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Burning Down the House
Burning Down the House
Commentary / Asia

Burning Down the House

In December 2011, supporters of one candidate in a highly disputed Indonesian electoral race for district chief, or bupati,marched through the streets of Pangkalan Bun, the capital of West Kotawaringin in Central Kalimantan. After almost 18 months of protests following the polls in June 2010, passions were still running high in this small town on the south western tip of the island of Borneo. Protesters held aloft a coffin to represent the death of trust in the rival candidate and the Constitutional Court, one of the new and most respected institutions of the post-Soeharto period of reformasi.

They were angry that the court had on 7 July 2010 overturned the election result and doubly worked up as they had now heard that incumbent Ujang Iskandar would be inaugurated in Jakarta. The ruling, which reversed the ballot box victory by their man Sugianto Sabran, came after the court found evidence of widespread vote buying.

As they had done in the past, the youths threw rocks at the bupati‘s office and then expanded the attack to other government buildings but unarmed police were able to disperse them. On 29 December 2011, they massed on the streets and apparently became frustrated that their preferred targets were heavily guarded. When they passed the official residence of thebupati or “house of history” (rumah sejarah) in the afternoon, the young protesters with little knowledge of the building’s significance to the defunct sultanate forced their way in. There was no one home as in his five years in power Ujang had never stayed there, using it only for ceremonial functions. The hot headed young men lit fires inside, shocking many elders. Flames engulfed the building in minutes and police could only prevent locals from getting too close. (Strangely, the fire brigade, located directly across the road was unable to do anything to prevent the desecration of this historic site.)

This case illustrates an ongoing flashpoint in Indonesia’s decentralisation that extends way beyond the confines of any one provincial town. When the Constitutional Court disqualified the winner of the district’s local election and ruled that the defeated incumbent should get a second term it was going way beyond established precedent, but for the sake of reinforcing judicial authority of one of the highest courts in the land, it should have still been enforced. The local district council, however, saw the ruling as an intrusion by Jakarta in a local race and refused to accept it. More than two years on, the bupati who was awarded the victory by the court still cannot govern because of this local resistance.

As Crisis Group has noted before, what happens in regional Indonesia matters on the national stage even if the places where these conflicts take place send the most experienced observers racing to Google Maps  to find out where they are.

In this case and two others, we examine in Indonesia: Defying the State how local institutions in Indonesia, empowered by decentralisation, are standing up to the country’s highest courts with impunity, allowing judicial authority to be undermined and conflicts to fester. District councils, mayors and regional election commissions have learned that there is little cost to ignoring court rulings on electoral or religious disputes, pandering instead to local constituencies and pressure groups. Decisive leadership from the president could make a difference; instead, slow and ineffective responses from Jakarta brew more insubordination.

When Indonesians take to burning down government buildings, police stations, and their own history it is time to send the fire brigade from Jakarta. Ignoring the problem will only fan future flames of conflict.

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013