“When the tsunami came, tens of thousands of people were swallowed up in minutes by the waves. But here in this village, we were taken away two at a time, five at a time, ten at a time, for years. The families of those killed by the tsunami all have new houses, new motorbikes, new jobs. The whole world cried for them. But here we have nothing. And nobody knows what we have suffered.”
—Woman in Bireuen District, Aceh, Indonesia
Two years ago, I began an ethnographic project investigating how the internationally-lauded peace agreement signed by the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka [GAM]) had transformed the cultural and political landscape of Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province. As an anthropologist specializing in issues of political violence and transitional justice in Southeast Asia, I had celebrated, along with colleagues from the Indonesian human rights movement, the seeming end to a devastating, decades-long armed conflict that had led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives and to the routinization of military violence, intimidation, corruption and the gross exploitation of Aceh’s extensive natural resources. The 2005 Memorandum of Understanding, crafted in Finland with the help of an international negotiating team, promised not only to halt hostilities, but to provide Aceh with a level of autonomy unique among the nation’s provinces, offering Acehnese the rights to form local political parties, to implement shari’a law, and to control a far greater share of local wealth, including revenues from timber, mining and the Arun natural gas fields that in the 1990s, before Mobil Oil’s 1999 merger with Exxon, were providing the company with 25% of its global profits and returning an estimated US$1.2 billion a year to Indonesia’s central treasury (ICTJ 2008).
However, early in my fieldwork, crowded under a bamboo shelter with a dozen women conflict survivors, I began to grasp a much more complex story. For years, but especially from 1989–98, when Aceh was declared a Military Operations Area (Daerah Operasi Militer [DOM]) and martial law was imposed, the hamlet I was visiting was a site of extreme violence. The Indonesian military, which at the height of the conflict deployed 50,000 troops to secure a population of around 4 million Acehnese, had turned their campaign against GAM into a program of widespread terror towards civilians, with men and boys disappeared and tortured and women and girls subject to surveillance, interrogation and sexual abuse. These women told me of watching their daughters raped by soldiers, of nursing their sons’ wounds, and of struggling to eke a living from their lands when access to fields and markets was barred by combat. Peace had come to their village after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which decimated Banda Aceh, the province’s capital, took an estimated 170,000 lives, and led GAM to declare a cease-fire. With the eyes of the world on Aceh, the tsunami made it impossible for the government to continue to block outside access to the province, opening the door for an internationally-mediated settlement.
The cessation of war made a vast difference in these women’s lives. Like other Acehnese, they could now travel to work, school or the marketplace without fearing physical harm. They could cast their votes for local candidates, rather than accept policy proclamations emanating from Jakarta, Indonesia’s distant capital. Yet the official declaration of peace, and the subsequent elections that assured many outside political observers that Aceh was indeed in a “post-conflict” era, had not in fact put an end to their experiences of conflict. These women’s hopes that past violations would be addressed, and their everyday needs would be fulfilled, had not yet come to pass. Not only had they not been touched by the waves of international aid that had flooded tsunami-affected communities with reconstruction projects, they had been told by local and national elites that speaking about what had happened to them during the armed conflict, and how the effects of deep structural inequalities still constrained their lives, would be disloyal to their communities and dangerous for a fragile peace process. Most parties to the conflict—including former GAM combatants now in power—seemed to prefer to move on from the past, consolidating their political influence and promoting a post-conflict development strategy that emphasized attracting outside investment, including highly controversial mining operations, to a newly secure Aceh (cf Aspinall 2008). “‘Don’t disturb the peace,’ that’s what they tell us,” one woman said to me. “‘Just move on from the past and don’t think about that anymore.’ But we cannot forget, especially when our lives are still filled with struggle.”
These first encounters in Aceh impressed upon me just how powerful a discourse peace can be. Like other globalized terms referencing presumed social goods—eg, healing, development or humanitarianism—peace tends to take on a kind of Teflon sheen, rendering critical analysis, much less outright critique, frequently difficult. This may have to do with our often-impoverished understandings of peace as, in Carolyn Nordstrom’s words, “the resting pulse of humanity” (in Shadows of War 2008:141), the simple negative absence of war, rather than an active, contested, dynamic process worthy of sustained inquiry. (For an illustration of this within anthropology, a quick search of AnthroSource offers 1,599 records containing the words “conflict,” “war” or “violence” and a paltry 139 containing the word “peace.”) This also has, I suggest, much to do with the global forces that shape how peace agreements like Aceh’s are crafted and enacted through frameworks that exclude civilians from formal negotiations (which are generally seen as the province of expert mediators and “men with guns”), equate peace with free and fair elections, rule of law and a conducive environment for foreign investment, and rely upon the realist paradigms of international relations scholarship in which many elite conflict resolution practitioners are trained. Such frameworks may indeed have little to do with the everyday work of hope and dialogue and re-imagination that marks experiences of practicing peace.
Concerned to explore these issues further, I returned to Aceh to make a documentary film about the conflicts that have been saturating peace. Along with anthropologist Degung Santikarma, performance studies theorist Diyah Larasati, cinematographer Dag Yngvesson, and photographer (and former anthropology major) Jill Foley, I have been working on a project entitled “The American Road” that follows the length of a 150-kilometer highway built by the United States Agency for International Development as the centerpiece of the US reconstruction efforts in Aceh. This ethnographic project has been animated by anthropological commitments to context, complexity and the intensive study of recombinant forms of power, and by a desire to look at peace through the same kind of critical lens we apply to violence and conflict. The voices and images we are compiling along the road raise numerous questions: How do the discursive frameworks that are constructed to explain and address conflict, or to promote peace, amplify or constrain political possibility, foregrounding certain powerful sense-making practices while casting others as marginal, destabilizing or outside of the realms of logic or likelihood? How do these frameworks legitimize certain ways of addressing the past and imagining the future, while delegitimizing others? How does the repeated exhortation to not “disturb the peace,” echoed by social actors as ostensibly distinct as former Acehnese combatants and trial lawyers for Exxon-Mobil (now being called to account in a US court for deploying Indonesian military torture squads as private security for its Acehnese oil and gas operations; see “A Matter of Complicity? Exxon Mobil on Trial for its Role in Human Rights Violations in Aceh,” International Center for Transitional Justice 2008; “Exxon Hit by Reversal in Human Rights Case,” Wall Street Journal July 9, 2011) mark off a narrative boundary past which certain stories of suffering are deemed unruly and problematic? What does it mean, and whom does it empower, to view “peace” as a fragile entity that must be protected from memory, critique or counter-imagination? And what might happen, theoretically and politically, if we saw “peace” not as the endpoint to conflict, bringing closure on a past, but as an opening to new forms of narrative and narrative circulation? Working with our Acehnese interlocutors to ask and address such questions, we hope to collaboratively “disturb the peace” in a way that can help make it more inclusive, grounded and ultimately lasting.
Leslie Dwyer is assistant professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and Director of its Center for the Study of Gender and Conflict. Her research on mass violence, transitional justice and post-conflict politics in Indonesia has been supported the MacArthur Foundation, the HF Guggenheim Foundation, and the United States Institute of Peace.