Indonesia: Deep Distrust in Aceh as Elections Approach
Indonesia: Deep Distrust in Aceh as Elections Approach
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
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

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