Humanitarianism in Aceh, Indonesia


A review of Humanitarian Encounters in Post-Conflict Aceh, Indonesia, by Jesse H. Grayman.

Jesse Grayman’s dissertation begins and ends with an election. On December 11, 2006, journalists, activists, intellectuals, campaign watchers – and the author – gathered in the newly opened Swisbel Hotel in Banda Aceh to await the result of the election of Aceh’s new governor. The surprising winner was Irwandi Yusuf, a former propagandist of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM), an organization of armed insurgents engaged in a civil war with the Indonesian military between 1976 and 2005. The atmosphere in the hotel lobby was tense. The thought of a former GAM leader presiding over a fragile peace process caused anxiety. There was also excitement, however, felt by Grayman and many others present, as Aceh was about to enter a new era of self-government within the Indonesian nation.

The final section describes the inauguration of Irwandi’s successor, Zaini Abdullah, on June 25, 2012. Zaini was a candidate of the “Aceh Party” (Partai Aceh, PA). After its victory in the 2009 local elections, PA “established itself as the sole inheritor of GAM’s legacy” (p. 342). It was also rather effectively domesticated by the national government. At the inauguration, “[t]wo of the most unlikely guests of honor arrived together, retired PNI generals Soenarko and Prabowo Subianto, both former officers of Kopassus, TNI’s [the Indonesian army] Special Forces Command” (p. 344). They were invited to the inauguration by the Aceh Party. Irwandi, the beaten incumbent, was also present at the ceremony. However, he was publicly insulted, and even physically attacked, by some people in the audience, “until” (final sentence) “police officers could secure him, rush him to his car, and drive him immediately to the hospital” (p. 347). Grayman has a reason for ending his dissertation on such a depressed note. In the years separating both events, Grayman’s exhilaration felt at the Swisbel gradually turned into a pitch-black pessimism about the future of Aceh.

Between 2005 and 2012, Aceh was the stage not only of electoral experiments involving insurgents-becoming-politicians, but also of the “largest humanitarian intervention in modern history” (p. 7). On December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Acehnese coasts with full force. While the disaster destroyed much of the provincial capital Banda Aceh and the West coast – taking countless lives – it also put an end, at least indirectly, to a conflict marked by some of the worst atrocities and human rights violations in the history of post-independence Indonesia. With humanitarian workers acting as informal observers, peace talks resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding signed in Helsinki on August 15, 2005. The MoU ended the conflict (at least formally), disbanded the GAM, and started a complex and multifaceted process of reintegrating armed insurgents back into society. Responsible for this intervention, as well as the emergency relief for tsunami victims and post-disaster reconstruction, was a huge number of (Indonesian and international) humanitarian workers. They are the main subject of this ethnography of “humanitarian encounter” in Aceh.

Grayman could write this dissertation because of two reasons. Firstly, he worked with, and for, various international humanitarian organizations (engaged mostly with post-conflict monitoring work and peace building efforts) between 2005 and 2010. Secondly, he went back to Aceh in January 2012 as a “private citizen and researcher, without the auspices of a humanitarian organization” (p. 68), to conduct interviews with former colleagues and friends, about their memories and experiences as humanitarians. Grayman is not a humanitarian-turned-researcher, however, or a former activist who decided to turn his personal research project into a dissertation. He went to Aceh as a PhD candidate in Social and Medical Anthropology at Harvard University, and his first engagements with Aceh and the local NGO scene resulted from a collaborative agreement between Harvard Medical School and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Thus, Graymans’s work as a humanitarian was informed from the start by the intention to write a dissertation. And the “field” into which he ventured always had this double nature, at least until his return in early 2012.

Two main themes provide overall coherence, namely an engagement with “the emerging literature on the anthropology of humanitarianism,” and “the story of Aceh’s peace process within the larger context of Indonesia’s post-New Order transition to democracy” (pp. 9-10). Gradually and cautiously, the dissertation develops an argument about the formation of what Grayman calls a “humanitarian subjectivity,” a concept that is never really defined, but serves to frame, and carefully delineate, the agencies of individual humanitarians, their experiences in Aceh, and their roles in this massive, complex, and multifaceted project, which in many ways seems impossible to fully comprehend by anyone. Ideology and private passions play a key role in these experiences. What also stands out, however, is the role of humanitarianism in the making of an Indonesian middle class. The middle class constitutes the major source from which humanitarians are recruited. At the same time, Grayman asks how this relatively privileged group sees its own position in society. The men and women Grayman writes about are smart, educated, enterprising and mobile people. This is relevant, as for them the intervention in Aceh offered an extraordinary, albeit temporary and at times confusing, opportunity in terms of money, career, and personal development.

