Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, September 5, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

During the three-decade war between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), burning down schools in conflict areas was a common occurrence, with the two sides generally blaming each other for the vandalism.

This of course was before the Dec. 26 tsunami destroyed hundreds more schools in the province last year.

Thankfully, the disaster struck at the consciences of the conflicting parties. The peace deal signed recently in Helsinki wrought many important concessions from both sides and has given many the hope the Acehnese can begin living lives free from conflict. More importantly, a prolonged peace would allow new generations of Acehnese access to a better, more enlightening form of education.

The peace has seen hundreds of GAM fighters coming down from the hills and reuniting with their villages and families, with some even having coffee with their old foes in the TNI. But this peace has presented a new challenge: How will this emotionally and politically divided society successfully reintegrate?

This is certainly a question too complex to answer in this article, but it should be noted that the memorandum of understanding underlines that the Indonesian government should aid the reintegration of former GAM fighters into society. This reintegration is not just supposed to involve former GAM fighters but also their family members, including their school-aged children -- the future generation who will navigate the fate of the province.

This means that education -- as an agent of social change -- will play a vital role in the reintegration. Conducted under a brutal military rule, peace-building education programs were often virtually meaningless as they encountered pedagogical difficulties in exemplifying how beautiful living in peace is. With the military offensive gone, it should be easier for such programs to equate theory with practice.

In essence, education for peace has several characteristics:

First, this learning experience tends to encourage global perspectives rather than narrowly chauvinistic or ethnocentric ones.

Second, this learning experience is concerned with respecting others' rights and the attainment of human dignity.

Third, it is open-minded and participatory rather than closed-minded, authoritarian, dogmatic and domineering.

Fourth, it promotes social literacy skills in non-violent resolution of conflicts.

Fifth, it puts a high importance on caring, compassionate and humane ethical standards rather than an uncritical endorsement of physical violence and war, alienation and structural violence.

Therefore, taking Aceh's contextual reality into account, there are some points worth considering.

Much has to be done to enhance the understanding among students that their peers from "enemy" families are still their Acehnese brothers and sisters who were also victims of prolonged injustice. Many former GAM fighters and their families are still frightened that revenge on them may still take place -- but in other forms.

Indeed, Islamic and traditional Acehnese values could encourage a sense of brotherhood and unity in the province but these values should be managed carefully, especially regarding the issue of Acehnese and non-Acehnese. Meaningful dialog about different sides' feelings should be pursued in a cautious, respectful but also candid manner to ensure that all members of society regardless of their ethnicity and religion can voluntarily live in harmony.

Dialog could be encouraged by having students visit families of other ethnicities and participate in class discussions about how peace was attained in other volatile parts of the world -- part of a participatory civic education subject.

The experiences of many conflict areas around the world also show that teacher neutrality is crucial in education for peace. As members of the war-torn Acehnese society, teachers are also likely to have been emotionally disturbed by the conflict as many of their colleagues will have been kidnapped or killed and many of their schools burned down. Despite this, it is vital teachers remain uncompromisingly neutral in front of their students.

Regarding the TNI, as long as they remain in the province, a feeling of being betrayed by the peace accord could easily affect non-Acehnese soldiers, many of whom have been demoralized since the fall of Soeharto.

If these soldiers were encouraged to go to schools, meet with students and tell their stories about their families, many of whom have also suffered in this conflict, this might steadily help erase the brutal image of the TNI in the eyes of many students and encourage the soldiers to act more humanely in future.

Nevertheless, all this will be a superficial solution if the hearts and minds of the Acehnese are still shrouded in doubt and fear. Therefore, Jakarta and GAM are left with no option but to sincerely implement the peace accord.

The conflicting parties might have dropped some of their weapons but will they really be willing to provide future generations with books and pens? Or will they just evolve into more power-hungry administrations that neglect education and are happy to keep the Acehnese in a state of backwardness? Time will tell.

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