Ex-combatants in politics — Aceh’s post-conflict challenge

Wherever you look, whoever you turn to when talking to people in Aceh today, the feedback seems virtually universal: Aceh will turn red. In other words, the political movement founded by former rebel group GAM (the Free Aceh Movement), the Aceh Party (PA), is expected to win the governorship and a considerable number of top jobs at the district level in the April 9 elections. 

More significant will be the differences between the contesting parties. Even more important, perhaps, is, if they win, how did they achieve it? Will there be smooth or violent elections? Will it be a fair vote, or will there be threats and silent intimidation?

History has demonstrated that former armed fighters — ex-armed rebels, ex-guerillas, or ex-revolutionaries — tend to become a critical agency in post-conflict situations. 

Very recently, we have seen how Timor Leste has been able to turn a volatile situation into a stable one that led to successful presidential elections. Only a few years earlier, though, in 2006, the country almost became a failed state. 

Back then, the new military corps came into a serious conflict with the national police, resulting in many deaths. Both recruited from ex-guerillas who felt that they were discriminated against. 

Independent Indonesia also faced such challenges. The drive toward the formation of a professional military had provoked the resistance of politically motivated and idealistic armed revolutionary units. It ultimately led to the so-called Madiun Affair in 1948.

Now, Aceh, too, has to deal with its former armed fighters. Like Indonesia’s ex-revolutionaries in the late 1940s and Timor Leste’s former guerillas in the mid 2000s, the Acehnese ex-rebel combatants have to find new and secure positions in a post-conflict situation.

Soon after the Helsinki Peace pact in 2005, one faction of former rebels, known as the ex-Libyan-trained fighters of the late 1980s and the generation of 1998, had consolidated its power and influence away from the elder, exiled leaders of the 1970s who founded the AM, Aceh Merdeka, later renamed GAM. 

These young ex-combatants subsequently supported the Irwandi Yusuf–Mohammad Nazar candidacy, who won the gubernatorial election in 2006. The GAM’s sharp split has thus since become a persistent fact.

The older GAM generation, led by Malik Mahmud and Zaini Abdullah, succeeded in turning the tables thanks to the legitimacy bestowed upon them by the Wali Nanggroe (Aceh-state guardian) Hasan di Tiro. PA, which they founded in 2007, became a mass party. Its hegemonic influence was confirmed as they were able to bring home the Wali in 2008. 

For the first time in Indonesia’s history, it was possible for a supreme rebel leader to return home and it was massively and intensely welcomed by people. That in itself was an exemplary democratic achievement of post-Soeharto Indonesia. But it didn’t subsequently bring a better, stable and peaceful democracy to Aceh itself for three reasons. 

Firstly, the institutions and instruments to implement the Helsinki regulations are only partly able to accommodate the wishes and interests of the former combatants: the ex-Panglima Wilayah (regional commanders), the ex-Panglima Sagoe (district commanders) and their followers. 

Some have greatly benefited from Governor Irwandi’s rule and have become wealthy businessmen. Most, however, have benefited less and their followers not at all.

Secondly, the older PA leaders are now determined to gain power as this is their last chance to lead and rule the province. They do so by modernizing the party structure and organization, by resisting Governor Irwandi’s efforts to be re-elected, and — in general — by threats and intimidation. 

Thirdly, this has resulted in exhausting political-legal battle, often interspersed with violence, for months. 

The PA’s boycott of the elections gave rise to the prospect of greater instability. Jakarta’s intervention to avoid this by postponing the elections until April 9, in order to allow the PA to participate, may be well reasoned, but it also made the competition and anxiety even more intense.

For Governor Irwandi, who was poised to win if the elections were not postponed, now has to mobilize power and funds to compete with the PA. And the PA, in turn, has to play the game very carefully so that it should not arouse Jakarta’s suspicion of a secret agenda of independence if they not only rule the parliament but command the administration. 

The PA invited four Army generals to campaign for the party, including two former regional commanders, one of whom — Gen. Soenarko — had been particularly controversial due to allegations of harsh treatment of former rebels.

The postponement of the elections has shaped a dilemma for the ex-combatants: Either they stay put at Irwandi’s camp or change sides and support the PA. 

It’s a historic moment for them, one that would reveal their real motives as either opportunistic (for business reasons) or idealistic (wanting rural electorates). 

It’s important to note that the ex-combatants are rooted in the former GAM strongholds in rural areas. It explains why the statement of the older GAM leaders and its commander Muzakkir Manaf as being “neutral” in the 2006 elections resulted in a great victory for the Irwandi group, who used the GAM flag as a symbol. 

Now it’s the other way around: it’s the older leaders, with Zaini Abdullah and Muzakir Manaf as their candidates — brilliantly shortened to ‘Zikir”, meaning collective prayer to admire God almighty — that is taking the lead as they evoke GAM symbols and the late Wali Hasan Tiro’s legacy. 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to pinpoint the numbers and the strength — let alone the social-class bases — of the ex-combatant commanders who support Irwandi and the Zikir. But the latest survey suggests the latter would win with 46 percent (against 22 percent) which will not require a second round of voting. 

Whatever the outcome, it will reflect the general assessment of common Acehnese in villages, who know what contributions the ex-combatants made during the conflict, and will weigh it against their role in peace time as they decide at the private ballot boxes.

* Aboeprijadi Santoso,  The writer is a journalist.

Source : The Jakarta Post