The introduction presents an outline of the historical and political context, the main themes of the study, the author’s position in the field, discussion of key concepts and literature, and a theoretical framework. A psychosocial needs assessment (PNA), carried out by Grayman together with Byron Good and Mary-Jo Good in 2006-2007, turned out a “radical initiation […] into a humanitarian subjectivity,” and “a reference point that has professionally, methodologically, and emotionally informed all my [Grayman’s] subsequent projects with humanitarian organization  in Aceh” (p. 15). In the discussion of existing literature about Aceh, Grayman points out the need to re-connect, conceptually, the study of Aceh and Indonesia. In the scholarly debate about humanitarianism (including the work of such scholars as Didier Fassin, Byron Good, Eva-Lotte Hedman, Mariella Pandolfi, and Paula Vasquez), he seeks out a nuanced position, enabling him both to take seriously the political nature of global intervention models and the agencies of expatriate and local humanitarians, who, “it turns out, each have their own lives, frustrations, and even moral commitments, as well as experiences, that are ethnographically rich” (p. 51). This is where “encounter” comes in, a key concept that refers to the productive interactions between many different actors, including Grayman himself.

The five substantive chapters can be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-3 are based on Grayman’s own experiences as an expatriate humanitarian worker; the final two are based on the 2012 interviews. Chapter 1, “Inbox,” follows from Grayman’s role as a program officer for IOM. Specifically, he explores here the functioning of the IOM email system as creating some of the networks and structural boundaries that facilitate the formation of a “humanitarian subjectivity.” Put briefly, Grayman argues that email is not just a type of communication and (as an archive) a source of information; it is also a technology that disciplines the organization’s staff – Indonesian as well as international – into a distinct moral community. Drawing on Bruno Latour’s network theory and the linguistic philosophy of Mikhail Bakhtin, he contends that email constitutes a particular “speech genre,” and that the IOM email archive reveals internal power relations as well as “a precise, detailed representation of the user’s subject position within IOM’s entire discursive field” (p. 87). More concretely, this chapter gives insight into the tensions within IOM, and failed initiatives that do not make it to “glossy publicity documents.” A central case concerns the fraught attempts to set up an evaluation study of aid and reintegration efforts on Pulo Nasi, a small island just off the coast at Banda Aceh. Although the reasons for this failure remain somewhat unclear, it turns out to be a fascinating example of the way in which international NGOs (in this case Oxfam and IOM) become implicated in local struggles for power and resources. These tensions, in turn, are the starting point of a deeper exploration of the discourses and practices involved in the formation and development of humanitarian subjectivity.

The second and third chapter are based on a 2008 research project on “Community Perceptions of the Peace Process,” which was part of a larger program called the “Multi-Stakeholder Review (MSR) of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh.” This sub-project was supported by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and the World Bank, and conducted by a team of Acehnese field researchers hired, trained, and supervised by Grayman. The outcome – a report consisting of eleven qualitative case studies – was published by the World Bank in 2009. In his dissertation, Grayman uses this research to reflect on “the limits and possibilities of doing an ethnography of humanitarian encounters in post-MoU Aceh from the subject position of someone actually wearing a humanitarian’s hat” (p. 139).

The title of Chapter 2, “Remote Fieldwork,” refers to geographical distance, and more. In some respects, it certainly does. Having travelled back to the US to teach and write, Grayman’s research continued. He describes his frustration as a text sent to him by one of the field researchers, Fatima, failed to convey the ethnographic richness and intensity of earlier oral reporting. Once, on the phone, as Grayman was travelling from site to site, Fatima “recited a long and familiar list of horror and humiliation characteristic of the conflict violence” (p. 150). Surely, Grayman thought, her detailed account, “shot through with surprise and shock,” would make for “an exemplary case study for the MSR.” Instead, and for reasons about which he can only speculate, she sent him “a four page report that had nothing of the extemporaneous flow of detailed stories and genuine outrage that she had shared with me by telephone less than a month ago” (p. 154). In the end, her study turns out to be too thin even to be included in the final report. At a more fundamental level, “remote fieldwork” refers not to physical distance, but to the setup of the MSR project and Grayman’s role therein. As project leader, he regularly visited the team in the field. He did not, however, join the researchers during their interviews and site visits, a choice related to local sensitivities in war-torn areas and the expectations that would be raised, automatically, and instantly, by the presence of a (white) representative of a large international organization. Thus, at this stage of his research, Grayman was always “remote” from the field. Of course, as Grayman writes, it also depends on one’s definition of the “field.” One side of the humanitarian encounter, the team itself, was never “remote” from him. Yet these researchers, and Grayman himself, were also part of the “field,” and they developed close mutual relationships. This chapter is interspersed with interesting observations and reflections on the nature of the field in ethnographic research, some of them informed by a the seminal work of Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson. I found this to be the best chapter of the dissertation.

