Peace, truth & reconciliation in Aceh

By Lia Kent and Rizki Affiat

During a recent Sunday drive near Bener Mariah, in Central Aceh, to visit the district’s famous lake, we pass thick mountainous forests where it is said that tigers and elephants still roam. Our friend, a local peace advocate, gestures out of the car window to the sites of several mass graves. “Here is a place where the military threw bodies over the edge of a cliff into the valley below. … Over there is a place where there are many body parts lying, decomposed, in the jungle.” We stop at one site, a dilapidated tourist lookout, and climb the chipped tile steps to the top. There is no memorial to the dead. The terrain below seems treacherous, steep and unforgiving. We ask if families are trying to recover and rebury the bodies of their dead. “It is too difficult,” our friend replies, gesturing below to the trees tangled with vines. “And how would they identify the body parts anyway?”

This conversation was a stark reminder of the enduring legacies of several periods of violence and conflict in Aceh. Only ten years after the state-sponsored mass killings of 1965–66 that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, Aceh experienced further violence in the form of a bitter, twenty-nine-year civil conflict between the Indonesian military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI) and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM). The conflict, which followed GAM’s 1976 declaration of Acehnese independence, is thought to have claimed the lives of between 15,000 to 30,000 people; many others were tortured, raped, imprisoned, and displaced from their homes. Yet there has never been a systematic documentation process. These truths reside in the memories and bodies of those who lived through these events, passed on through oral stories to the next generation.

Acehnese human rights activists have long lobbied for an official truth commission to establish the extent and nature of human rights violations committed during the conflict. In 2016, it seemed that a significant step forward had been taken. Seven commissioners for Aceh’s locally mandated Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (Komisi Kebenaran dan Rekonsiliasi, or KKR) were selected by Aceh’s provincial parliament. The commission is began its work in 2017, but its success, and the support of the government of Indonesia, is by no means certain. In this chapter, we draw on recent interviews in Aceh to highlight what is at stake, and for whom, in the KKR’s truth-seeking and reconciliation processes, and outline some of the obstacles that lie ahead for the commission’s advocates.

Excerpted from “Gambling with Truth: Hopes and Challenges for Aceh’s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation,” Chapter 13 of Flowers in the Wall. Click here to download the entire chapter for free. Click here for a sorter version published in Inside Indonesia.

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