Peace in Aceh

The long-running guerilla war in the Indonesian province of Aceh is finally over. Indonesian troops (other than those recruited locally) have been withdrawn, and the military wing of the Free Aceh Movement has been disbanded and disarmed. The pointlessness of this long war was brought home to both sides by the catastrophic tsunami a year earlier, which killed 170 000 people and forced everyone to co-operate in rescue and rebuilding.

Sadly, a similar impetus towards peace in Sri Lanka, appears to have faded. And of course the slaughter just goes on in places like Iraq and Darfur.

Overall, though, it’s Aceh that is representative of the trend. The number and severity of wars and conflicts has declined greatly since the end of the Cold War.

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

40 thoughts on “Peace in Aceh

  1. I stand corrected! To be sure, MPLA and its counterparts also found ready backers in Moscow and Beijing also. There are no Platonic ideals of national liberation struggles… even the American revolutionaries were supported by the French who wished to inconvenience their British imperial rivals.

  2. “The number and severity of wars and conflicts has declined greatly since the end of the Cold War.”

    This is undoubtedly true, although it is only fifteen years since the Cold War ended. And it could be said that the Cold War began in 1918 and thus lasted (with a hiatus between 1941 and 1945) for more than 70 years. Therefore its a bit soon to be definitve about this observation.

    There are at least two major reasons for the violence of the later Cold War era.

    1. Communist powers underwrote and supported violent movements.

    2. Many colonised peoples wanted to get rid of their colonial overlords, who were not keen to leave.

    The absurdity of the US misadventure in Vietnam was the assumption that communist support precluded the possibility of independent nationalism.

    Whatever, traditional European-style colonialism is over. So no more nationalist movements.

    So why may it be too early to proclaim “the end of history”?

    1. Pax Americana has never really existed, and US attempts to impose it have provided motives for other interests (Russia, China, India and perhaps even Japan) to construct alternative centres of power. Oil politics in Central Asia, for example, are the opening moves in this realignment of forces.

    2. Islamism is likely to become more firmly entrenched in Central Asia, just as it is becoming more entrenched in Iraq since the removal of Saddam. This is beyond the ability of the US or any other combination of powers to control by military or quasi-military means. Surrogacy is the only workable method. And surrogacy often means civil violence. This is power politics as usual. So no end of history.

    Recent developments in Latin America, where democracy has paved the way for the rise of anti-Americanism, serves as the model for coming events in Central Asia — a heady mixture of democracy and illiberalism.

    I predict a bullish future for the manufacturers of AK47s.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with you John that “vigorous but peaceful agitation” is by far the most effective means of achieving liberation or social change of any kind (I don’t doubt for a second, for instance, that non-violent agitation could terminate israeli occupation very quickly). From a cost/benefit analysis point of view, the discussion is easy. From a moral point of view, however, I would say that the most important question is “Does the stronger side allow the weaker side to adopt the peaceful alternative?” and if not “What can be done to compell it to do so?”. It is my impression that the answer to this question would be a clear no in most historical cases (France in Algeria and Indochina to provide clear examples).

    It also seems to me that the way you phrased your question is peculiar, to say the least. Any successful resort to force (or even the threat of it) is an example of what you are looking for, isn’t it? Take any successful invasion. It can be argued that the initiators “got an outcome […] better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation” since presumably they would have obtained nothing through peaceful negociation. Maybe this ceases to be true if we choose to identify the people actually fighting (and dying) to conquer a territory with those that will benefit from it, but that seems extremely spurious to me. To substantiate what I write, I believe the US governement “got an outcome better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation” in the Iraq invasion, same with France with respect to its numerous criminal interventions in Africa. Or take any situation where the stronger side adopts the old athenian stance against Melos (that the weak suffer what they must). I believe Australia “got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation” with respect to the exploitation of natural resources on the coastlines of East Timor. I could go on with dozen of examples.

  4. Hal9000 says: “By the time victory has been achieved, as Mugabe eloquently exemplifies, the leadership is usually debauched. “

    It is possible that Mugabe was debauched at Zimbabwean Independence in 1980, but I think all the evidence is against this. Mugabe’s early post-Independence policies were considered wise and tempered by most observers, including western Governments, who showered him with aid and praise. He adopted a policy of inter-racial reconciliation; he refused to allow retaliation for white war crimes (in contrast to the vengeful policy adopted by the Kohl Government after German unification); he did not nationalize white-owned farms or companies; indeed, he allowed free market entry in many areas which the Smith Government had controlled (eg, meat processing); he dramatically raised the purchasing price of crops which peasant farmers grew, thereby creating an immediate boom in farm output; he liberalized the censorship laws; he did not sack civil servants from the previous regime (as any incoming US administration does); he even introduced religious education into state schools, something the supposedly christian Smith Government never did. None of these actions are those of a debauched or ruthless dictator, and, by all accounts, all followed debate within his multi-racial, multi-party Cabinet.

    It is to be remembered, also, that throughout the first few years of Zimbabwean Independence, the country suffered bomb attacks by disgruntled whites and military raids from South Africa, including the cold-blooded murder of the ANC representative in Salisbury (as it then still was) by South African agents, bombing of the first arch built to celebrate Indepedence, and destruction by planted bombs of the country’s air force. Mugabe’s tempered and gradualist policies received great provocation in this period.

    This is not to justify the evil he has perpetrated since, but to note that few reasonable people considered Mugable or his Government evil in 1980-1981. Any fair assessment of the utility of armed struggle vs. peaceful resistance in Zimbabwe would come down firmly on the side of armed struggle, if the assessment was done in 1980-81.

  5. JQ — A few comments back you cite Indonesia as an example of a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy. I guess this assessment depends on when you think the struggle began. Last time I checked, I believe there about 500,000 people killed in struggling against dictatorship in Indonesia, just in 1965.

  6. While the pretext of the mass murder in 1965 was an attempted Communist coup, many of those killed (as usual) were innocent of any political involvement.

    Still, this instance certainly seems to be a prominent example of the futility of violence.

  7. The attempted coup story has always looked pretty suss to me. The military officers slain in the alleged coup just happened to be those loyal to Sukarno and who could have kept the soldiery on a leash. The CIA was on the ground bankrolling Suharto and had recent form in the assassination of Diem in Vietnam. Compare and contrast also the assassination of the head of the Chilean military shortly before the Pinochet coup. If the PKI were plotting a coup, why were its cadres so ill-prepared, as against the genocidaires who were all too prepared? Cui bono?

  8. JQ, I’m all for your putting forward your own optimism, I’m just against your asserting that it’s all over when we should all appreciate by now that there is a way to hell even from the gates of heaven. This article acknowledges as much in the case of Aceh, though not in those words.

    What I’d prefer to see is your stating your hope, but not falling uncritically into the trap of supposing it’s already realised. I’ll give an example of my learning about these things myself, when I was growing up. I was in the UK, and I had just realised that if I was agreeing with the Daily Express so much, given that I didn’t yet know everything, then the odds were that they were being shallow themselves. Then along came some “good news” from Africa. A particularly unpleasant dictator had just been overthrown non-violently, by a coup while he was out of the country. Most British papers acclaimed this as positive, but one (I forget which) acclaimed it as full of hope, but pointed out as a note of caution that recent African experience had shown that things could always get worse.

    I took their note of caution to heart, particularly since I had myself had direct experience of Africa to compare it with. It was a sound judgment. The overthrown dictator was Milton Obote, and his replacement was Idi Amin.

    So I suppose I’m suggesting that you be less like the Daily Express and more like the other newspaper, expressing your hopes but not confusing the early signs of them with actual attainments.

    On the “general trend” business, I wasn’t getting at that just there, just showing how you couldn’t infer a silver lining of this sort from this particular natural disaster (late 2004’s Tsunami). On the matter of general trends, I was only trying to show that in this area we just don’t have anything like enough to draw out any solid trends.

    As for people seeing that they were fighting over nothing, well, very often they aren’t – it’s merely nonsense according to certain sets of values, but utterly rational in their own terms. It would often be rational in ours as well, if only we knew the whole story (think how so many Americans suppose that the Palestinians were offered everything they could reasonably want, and merely turned it down irrationally). It’s not a peculiarly American failing, it’s what happens to anybody who counts chickens before they are hatched or otherwise assumes results in advance.

    I just don’t like to see you suffering like this from premature expostulation.

  9. Oh, I tend to get “pompous” and long winded when I am struggling hard to avoid being painfully blunt. I don’t think I need to with the following stuff.

    The Portuguese domestic opposition to colonialism did indeed get going and powerful in the middle class professional group. But this wasn’t because their consciences had been triggered, it was because Portugal had a double-dip conscription system that caught professionals in early middle age to supply more than just cannon fodder for the colonial struggle (I’ve researched this a bit, and in fact I mention it in an article I wrote for the Australia Defence Association which I have up at my publications page).

    India’s involvement in the Himalayan Kingdoms isn’t aimed at propping them up, except temporarily for strategic buffer reasons. It’s aimed at assimilating them, just as it did Sikkim and those princely states that opted not to join it at independence. India happens to prefer a softly softly approach, with infiltrators and suchlike, but will resort to violent means if others fail. Goa also comes under this heading.

    JQ is being over optimistic about British peaceful decolonisation. It was hurried under US diplomatic pressure and post-1945 economic pressure, and the earlier plans – including Canada and Australia – were for a sort of super-Nato with effective autonomy making the units self funding. That’s also why responsible self government was urged on Australasian colonies faster than they actually sought it. And, of course, Britain had learned lessons from the American rebels (that taxation without representation was red herring – some always wanted independence, and the rest just didn’t want taxation and hung what they thought was a good excuse on their demands). There was lobbying in London, but not over the principle, it was over the particular form things should take (including how many concealed strings were to be attached, of course).

  10. Peter Says:

    January 2nd, 2006 at 10:08 am
    In response to John’s examples of peaceful transition from colonial rule to self-government: The various British colonies (Australia, Canada et al) got our self-government after a war was fought for independence in what is now the USA.

    Peter is wrong here, Britain started using Australia as a penal colony because they lost the USA in the War of Independence. Britain needed a new place to send their convicts with the US no longer an option. Australia is an excellent example of peaceful transition from colonial rule to self government.

    Alternately, Hawaiians have been struggling to restore their government since 1893 when the USA overthrew the Hawaiian government to gain control of Pearl Harbor and protect the business interests of 5 Americans. Shortly after the overthrow, 90% of the population of Hawaii signed a petition opposing the overthrow and the US government ignored it. The Hawaiian struggle continues today, at present the Akaka Bill (which seeks to grant Hawaiians the same recognition as the Native Americans) has been continually stalled in the US congress for 5 years, despite the Clinton administrations apology for the overthrow.

    In this context, a war would have more likely have produced a faster outcome for the Hawaiians to regain their independence.

  11. More on Savimbi…

    My recollection about the CIA setting up an ‘independence’ movement in Angola is partly correct – it wasn’t UNITA, which had a largely tribal/regional base centred around the diamond resources of Angola, but FNLA. The two became united after the MPLA declared itself the national government in 1975. Savimbi ended up, as I correctly stated, as a warlord funded and personally enriched by the illicit diamond trade. Repeated UN-brokered deals with the MPLA national government collapsed in the main because Savimbi was reluctant to part with the fabulous wealth he and his cronies derived from the diamond trade.


  12. >It is possible that Mugabe was debauched at Zimbabwean Independence in 1980, but I think all the evidence is against this. Mugabe’s early post-Independence policies were considered wise and tempered by most observers, including western Governments…

    Those “wise and tempered” policies included turning loose his North Korean trained elite units on his political opponents and the ethnic groups that supported them causing far more casualties than in his recent land appropriation campaign.

    I’m sure the west’s muted response to this had nothing to do with his victims back then being black Marxists rather than white capitalists.

  13. Ian — You did not read my post carefully enough. I referred to Mugabe’s policies in 1980-81. The Army’s North-Korean trained 5th Brigade was only loosed upon Matabeleland in 1982, AFTER ZAPU Ministers had been dismissed from the Government, and AFTER Joshua Nkomo, ZAPU’s leader, had admitted in a press conference that he had sought South African help to stage a coup against the Mugabe Government while he was a Minister.

  14. Ian said: I’m sure the west’s muted response to this had nothing to do with his victims back then being black Marxists rather than white capitalists.

    I don’t think the majority of people killed or maltreated in Zimbabwe by the 5th Brigade were Marxists. They were supporters of ZAPU, which had been aligned with and funded by the Soviet Union, but nobody seriously considered ZAPU would have adopted Marxist policies if it had been in power. They were a traditional, Big-Man, African political party, and a Zimbabwe led by Nkoma and ZAPU would have looked similar to Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda or Kenya under Jomo Kenyatta — corrupt, crony-capitalist, and with a gradual loss of civil rights.

    However, I agree that the West’s muted response was indeed strange, given that, at the time (1982), Britain was led by Margaret Thatcher and the US by Ronald Reagan. At Zimbabwean Independence, the domestic intelligence-gathering section of the Zimbabwean Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), led by Ken Flower (who had also led it under Smith), was re-organized into two groups — one monitoring South African activities within Zimbabwe and the other watching Soviet activities. The Soviets were not permitted to open an embassy in Zimbabwe for a couple of years after Independence. There was no monitoring of American or British activities by the CIO because, as Flower himself once told me, the Mugabe Government did not believe that the USA or the UK posed any threat to Zimbabwe.

    Perhaps relatedly, Mrs Thatcher’s Government was providing aid and military training to the Mozambiquean army, led by Frelimo, which was then still a Marxist party. Some of this military training of Mozambicans took place in Zimbabwe — in Manicaland, the same region of the country where ruthless North Korean armed judokas were training the 5th Brigade.

    While a conspiracy theorist could have field day with this, it is worth noting that the West’s muted response to Mugabe’s atrocities in Matabeleland in 1982-83 led him to think he could get away with anything, and that no one would protest much if he deliberately emiserated his country to stay in power. I guess he calculated right on that one.

  15. Since 1945, the British approach to granting independence has always been like the used car salesman who, knowing that a particular car has a defective reverse gear, parks it so it won’t have to reverse during manoeuvres to get out of his yard. Problems thereafter don’t come under his notice, any more than patients who die at home after early release from hospital make the hospital mortality statistics. Independence was always done well, but viability wasn’t a priority. Think coffin ship.

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