Aceh’s complex internal politics

The province of Aceh is certainly one of the most interesting and complex in Indonesia today, and in the lead-up to the elections of April 9, the internal complexity of the region is coming to the surface once again.

For too long Aceh was seen through the somewhat myopic lens of media headlines: It was thought to be one of the most dangerous parts of Indonesia due to the bitter and prolonged struggle between the Aceh Independence Movement (GAM) and the state’s security forces; and then the advent of the tsunami of 2004 cast the province in the light of a blighted zone where time had come to a standstill.

Still, for many Acehnese the tsunami of 2004 was also a blessing in disguise because it brought the competing forces back to the negotiation table, and since the Helsinki agreement of 2005 normality has once again returned to the province.

Aceh remains, however, a special province within the overall framework of Indonesia’s republic, and that explains why it is the only province with local Acehnese parties competing for votes at the election as well.

Apart from the twelve national parties that will by vying for votes in Aceh, there are also the Partai Aceh (PA), Partai Nasional Aceh (PNA) and the Partai Damai Aceh (PDA).

Technically none of these parties are allowed to campaign just yet, for the official campaigning period will begin only in the first week of March.

But during my visit there it was clear that all the parties — both national and local — have jumped the starting gun and have begun campaigning in earnest.

The issues at stake in Aceh are varied and many, and they will determine the future of the autonomy process and whether the demand for autonomy will be pursued further — not only by the Acehnese themselves but also by other communities in other parts of Indonesia that have been entertaining similar desires.

Here lies the complexity of Aceh’s somewhat unique legal-political framework, which may well determine how centre-periphery relations are to evolve in Indonesia in the near future: Aceh is unique in having four Shariah ordinances (Qanun) that have the force of law, and its own Shariah police force known as the Wilayatul Hisbi (WH).

Due in part to the more conservative tone and tenor of Acehnese society, local politics is often coloured by religious discourse and religious aspirations as well.

But crucial to the prosperity of the province in the long run is how it manages its resources, which the former GAM militants and their leaders have claimed to be rightfully theirs, and which should go to the people of Aceh.

Aceh today has a bigger share of the income revenue earnings from local development, and this has made local government a lucrative objective in itself.

Complicating matters is the growing rivalry between the local parties — PA, PNA and PDA — as they wrestle among themselves to gain control of the provincial assembly.

While the other national parties are trying to inch their way into Aceh, it is the local dynamics between the local parties that is truly intensifying, leading to instances where one PNA leader was severely beaten and another beaten to death just last week, and prompting the authorities to be on alert as the election campaign gets closer.

Aceh and West Papua remain the two most violence-prone provinces in Indonesia and this violence is often related to local political contestation and rivalry among the local party leaders.
This may also be the outcome of a long-drawn pacification process, where many of the leaders and members of the PA and other local parties are themselves former militants of GAM, whose political awakening came about through a violent struggle in the jungles of Aceh against the Indonesian army and police.

Their reputation as freedom fighters may have endeared them to ordinary Acehnese before, for they have demonstrated their ability and willingness to lay down their lives for the sake of their province, though this does not make them the best technocrats, economists and nation-builders; an observation that can equally be applied to the former rebels of Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines who have shown that their ability at governance does not match their ability in combat.

This, in turn, has led to accusations of power-accumulation by the dominant ruling PA party, accusations of one-party rule, of abuse of funds, destruction of the environment, and also of cosmetic religious policing for the sake of demonstrating power rather than genuine socio-economic reform.

The local parties, on the other hand, have the tendency to play up their “authentic” Acehnese identity and to proclaim the need for Aceh to maintain its special provincial status vis-à-vis the central government of the republic.

It is interesting to note that the dominant PA party, for instance, has, as its flag, a banner that looks very similar to the GAM flag of the past — and this has irritated the powers-that-be in Jakarta who wish to see normality restored and the erasure of the province’s troubled past.

The elections in April will thus be telling in many ways: If Acehnese voters continue to give their votes to the local parties — including the ruling PA — it may suggest that local provincial sentiments continue to override national concerns; and this in turn may prompt other parts of Indonesia to likewise raise the call for autonomy too.

But if the local parties are marginalised by the national parties, it may suggest that the Acehnese themselves have begun to question the worth of autonomy, and may feel that the political, economic and environmental cost of relative freedom has been too high.

Aceh’s elections will thus be closely watched within and without Aceh itself, for it is here that Indonesia’s experiment with relative autonomy will be tested to the limit.

Source : New Straits Times

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