Some real good news

by John Q on July 19, 2005

If we’re looking for good news from the Islamic world, as most of us are, can I suggest that the best place to look just now is right next door (to Australia, that is) in Indonesia[1]. The Indonesian government has just signed a peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). There’s plenty more to be done, and such agreements have failed before, but the chances this time look better than ever, as GAM has finally abandoned its demand for independence and the central government seems willing, for the first time, to concede real autonomy.

Regardless of whether this agreement holds, Indonesia’s successes since Suharto resigned have been simply amazing. At that time the economy was in a mess, there had been decades of brutal dictatorship, the army was involved mainly in domestic repression and deeply entangled in both politics and business, East Timor was still resisting occupation, Muslims and Christians were engaged in communal fighting, encouraged by sinister interests within the state, and terrorist groups like JI and Laskar Jihad operated more or less openly. The odds of coming through this without some sort of crisis, or worse, seemed slim.

In the subsequent seven years, there have been four peaceful changes of government, each of them (in my view) an improvement. The army is out of parliament, and increasingly confined to its appropriate role in national defence, Timor Leste is an independent, and friendly, neighbour, Laskar Jihad has disbanded, and JI has been largely broken up, with many of those involved in terror crimes now facing death or lengthy terms of imprisonment. Communal fighting in places like Ambon has stopped almost completely, and even long-running struggles like that in Aceh seem to be on the brink of peaceful resolution. The economy is still problematic, but it seems to be on the mend.

Things aren’t perfect of course, and in a democratic society that fact can’t be concealed behind a mask of official propaganda as it was in the Suharto years. But if everything in the world was going as well things have gone in Indonesia lately, we wouldn’t have too much to worry about.

fn1. Mark Bahnisch points to more good news for Australians here



Jonathan 07.20.05 at 6:30 am

Might the Tsunami have something to do with this change from Aceh?


John Quiggin 07.20.05 at 7:16 am

The tsunami was relevant in various ways. The rapid and generous response from the Australian government and public helped relations with Indonesia (which had been fraught for a variety of reasons) and the presence of a large-scale international aid effort put pressure on both sides to stop fighting and start rebuilding.

So, good came from bad, I guess.


Hektor Bim 07.20.05 at 9:13 am

You are of course eliding directly over West Papua, where extrajudicial killings are still common and the army, racism, and terrible natural degradation run rampant.

It seems to me that Indonesia could solve a lot of its problems by letting various rebellious provinces go. It clearly worked for East Timor, for example, even though the Indonesian government did everything it could to destroy as much of East Timor as possible before the handover.


Charles 07.20.05 at 11:46 am

While any gesture toward peace is wonderful, I remain skeptical. There were reports of the government using the tsunami as cover to further the war against the guerrillas (including, oddly, flying in Al Qaida fighters; Al Qaida apparently opposes the Free Aceh movement), and of US troops landing without the permission of the Indonesian government to further the so-called war on terror (rather than deliver relief).

Now, it’s hard to know which reports to credit. News is fragmentary, sometimes manipulated by governments, and difficult to follow up on. But it is difficult for me to believe that the trust necessary for a lasting peace has been established, especially given the long and violent history of the Indonesian government. It is possible that this is a truce of convenience.

But if it’s for real, wonderful!


Jonathan Edelstein 07.20.05 at 4:21 pm

Regardless of whether this agreement holds, Indonesia’s successes since Suharto resigned have been simply amazing.

Make that “since Megawati lost the election,” at least in this case; she was as determined as Suharto to crush the Aceh uprising, and as unwilling to concede autonomy.

But yes, this is definitely good news.


John Quiggin 07.21.05 at 6:04 pm

Just some quick responses, in reverse order

Megawati’s term was bad on Aceh, but good in some other ways: for example, the end of army seats in Parliament. As I say, each change of government has been for the better on balance

There’s still plenty of contradiction on Aceh, and some of the news around the time of the tsunami was bad, but the general trend since then has been towards peace.

West Papua is still a big problem: it’s an intermediate case between Aceh and ET in historical terms, and Indonesian rule has been brutal. It would have been far better if West Papua had gone in with PNG straight after WWII, but of course colonial boundaries prevented that.

At this point, I suspect the best solution is autonomy within a more loosely federal Indonesia.


RichL 07.24.05 at 8:13 pm

With respect to E. Timor being the model for Papua and Aceh, you forget that Papua(Copper& Gold) and Aceh (oil and gas) are major tax revenue generators for Indonesia. Timor has a possible claim on oil reserves but little current revenue. It isn’t very likely that Indonesia would substantially slash their own tax revenues voluntarily.

Papua at this point has half the population as indonesian, and half melanesian. The latter, while indigenous, is a tribal society. Guns beat spears. There is more government money going into Papua, but there is still a need for progress beyond a military solution. At least the new government is more flexible.

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