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Priorities for a GAM-Led Government in Aceh
Priorities for a GAM-Led Government in Aceh
Op-Ed / Asia

Priorities for a GAM-Led Government in Aceh

Originally published in The Jakarta Post

Being spectacularly and publicly wrong, as I was on the local elections in Aceh, is always a humbling experience. I thought the split in the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) leadership would prove more damaging; I thought the money and machinery of the old elite would have more influence; and I underestimated the strength of GAM support.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I make any pronouncements about the future of Aceh. But after Dec. 11, a few things seem clear:

The GAM victories at the provincial and district levels on balance strengthen the peace process; they also put GAM in a strong position for the 2009 parliamentary elections.

As governor, Irwandi Yusuf will give priority to generating jobs, attracting investment and speeding up reconstruction, but he will have to struggle to avoid being pulled in all directions.

Working out a modus vivendi with the security forces may be less difficult than might appear at first glance.

One of the biggest challenges to newly elected GAM officials will be rising above a political culture of corruption, patronage and bureaucratic lethargy.

It's both easy and misleading to look at the election results and say that GAM achieved more in 18 months of peace than it did in 30 years of war. It was the longed armed struggle that made GAM a serious negotiating partner; the Indonesian government would have had no reason to sit down at the table in Helsinki with a minor gadfly. In many areas of Aceh, GAM took credit for the hugely popular peace, but if villagers heard only one side of the story, it was partly because government spokesmen rarely ventured very far afield.

But GAM's triumph at the polls should prove to any doubters in its own ranks that accepting the Helsinki offer - acknowledgment of Indonesian sovereignty in exchange for political participation and autonomy was the right move. Does it mean that all aspirations for independence have disappeared? Of course not, any more than turning over the agreed number of weapons meant that GAM no longer had guns. But just as the issue of leftover guns became pointless as the peace process moved forward, the independence dream could steadily recede if a genuinely autonomous GAM-led government succeeds in producing concrete benefits for the Acehnese population.

GAM members in executive positions are not going to be able to do this alone: they need sympathetic legislatures, particularly at the province level. The governor has no veto power, and while legislators can force their own agenda on an unwilling executive, the latter can only wheedle, cajole, make deals - and sweeten the pot. It is therefore all the more important for GAM to get a political party up and running to try and gain control of the provincial legislature in the 2009 elections. If it does as well then as it did on Dec. 11, it then will have the wherewithal not only to develop and push through a legislative agenda but also perhaps to test the limits of autonomy. In the short term, though, GAM will have a hard enough time trying to meet the expectations of its members and master the tools of governing before even thinking about major legislative initiatives.

Irwandi has made it clear in all post-election interviews that he will focus on improving the economic welfare of Aceh's poor, particularly farmers and fishers, and on upgrading public services. In his view the first depends in part on direct access of Acehnese to international commodity markets, without going through Medan-based middlemen. Improving port facilities, fixing roads, facilitating transportation links between Aceh and Malaysia, including direct Banda Aceh-Kuala Lumpur flights, getting abandoned palm oil plantations working again, attracting investment for joint ventures in agribusiness - all of this could be part of the medium to long-term picture.

But the immediate issue will be trying to speed up reconstruction work, addressing local complaints about the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR), improving or phasing out the Aceh Reintegration Agency (BRA). If Irwandi is allowed any honeymoon at all, squabbles over reintegration payments to conflict victims or unfinished housing for tsunami victims could end it.

On the cultural side, we may see a GAM-led government devote some attention to the writing of new history textbooks for Acehnese school children and greater use of the Acehnese language.

The governor-elect is a consummate pragmatist, and is not about to alienate any group whose support he may need later - for example, Aceh's ulema, the Islamic religious scholars. It means neither Irwandi nor other GAM leaders are likely to make any move to roll back the application of Islamic law, although they might try to slow its further extension into the criminal justice realm. He is also not likely to make any major push on the sensitive issue of dealing with past human rights abuses.

Members of the Indonesian Military (TNI) cautiously welcomed the elections in Aceh, but they have to be unhappy with the results. Local commanders we interviewed before the election made no secret of their conviction that GAM had not given up its goal of independence. Several conservative nationalists, military and non-military, suggested that GAM immediately dissolve itself to prove that it is loyal to the Indonesian unitary state. Harping on such pro forma acts, like demanding loyalty oaths from released GAM prisoners, serve no purpose. GAM members took part in an election under Indonesian law and will be working with Indonesian institutions as they govern; they should not be asked for proof of loyalty, as if they were all closet traitors.

The fact is that GAM is not likely to run into serious problems with the TNI unless it challenges its economic interests. There is a history of mutual accommodation on this front between GAM and the TNI during wartime; will it be possible during peacetime as well? This is one area, among many, where whatever desire Irwandi may have for clean government may run afoul of realities on the ground. A World Bank-sponsored study showed the amount of money truckers have to pay driving from Medan to Aceh, and much of that is collected by military and police. If GAM could end extortion by security forces (and by its own members, though on a lesser scale), it could probably sew up local elections for years to come.

It will be interesting to see how Irwandi will address the issue of police and how high a priority he will make police reform. There is certainly scope under the Aceh Government Law No. 11/2006 for expanding local recruitment and making training more Aceh-centric. A GAM-led government could make a signal contribution to security sector reform more generally by changing the way the police work, not just to ensure that they are less corrupt and abusive, but that they spend more of their time on actual policing as opposed to attending ceremonial functions.

The vote for GAM candidates represents a deep desire for change, but whatever the intentions of Irwandi and other newly elected officials, they are likely to immediately get bogged down by the prevailing political culture. Past GAM supporters, potential political allies, contractors and others will be swarming around like flies to honey, looking to benefit from the new administration. How to keep relatively clean while at the same time building a political base for 2009? It won't be easy, and some patronage politics is inevitable. But inviting some of Aceh's anti-corruption NGOs to monitor allocation of government contracts might be a start.

The desire of Irwandi and his colleagues to improve public services is going to run up against a lethargic, bloated and unproductive bureaucracy.a problem that goes well beyond Aceh, but a GAM-led administration will need all the help it can get. Many of Aceh's best and brightest are now working for international NGOs, often at salaries far above what any Acehnese civil servant could make in his or her wildest dreams. If Irwandi can appeal to their idealism and attract some of them back into government, he would be performing a signal service. (His own work ethic is unquestioned - after the Helsinki accords, he was putting in 18-hour days running the GAM office trying to respond to all the problems his members were having, with very little administrative backup).

In a pre-election report on Aceh, we wrote, might not be a bad thing for GAM to win a few district offices but lose the governorship. Losers in democratic elections can escape responsibility for the mistakes and missteps of the victors. By 2009, if a popularly elected gubernatorial team does not deliver greater security and prosperity, the audience for an alternative GAM platform will increase." Now the tables are turned, but the basic lesson remains the same: GAM will have to produce results. More power to them.

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