Going Political During Violent Conflict: Lessons from Aceh (Indonesia) and Patani (Thailand) regarding the Ideas and Roles of Elites in Peace Building

Author: Edwin Martua Bangun Tambunan

Tambunan, Edwin Martua Bangun, 2016 Going Political During Violent Conflict: Lessons from Aceh (Indonesia) and Patani (Thailand) regarding the Ideas and Roles of Elites in Peace Building, Flinders University, School of History and International Relations

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Previous studies have underscored the important role elites play in both inciting and ending conflict in subnational settings. Yet elite contributions to peace building have not been given nearly as much attention as their role in generating conflict. This study aims to correct this imbalance by exploring the ideas and roles of elites in peace building in the context of separatist conflicts. What elite ideas matter, how those ideas contribute to a peace process, what the elites do to end conflict, and how their roles derail conflict towards a peace process, are the central parts of the investigation. The exploration considers two cases of separatist conflict: Aceh (Indonesia) and Patani (Thailand).

Based on evidence obtained from interviews, evidence substantiated by documentary research, this study finds that the ending of separatist conflict is inseparable from the development of non-violent ideas by elites on both sides. Each idea contributes to the process by gradually encouraging parties to think and act beyond military solutions and in increasingly political terms. Observing the cases, three groups of ideas evolved before warring parties reached the verge of a peace process. The first category of ideas sought shortcuts to peace by bringing about one-dimensional changes to the situation. In both cases, these ideas failed to change the situation. Nevertheless, these initial ideas raised public awareness about the impact of conflict and enlarged the constituency seeking a peaceful solution. The second category of ideas was designed to restructure the basic relationships between parties, addressing the substantive issues separating them. These ideas did not gain traction as part of the peace process however, but they did raise interest in the need to find an overtly political solution. The third category of ideas related to face-to-face dialogue. In both cases, the initial engagement of the parties in dialogue or talk was half-hearted; but shared experiences during dialogue events proved to be a foundation for advancing the peace process. In Aceh, government elites learnt from failed dialogue and offered to negotiate. In this way, a genuine peace process emerged and the peaceful solution was within reach.

Laying the groundwork for peace is a long process. Along with their specific ideas, elites in civil society, government, and separatist groups contribute to this process by constructing peace as a generic shared idea and encouraging parties to be susceptible to a peaceful settlement. In Aceh, the role of civil society elites in conceiving a non-military resolution inadvertently transformed the conflict, opening the way for a peace process to commence. Some ‘peace-dream keepers’ in government also had a role in transmitting the idea of non-military resolutions across government, and when some of these personnel eventually became key decision-makers, the chances of a peaceful settlement was greatly enhanced. The Free Aceh Movement’s (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) civilian elites considered political options as part of strategy, and these ideas developed into GAM’s readiness to achieve its goal by means other than independence – and it is noteworthy that they had already achieved this even before the 2004 tsunami brought the peace process to a sudden and positive conclusion.

In Patani, the role of civil society elites in raising non-military resolutions helped to mainstream the idea of peace at both the grassroots and elite levels. In response, certain government elites issued policies, decisions, and actions that became building blocks in the resolution of the conflict. Together these elite ideas and roles were instrumental in paving the way towards the verge of a peace process in 2013. However, the likelihood of these latest developments resulting in an actual peace process depends on many factors, including whether separatist and government elites accept the ideas of civil society organizations regarding a political solution.

Keywords: Elites, Ideas, Role, Violent Conflict, Peace Building, Peace Proces, Aceh, Patani, Indonesia, Thailand

Subject: International Relations thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2016
School: School of History and International Relations
Supervisor: Associate Professor Michael Barr