Chapter 3, “Recovery Narratives,” looks at the ways in which rural communities view the peace process. It starts with a description of a “volleyball game for peace.” This event was held somewhere in the highlands of Bener Meriah district in 2008. It featured former adversaries (ex-GAM, military, and anti-separatist militias, local community leaders and bureaucrats), putting into use a newly renovated volleyball court, with local villagers watching from the side. The game seems an “apt metaphor for how rural communities observe Aceh’s peace process” (p. 165). Most studies of Aceh, Grayman argues, look only at the court, that is, the main players (GAM, TNI, the government), and the referee (international observers of the peace process). They forget about the crowd. In reality, however, different narratives of recovery exist in Aceh. Making use of De Certeau’s work on everyday forms of resistance, Grayman distinguishes two dominant narratives, namely a strategic, “official” version (that of the government) and a tactical, “counter-official” version (that of GAM). As the MSR researchers found, behind these narratives many “unauthorized” stories are found. One of these stories features “Rian,” from Central Aceh, who “is considered a member of PETA (Pembela Tanah Air, The Homeland Defenders), the largest anti-separatist militia group in Aceh, simply because he has joined their current enterprise of managing the tax collection and security of the Takengon bus terminal, though he claims not to have been part of their TNI-sponsored counter-insurgency operations during the conflict” (p. 188). GAM forces killed his younger brother because their father was a retired TNI officer. Rian was left unharmed. As a result, the TNI automatically assumed that he held ties to the GAM. Thus, they “captured him, tortured him, and left him for dead at the Timang Gajah police station.” Rian survived to tell the story, which, indeed, is “hard to categorize” within the dominant framework, and formal politics, of conflict and post-conflict recovery (p. 189). Alternative narratives such as these, Grayman shows, are not always found in coherent, easily reproducible or traceable forms. They come in rumors, poetry, nightmares, spirit possession, torture narratives, and paranoia, giving us “a fleeting glimpse of what life after conflict in Aceh looks like” (p. 193).

Chapters 4 and 5 stand apart from the previous three, being based for the most part on interviews conducted by Grayman after returning to Aceh in January 2012. Of central importance in these final chapters is James Siegel’s concept of “recognition.” In his work on Aceh, Siegel has argued that “the recognition of self, one’s social identity, must come from an external source which supplements the subject and thereby reveals an identity that was inherent to the subject all along” (p. 207). In his approach to humanitarian subjectivities, Grayman attempts to identify both his subject’s craving for recognition, and the authorities they draw on. Two major, external authorities inform the construction of his interlocutors’ “humanitarian subjectivities,” namely the idea (or “sign”) of Indonesia, and the discourses, exemplars, and ideologies of international humanitarianism.

Chapter 4 focuses on three individuals. Fauzan and Diah, former colleagues of Grayman, are a married couple who met through their work at IOM. The third, Pak Zak, is Fauzan’s uncle. All of them worked for IOM’s Post-Conflict Reintegration Program (PCRP), which assisted the reintegration of 2000 amnestied prisoners and 3000 GAM ex-combatants, a target formalized in the 2005 peace agreement. In narrating their recollections, all three emphasized the way in which an “external figure,” in each case a member of the IOM foreign staff, played a decisive role in their experience, “authorizing” their choices, their personal development, and their character. These examples, Grayman contends, “recall Siegel’s argument that in Indonesia, and especially in settings of violent conflict such as Aceh, one’s social identity requires recognition by an external authority before it becomes legible and meaningful” (p. 226). At least for some NGO workers, “the humanitarian encounter in post-conflict Aceh offered an alternative path for the restoration of stable social identities as both Acehnese and Indonesian within the framework of Aceh’s transition to peace and Indonesia’s transition to democracy” (p. 228).

Grayman contrasts these examples of “recognition” with “unrecognized figures” (such as Rian, in the previous chapter), and with figures that do not need, or consciously refuse, recognition by “Indonesia.” The humanitarian encounter, he argues, produced a wide range of “humanitarian subjects,” which is also the title of the fifth and last substantive chapter. According to Grayman, humanitarians working in Aceh may be placed on a spectrum between two extremes. On the one end, there are those whom the international humanitarian industry refers to as “champions.” These are local agents, who possess “a potent combination of charisma, knowledge, skills, passion, and connections that match the donor’s interests, and might oversee and shepherd the program to success” (pp. 245-46). In the context of Indonesian politics, these figures (of which he gives two examples) may be described as “double agents of recognition,” as they “perform an act of reintegration, a gradual transfer of recognition from one external authority (the humanitarian mobile sovereign) back to another, former authority (Indonesia)” (p. 260). To this end, they skillfully “manipulate symbols of identity.” On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who openly refuse, and try to disrupt, the very hierarchies these “champions” thrive on. As an example, Grayman points out the “cultural resistance” of a tiny movement that calls itself the Tikar Pandan Community. People like this organization’s front man, Reza Idria, are “humanitarians,” for they also engage with the plight of the Acehnese victims of war, disaster, oppression, human rights violations, as well as the new inequalities produced by the humanitarian encounter. Yet they avoid established organizational structures – and especially the central role played therein by the Indonesian state. Tikar Pandan is a “cultural organization.” It organizes “film series, art shows, performances, book readings, lectures, and discussions (p. 288), and thus, according to the government’s own definition of cultural expression, it is not involved in politics. Tikar Pandan does not want to be recognized and, as such, attempts “to reconstitute Aceh’s civil society while also refusing – to the extent that they are able – the concomitant impulse to reassert hierarchy in the wake of Aceh’s ‘democratic catastrophe’” (p. 292). Most subjects sit somewhere in between these two extremes. What unites them all is “the power of narration, the ability to speak, sometimes reluctantly, in an alliance with and on behalf of Aceh’s victims, but also apart from them” (p. 295).

