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Indonesia: Deep Distrust in Aceh as Elections Approach
Indonesia: Deep Distrust in Aceh as Elections Approach
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 90 / Asia

Indonesia: Deep Distrust in Aceh as Elections Approach

Tensions in Aceh are high as elections approach, although they have receded somewhat from a peak in mid-February.

I. Overview

Tensions in Aceh are high as elections approach, although they have receded somewhat from a peak in mid-February. The murders of three former combatants of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM), other shootings and numerous grenade attacks over the last two months – all with unidentified per­petrators – have set the province on edge, and there remains a risk of sporadic, low-level violence before and after general elections on 9 April. Disputes over the results, with 44 parties competing for seats in district, provincial and national legislatures using a new and complicated system of voting, are also likely. There is little danger in the short term of violence escalating out of control, let alone a return to armed conflict, but the underlying causes of the tensions are not just election-related and need to be addressed if peace is to be preserved in the long term.

The crux of the problem is the mutual fear and loathing between GAM and the Indonesian military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI), based partly on perceptions carried over from the conflict and partly on actions since. The police have been relegated to a minor role, but enhancing their professional skills, such as criminal investigation – not just their community relations approach – is essential. The challenge for Acehnese civil society, the Indonesian government and donors is to put in place programs that change behaviour first, so that confidence-building measures have some foundation to build on.

Many in the TNI are convinced that GAM has not changed its goals, only its tactics, since the 2005 Helsinki agreement ended armed conflict between them. They believe that GAM still is committed to independence, despite repeated denials by the top leader­ship, and that it reneged on a commitment to dissolve itself after Partai Aceh was established. Many, both in Aceh and Jakarta, believe it continues to constitute a potential threat to the unity of the republic, parti­cularly if Partai Aceh candidates win control of key district legislatures and enough seats in the provincial parliament to have a dominant voice. GAM, for its part, sees the military as its principal opponent and encourages the perception that all attacks on its members or offices are somehow linked to the TNI, even when many over the past three years have been the result of internal friction.

The military’s fears are misplaced, despite the cam­paign rhetoric of some Partai Aceh members. The problem with many GAM members is that they are using democratic means not to push for independence, but to acquire access to spoils. This has turned an organisation that was always decentralised into a frac­tured association that, while ready to unite in the face of a serious threat, is composed of small units out for themselves. The former guerrillas, now called the Aceh Transition Committee (Komite Peralihan Aceh, KPA), still use a modified version of their old hierarchical struc­ture, but power is locally concentrated, and in some areas at the village or sub-district level, the KPA has replaced some functions of the civilian government.

Arms are not in short supply among ex-combatants, but the KPA’s power is not from weapons so much as from the implicit threat that comes from past history, its links with elected GAM officials and its own unaccountable status. Extortion continues to be ram­pant. All available evidence suggests that far from working toward independence, most KPA members are inter­es­ted more than anything else in getting their fair share of post-conflict benefits. As an organisation which seems to consider itself above the law, the KPA is a problem – but one that many countries struggling with the after-effects of an insurgency would recognise.

The solution, in addition to patience, employment and targeted civil society efforts, is better law enforce­ment. Good policing is required, not more soldiers deployed in villages, but the police in Aceh have been sin­gu­larly ineffective. Various reasons have been advanced: lack of training, insufficient numbers, family ties, eco­no­mic collusion and even fear. Donor funding has focused on human rights and community policing, but professional skills remain in extremely short supply. A new provincial police commander with a good repu­tation, appointed in late February, may be able to help, but meanwhile, the military, with its own perceptions and priorities, not to mention unmitigated contempt for the police, has moved into the vacuum and become the dominant security force.

A strong speech by President Yudhoyono in late Feb­ruary in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, was widely interpreted locally as a warning to the regional military commander to take a less hardline approach. Whether or not there is a causal link, the TNI since has gone out of its way to make examples of soldiers who violate military ethics or the law, holding a widely publicised court-martial of a subdistrict com­mander and his men for pulling up Partai Aceh flags in one case and dismissing a district military intel­li­gence officer accused of physical abuse of a Partai Aceh cadre in another. Such actions are welcome but do not erase concerns about the TNI’s non-neutral stance towards the party.

The election climate exacerbates the uneasy relation­ship among GAM/KPA, the Indonesian military and the police, but the problems are long-term. The trouble is that the depth of the challenge is being recognised just as most international donors, finished with their post-tsunami reconstruction, are pulling out of Aceh. Four years after the peace, they are needed more than ever.

Jakarta/Brussels, 23 March 2009

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