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Indonesia: Pre-Election Anxieties in Aceh
Indonesia: Pre-Election Anxieties in Aceh
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 81 / Asia

Indonesia: Pre-Election Anxieties in Aceh

Three years after the 15 August 2005 signing of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Move­ment (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM), Aceh is politically vibrant but on edge.

I. Overview

Three years after the 15 August 2005 signing of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Move­ment (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM), Aceh is politically vibrant but on edge. The sources of unease are several. As preparations get underway for the April 2009 parliamentary elections with 44 parties – six local, 38 national – in contention, the mil­itary is worried about Partai Aceh, the GAM party, winning control of local legislatures and challenging Jakarta’s authority. Partai Aceh is worried about overt or covert interference from Jakarta, and smaller parties are worried about intimidation by Partai Aceh. Election officials are concerned a dispute between Jakarta and Aceh over candidate requirements could delay the polls, and other struggles with the central government are brewing. Everyone is worried about the health of Governor Irwandi Yusuf, a GAM leader with unparalleled ability to manage competing demands in post-conflict Aceh, who suffered a sudden illness – officially undisclosed but widely reported as a slight stroke – in August.

The campaign to create two new provinces within Aceh is heating up, although there is no chance of a division before the elections. But in two districts leading the campaign, Bener Meriah and Central Aceh, there is real concern about possible violence between ex-militia and GAM, especially if local candidates deliberately fuel anti-GAM sentiment.

In addition, incidents of armed criminal activity continue to plague the province, many of them involving former GAM combatants. The level of unemployment among former rebels remains high, as does disgruntlement in GAM ranks about perceived inequitable distribution of reintegration benefits. Many members of GAM’s former military structure, now called Komite Peralihan Aceh (KPA), continue to demand cuts from businesses and public contracts and engage in other forms of thuggish activity. There are also criminals who use GAM’s name to generate fear but have only tangential links to the organisation. GAM leaders from the governor on down have stated repeatedly that the police can and should prosecute anyone responsible for criminal offences regardless of affiliation, but the problem goes beyond law enforcement to the unaccountable nature of the KPA itself.

For many GAM leaders, the central question remains full implementation of the Helsinki agreement, or even full implemen­tation of the Law on the Governing of Aceh (Law 11/2006), the watered down legal embodiment of the pact. The content of the law’s implementing regulations has become a struggle between bureaucrats in Jakarta, many of whom see Aceh as just another province, and political leaders in Aceh determined to make self-government a reality. It is the latter stance that political conservatives, including many in the military, too often interpret as separatist.

In the midst of the pre-poll anxiety, the immediate goal should be to ensure that the lead-up to the election is violence-free. The longer-term goal is to ensure that the central government and donors do not simply write Aceh off as a success story and move on to other things. Jakarta needs to accept that autonomy in Aceh is not yet complete, and GAM needs to bring the KPA under control. The peace is sustainable, but no one should take it for granted.

Jakarta/Brussels, 9 September 2008

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