The Aceh Truth and Reconciliation Commission, giving a voice to survivors

An older woman spoke haltingly into a microphone, her hands trembling from the memory: “They beat my whole body, my eyes and hands were tied. They hit me with a big plank of wood. There were four of them. They hit me on the head, and whipped me with a belt.”

Thus began two days of testimonies at the local parliament house in Lhokseumawe, in the northern part of Aceh, a province of Indonesia located at the northern end of Sumatra. On 16 and 17 of July fifteen victims and family members of the disappeared took their place on stage, speaking before Aceh’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The audience, made up of fellow survivors, human rights defenders, former combatants, local authorities and commanders of the local police and military sat in silence, listening to the litany of atrocities that took place in the province between 1989 and 2004, during the Indonesian government’s military actions against the Aceh independence movement (GAM, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka). A mother shot in the head at home for being accused a ‘cuak’ or informer; a father taken away by soldiers from his hut in the rice field, his son, then still a child, running from one military post to another, only to find his father in a river, eyes gouged out. Even the most hardened hearts felt heavy, strained under the weight of these unspeakable crimes. At the end the proceedings, the deputy mayor made a promise to commit government resources to assisting survivors.

This was the second public hearing to be organized by the Aceh Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Last November, the commission had held its first hearing at the Governor’s Palace, where 14 survivors of torture spoke about their experience and the impact on their lives until today.

Ten years of fighting against all odds

It has taken more than a decade to get here. In December 2004, the destruction caused by the tsunami led to a successful peace negotiation between the Indonesian government and the GAM, signed in Helsinki on August 5, 2005. The peace accord contained the agreement of both parties to establish a truth commission and a court with jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and genocide. A year later, however, under the national law that codified the peace agreement, granting Aceh autonomous powers of governance, the court was limited to crimes in the future, and the Aceh truth commission was “inseparably” linked to existing plans to establish a national truth commission. And that same year when a Constitutional Court struck down Indonesia’s truth commission law, it left the Aceh truth commission in legal limbo.

Victims’ groups and civil society in Aceh kept campaigning tirelessly for the creation of the promised truth commission. Organizing sit-ins, conducting their own hearings, creating a draft law for the truth commission, and weathering political tides brought about by local elections, civil society claimed victory when the Aceh parliament passed a local law establishing the truth commission in October 2016, ten years later than promised by law. By then, some of the most vulnerable survivors who had something to say had passed away.

The limits of a localized truth-seeking process

The Helsinki peace agreement had included other provisions that, taken all together, created a holistic transitional justice plan. This included amnesties for persons detained/imprisoned for being members of GAM; demobilization, disarmament and decommissioning of GAM combatants and of Indonesian security forces; a reintegration program for former combatants, political prisoners and “civilians who suffered a demonstrable loss”; as well as institutional reform to strengthen accountability and rule of law, and the establishment of local political parties as a way to institutionalize the voice of the Acehnese people.

The last provision would prove crucial in ensuring that transitional justice plans were implemented. When Partai Aceh, the local party established by former GAM leaders, finally took on the demands of victims and civil society, it gave the momentum that helped create the truth commission.

However, the fact that the Aceh truth commission was established by a local law (called Qanun, an Arabic word for ‘canon’ or law), brings about some challenges. The commission does not have the power to compel testimonies or evidence from persons or organizations outside of Aceh. Thus, this localized truth-seeking process is designed with the main goal to document victim’s experiences, and make recommendations to assist. It is a far cry from the accountability that should be afforded to the systematic atrocities that took place in Aceh, but it is a start.

Urgent assistance needed

The Aceh TRC is mandated to look at violations committed by all sides of the conflict but its proximity to victims means that it must find a pathway to provide urgent assistance and reparations for vulnerable victims, with an emphasis on victims of torture, sexual violence and those disabled. After two public hearings and more than 2000 statements, the TRC has now made recommendations that the local government should provide urgent assistance to 77 survivors. A small drop in the ocean, but a meaningful beginning.

The TRC must also develop a community reconciliation process between local perpetrators and victim communities. Currently, the commission is still undertaking research on this issue. Lastly, the Aceh parliament went out on a limb and established the commission as a permanent institution. Nurzahri, chair of the committee responsible for the draft law, believed that there needed to be a long-term investment to reconciliation.

In the 10 years of pushing for this commission, international actors and donors were reluctant to take on any risk of offending the Indonesian authorities. Don’t rock the boat, don’t spoil the peace. At a national level, Indonesia’s own unaccounted past has allowed human rights abusers to come back to the political stage. Now the people of Aceh are teaching us a lesson in humanity. Speaking the truth may hurt, but it is for lasting peace.

Galuh Wandita is the Director of Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), a regional NGO focusing on accountability and rights. She was Deputy Director of the Timor-Leste Truth commission and is now an advisor for the Aceh Truth and reconciliation commission.

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