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Briefing 135 / Asia

Indonesia: Averting Election Violence in Aceh

Election monitors should begin deployment to Aceh long before the 9 April election to deter intimidation.

I. Overview

In less than two months, on 9 April, Aceh will go to the polls to elect a governor and vice governor, as well as seventeen district heads and deputies. Despite rhetorical commitments on the part of all contenders to a peaceful election, the potential for isolated acts of violence between now and then is high; the potential for trouble after the results are announced may be even higher, especially if it is a close election. Getting as many trained monitors to Aceh as possible in the coming weeks is critical.

Whether violence materialises may depend on several factors:

  • the number of election monitors deployed and the speed with which they get to Aceh. The campaign is already well underway for all practical purposes, even though officially it does not begin until 22 March. The monitoring needs to start now, not days before the election;
     
  • the speed with which the police can identify and arrest the gunmen responsible for shootings in December 2011 and January 2012 that took the lives of ten men, most of them poor Javanese workers. The killings are widely believed to have been politically motivated;
     
  • the ability of the election oversight committee (Panitia Pengawas Pilkada) to investigate reported violations and quickly take action; and
     
  • the ability of leading candidates to control their supporters in the Aceh Transition Committee (Komite Pera­lihan Aceh, KPA), the organisation of former guerrilla commanders.

Partai Aceh, the local political party created by the leadership of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Mer­deka, GAM), the former rebel group, has played on the threat of renewed conflict to get the election on its own terms. Its main goal was to have Irwandi Yusuf, who was elected governor in December 2006 and now seeks a second five-year term, forced from office so that he could not use his position to keep himself in the public eye, ensure funds flowed to his supporters or request the deployment of security forces in a way that might have a bearing on the election.

To this end, it engaged in a number of legal manoeuvres, on the pretext of safeguarding Acehnese autonomy and the integrity of the 2006 Law on the Governing of Aceh (Undang-Undang Pemerintahan Aceh), the legal underpinning of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that ended GAM’s 30-year insurgency against the Indonesian government. In particular, it challenged a Constitutional Court decision that annulled one provision of the law, thereby enabling independent (non-party) candidates to contest the elections originally scheduled for late 2011. Irwandi, based on the court’s ruling, intended to stand as an independent, and Partai Aceh was hoping to block him. The provincial parliament, which Partai Aceh controls, also refused to pass a regulation (qanun) on elections allowing independent candidates, a move that prevented the local election commission from scheduling the polls.

With the help of pressure from Jakarta and a series of killings in December and January that seemed to suggest a high potential for violence, the election was repeatedly postponed, from 10 October 2011 to 14 November to 24 December, then to 16 February 2012 and finally to 9 April. With the last change, Partai Aceh achieved its objective: on 8 February 2012, when his term expired, Irwandi stepped down as governor. The home affairs ministry appointed a caretaker, Tarmizi Karim, a native of North Aceh, who will serve until a newly elected governor is inaugurated.

The manoeuvring deepened a bitter divide between Irwandi and the Partai Aceh leadership under Malik Mahmud, GAM’s former “prime minister”. Their mutual antagonism first came to public attention in the run-up to the 2006 election in which Irwandi ran against Malik’s choice for governor and won. Its history goes back much further, however, to differences between the exiled diaspora, represented by Malik and the man who is now Partai Aceh’s candidate for governor, Zaini Abdullah, and GAM members like Irwandi who stayed behind in Aceh. The shootings in December and January have raised concerns that more violence between these two camps will follow.

Jakarta/Brussels, 29 February 2012

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