The conclusion summarizes Grayman’s main arguments, and reflects on some of the main concepts that structure his analysis of humanitarianism in Aceh, including recognition, subjectivity, and encounter. Halfway through the text, and by way of a discussion of the Acehnese term digeunton (“pressed upon”) as well as other “arresting metaphors” of paralysis and asphyxiation, he starts his final assessment of the current social and political situation. Such metaphors, it turns out, are rife in the social circles that Grayman knows. In the eyes of local activists, substantive debates about the transformation of local politics, the impact and content of Islamic law, and the future of civil society itself (as the flows of money are being relocated to the next disaster), seem to have come to a standstill. What is left over, is a trite struggle for power. The inauguration of Zaini Abdullah as governor, Grayman writes (citing his own previous work written with Byron and Mary-Jo Good), “underscores just how ‘profoundly powerless and largely irrelevant’ the legacy of Aceh’s humanitarian encounter has become ‘to the dynamics of local struggles, unable to effect the forms of governance to which they are committed’” (p. 339).

The importance of this study lies in the nuanced critique on the prevalent idea of humanitarians as “mobile sovereigns.” According to Grayman, the activities of international organizations cannot be detached, analytically, methodologically or otherwise, from local actors, institutions, and ideas. In Indonesia, moreover, humanitarian interventions, including the operation in Aceh, are tightly interwoven with the interests, practices, and discourses of the state. Grayman provides us with abundant examples and arguments to substantiate this correction on a common view, which is found among supporters and critics of humanitarian interventions alike. This argument goes some way in explaining the bureaucracy, abuses, and corruption associated with the allocation of aid. Many sides are to blame. Grayman’s insider view presents us with various intimate details of the humanitarian encounter. These concern the successes it celebrates (rightfully), as well as the disruptions it causes. I was impressed by Grayman’s thoughtful and balanced approach to such phenomena as “donor fatigue” among local communities, situations in which the victims of conflict-related violence profit less from the influx of resources than the rebels and soldiers that terrorized them, or the poor planning of hastily implemented post-conflict recovery projects, that sometimes seem to do more harm than good.

With regard to the study of Aceh, a few comments are in place. Clearly, this dissertation is not a “classic” ethnography. It focuses on international (and some local) organizations and the privileged individuals that work in and for them. Thus, insights into Aceh’s (urban and rural) communities are filtered (if not structured) by the discourses of post-conflict and post-tsunami reconstruction. Yet, despite these constraints on ethnographic groundedness, every single page in this dissertation bears witness to the author’s deep knowledge of Aceh’s recent history, politics, and social tensions. Importantly, the study takes issue with the artificial “wall” that more conventional scholarship has placed between the subjects of “Aceh” and “Indonesia.” While, geographically, many studies of Aceh have focused on Banda Aceh, the district of Aceh Besar and the North coast (the GAM “heartland”), Grayman’s multi-sited research takes his readers to different areas, some of them indeed quite “remote,” and each showcasing its own dynamics and local challenges. Once published, this study will take its place in a burgeoning new literature on Aceh. Together with other studies, it will help to bring Aceh scholarship to a new era, and complicate many of the received wisdoms about this fascinating place.

David Kloos
Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), Leiden

Primary Sources

Participant observation among humanitarian organizations in contemporary Aceh, Indonesia.
Interviews and conversations with (local and international) humanitarian workers.
Jesse H. Grayman’s personal email archive from his period at the Aceh office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Jesse H. Grayman, Community Perceptions of the Peace Process: Eleven Case Studies for the Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR). Jakarta: The World Bank, 2009.
NGO reports and media sources related to post-conflict and post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh (some of which written by the author himself).

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 361+xix pp. Primary Advisors: Byron J. Good and Mary M. Steedly.

Image: Photograph by author.

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