The effectiveness of Aceh's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been put to the test. Human rights organisations, international community, war victims and survivors are assessing whether the TRC will achieve peace with justice.
The highly anticipated TRC was established in 2015 by the Aceh House of People's Representative to probe the alleged violence and human rights abuses during the civil war. It was promised to be set up over a decade ago when the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement was ratified by the Indonesian government and Free Aceh Movement.
The TRC fits in the legal framework of the Human Rights Court and Aceh Peace Process. The commission, still in its preliminary stages, is expected to conduct an impartial and independent investigation to provide an account of violations that took place during the conflict and find out what truly happened. Prosecution of alleged perpetrators may take place if sufficient evidence is gathered during the proceedings which are expected to go on until 2021.
The Indonesian government and the militant Free Aceh Movement (GAM) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in August 2005 under the auspice of the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) which brought the brutal conflict to an end. The deeply protracted and intractable armed conflict stretched raged across the province for 26 years which refused to die out. The war resulted in a high civilian death toll especially between 1989 and 2004 when the military conducted operations to stop claims for independence.
A string of killings and brutalities took place during the civil war. One such tragic incident was the 2003 Jambo Keupok killings where 16 men were murdered by security forces in South Aceh. Dozens of military personnel reached the village of Jambo Keupok where they killed the innocent men. The National Rights Commission's investigation team found enough evidence to determine that the incident amounted to crimes against humanity (Law No.26/2000 on Human Rights Courts). Amnesty International (AI) has called on Indonesia to inquire and collate evidence on the Jambo Keupok incident, and hold those accountable for crimes under international law and human rights abuses.
For many years, the Indonesian government turned a blind eye towards the string of human rights abuses that happened in Aceh during former president Suharto's New Order which was riven with violence and repression. Civilians were abused, tortured and violated by both sides. It was only after 1998 that the country took progressive steps towards democracy by implementing human rights provisions into its constitution.
In 2004, a law setting up the TRC was passed. However, the law contained an article which provided amnesty for alleged culprits, and mandated that survivors should forgive them in order to qualify for reparations. The law was negated by the Constitutional Court in 2006 which also stopped the TRC process.
However, there are many shortcomings with truth commissions where the demands for retributive justice are not met. The classic example of South Africa's TRC which provided conditional amnesty to alleged culprits on the condition of coming forward and telling the truth about what they did. The revelations left many South Africans shocked that such offenders were given amnesty for their crimes. Human rights activists have criticised that "justice" may be replaced by "truth" that undermines the rule of law and human rights for all.
According to AI, many Acehnese survivors have high hopes for the peace process and the enhanced security situation in their province. A report commissioned by the human rights group in April 2013 revealed that war survivors were anxiously waiting for the government to establish an apparatus to find out the truth and provide reparation to them. Some want justice too. Justice for the victims will only be achieved when impunity for the alleged perpetrators will end and they will be prosecuted.
Another key area that some survivors want is acknowledgement and apology for past wrongdoings. Apologies have become a significant marker of a country's national reconciliation process. Some programmes after the Helsinki peace agreement which provided monetary support did not specifically acknowledge the human rights violations that victims have suffered. To date, the Indonesian government has neither acknowledged nor apologised for any of its past atrocities that happened in East Timor, West Papua and the 1965 violence.
The TRC will not only be an apparatus for survivors seeking the truth and demanding justice, it is also for Indonesia to come in terms with its past. What happened in Aceh should serve as a lesson for future generations. Reconciliation is a process to heal emotionally and physically wounded individuals. Also justice is not tantamount to revenge. It is ensuring that past perpetrators do not repeat their crimes again.
Roshni Kapur is a graduate student at the University of Sydney majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies.