Published in the Ventura County Star

I participated in facilitating student workshops sponsored by Nonviolence International on peace education in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, last month.

In discussing the chapter entitled “We Love Peace,” the students made important distinctions between active and passive peace. They said, “It’s easy to stand outside the conflict and claim that you’re being nonviolent — that’s passive peace. What we want is active peace. Standing up for ourselves and our communities. But in Aceh,” they warned, “that’s dangerous.”

Aceh, a lush jungle and mountainous region on the northernmost tip of Sumatra, is home to a vicious civil conflict between armed Indonesian forces and guerrillas seeking Acehnese independence. A team of peace activists looking for a proactive lasting solution to the violence that has plagued their province for the last three decades developed a peace curriculum for high schools — the Program Pendidikan Damai — a peace education curriculum rooted in Qu’ranic peace teachings and Acehnese culture.

The students are right — it is dangerous for civilians in Aceh, much less a tenacious peace team trying to promote active peacemaking and nonviolence in high schools.

Case in point: One day leaving the peace education training, I saw firsthand a 23-year-old student, Muhammad Iqbal, shot in the head by a police officer at lunchtime in broad daylight on one of the busiest thoroughfares. His crime? He’d accidentally bumped the officer’s vehicle as he was riding by on a motor scooter.

The Indonesian military issued a flaccid apology the next day.

This year alone, more than 600 civilians have been killed in Aceh. Everyone has a story and no one is untouched by the violence. My friend and guide in Aceh reported that Muhammad Iqbal was once his student and frequented the coffee shop next to the school where he teaches.

One woman activist pleaded: “You must tell the United States that the Indonesian military must be stopped. You must help us.” Acehnese and Indonesian human rights groups both claim that the Indonesian military (TNI) acts with impunity.

Many people in the community expressed doubt that the officer allegedly responsible for the slain student’s death would be brought to justice.

Unfortunately, her plea may fall on deaf ears. Aug. 5 looms, the date set for deciding whether to impose martial law or a state of civil emergency in Aceh. The Indonesian military leader in Aceh says that he needs 3,000 additional troops to control the violence in this province.

This would mean disaster for the traumatized Acehnese population who are already living in constant fear, even to go out after dark.

Another friend I met at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh told me of his brush with death walking home from making a phone call just after dusk a few months ago. He saw a shadowy figure slink behind a building, so quick he thought he had seen a ghost. Moments later, an explosion nearly knocked him down as gunfire began to pepper the air. Dodging a falling power line, he barely escaped unharmed.

With the possibility of increased support from the United States, the Indonesian government is becoming more resolute in seeking a military solution to the ongoing conflict. The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee voted to lift a decade-old ban on military training initially imposed based on human rights abuses that occurred there in the early 1990s and appropriated $400,000 in funding.

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Indonesia, he should not presage U.S. support for the Indonesian military, nor Indonesia’s participation in a proposed “School of the Americas-style” Southeast Asian military training institution to open in Hawaii. Powell should strongly encourage the Indonesians to demilitarize the conflict, withdraw its troops and support humanitarian aid, education and development assistance.

Further militarizing Aceh would make the existing peace initiatives almost impossible to continue. The Acehnese have resourceful, good ideas, differing from the rebels’, about ameliorating their situation, but they need support. One group is currently traveling to neighborhoods and villages at great personal risk to capture cultural stories and local lore about conflict resolution and peacemaking to incorporate into a curriculum for grade-school students. Their ability to travel would be further circumscribed and thus their peace work thwarted if the area came under more stringent military control.

U.S. agencies and citizens should increase support for forces of peace in Aceh, through groups like the Human Rights Coalition of Aceh and Women Volunteers for Humanity, and through international groups like the Henri Dunant Center, which has been brokering peace talks between the Indonesian military and GAM rebels in Geneva, such as Peace Brigades International, which does vital third-party accompaniment for human rights workers whose safety is threatened, and agencies like UNICEF and Oxfam whose humanitarian contributions attempt to stabilize the weakening educational and health conditions in Aceh.
*Leah C. Wells of Santa Barbara serves as Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.