land,” if by “Acehnese” we mean government officials and people who see their economic survival as dependent on large and destructive mining and agribusiness interests. It’s pretty hard for someone who can’t feed his family or get medicine for the baby to say no to a job in a gold mine because he knows inherently that this is destroying his ancestral home.

However, many good points are made:

During this struggle for independence, their human rights have systematically been disregarded -- they have been pillaged, raped, and disappeared. Thousands have been forced to leave their homes due to targeting by Indonesian military operations. At least 5,000 people have been killed in the last decade -- 345 in the first four months of 2000 alone. They have been forbidden to write in their own language, and their freedoms of expression, religion, and culture have been repressed. In response to those violations, the Free Aceh Movement, led by Hasan di Tiro, has been striving since 1976 (both militarily and diplomatically) to establish an independent state. GAM's leaders currently live in exile in Stockholm.

Sadly, Mr de Tiro died in 2010 after finally being allowed to return to Aceh, and receiving his citizenship back one day before his death. I believe that since the article first was published (2000) all GAM leaders have ceased living in exile.

Human rights violations are not the only reasons compelling Acehnese to seek independence. They feel that they are economically disadvantaged since most of the profits derived from their oil, gas and other products benefit other provinces. Instead of enjoying an improved standard of living, most Acehnese live in poverty. Jakarta's transmigration policy, [note: see above entry on Dr Shewfelt’s dissertation] which relocates workers from the overcrowded Java to other islands, is reviled. As a result of transmigration, Javanese immigrants populate the mountains and the industrial zones on the coast of Aceh, cutting off Acehnese access to the fish and rice necessary for subsistence. Perhaps most importantly, religion has dominated concerns for independence. Acehnese take issue with the fact that while Indonesia is 87 percent Muslim, it is not an Islamic state. The Acehnese have made several attempts to establish an Islamic state and continue to aspire to this goal. - See more at:

 So it would seem to be helpful to know exactly: Who are the people living in Aceh Timur? Where did they come from? How many are indigenous, and how are we going to describe that? Are they Gayo? Malay? What per cent are Javanese?

Next Time:
How Aceh Timur and the Leuser Ecosystem Intersect—the good, the bad, and the very scary

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