A Fork in the Road for Aceh

04/15/2015 04:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

Banda Aceh -- Western diplomats worry about Islamic extremism in Aceh, a province in Indonesia on the northern tip of Sumatra. Aceh could prove vulnerable to Islamists unless commitments in the 2005 peace agreement between Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) are fulfilled. Delivering a peace dividend will keep Aceh on the path of moderation.

Aceh has suffered. Tens of thousands died during Aceh's 40 year war for independence. Another 200,000 perished when a tsunami swept through Aceh on December 26, 2004.

The tsunami catalyzed negotiations, which culminated in the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The accord established power sharing between Jakarta and Aceh's provincial government.

The central government in Jakarta retained specific powers -- foreign affairs, external defense, national security, monetary and fiscal matters. The GAM was given responsibility for everything else -- including benefits from Aceh's vast oil, gas, and forestry wealth.

The Special Autonomy Law for Aceh allocated 70 percent of revenue from mineral exploitation to Aceh's provincial government. It also offered reintegration and jobs for GAM ex-combatants.

However, peace implementation relies on goodwill of the Indonesian central government. Jakarta is notorious for its corruption and inefficiency.

Though the Indonesia has undergone significant political transition reducing the military's role, there is still resentment by the military towards Aceh. Important components of the MOU, like flying the GAM's flag, have not been addressed.

Aceh's provincial government also lacks capacity, which compounds implementation challenges. Money flowing from Jakarta to the province has had little visible impact on the quality of life for Acehnese people.

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country with a population of more than 250 million. Some have joined the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, returning home to radicalize their communities.

While Aceh's leaders describe proselytizing by Islamic radicals from East Java, they insist that Muslim extremists were rebuffed. GAM ex-combatants are nationalists not jihadis. They are fiercely committed to defend Aceh's unique character.

No doubt, Acehnese are pious Muslims. Aceh's provincial government adopted sharia law. But Aceh's version of sharia is different from sharia in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Sharia means justice and fairness to Acehnese.

Islamic extremism is not yet a problem in Aceh, but Western diplomats are right to be concerned. Acehnese feel forgotten and abandoned. The peace dividend did not materialize. The international community was deeply involved after the tsunami, but the world's attention has waned.

The 10-year anniversary of the MOU is August 15, 2015. The Aceh government should engage Jakarta and the international community in an implementation review to gauge progress and continuing challenges. The anniversary represents an opportunity for all parties to reinvigorate commitments in the peace agreement.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He has worked on Acehnese issues for more than 20 years.