In Indonesia, former combatants take up politics

Located on the westernmost side of Indonesia, the province of Aceh has gained a reputation for conflict since the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, widely known as GAM) took up arms in 1974 in an attempt to secede from Indonesia.

The province adopted Shariah, Islamic principles of jurisprudence, as the basis of its legal system in 2003, while a nine-year Indonesian military occupation of Aceh resulted in thousands of casualties. Armed conflict claimed the lives of Indonesian soldiers, GAM guerrilla fighters, and inevitably, civilians as well. Braving the crossfire, even in residential areas, was a daily event.

It is now taking time for a new government, which was elected this spring, to encourage their supporters to work within the political system. Having fought against the government for more than three decades, these former guerrilla leaders have now become part of the democratic system. As a result, they must reign in any violence by their constituents and put constitutional principles forward instead.

The massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that devastated Aceh in December 2004 became the gateway to end the conflict that had been dragging on for more than 30 years. With the scale of the natural disaster, the government and GAM had to prioritize reconstruction over continuing to pursue their political differences. And in 2005, GAM and the government of Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding in Helsinki, Finland.

The establishment of local political parties, including the Aceh Party, which is comprised of former GAM combatants, was one of the key stipulations in the Helsinki memorandum of understanding. And in the 2009 legislative elections, the Aceh Party won 42 of 69 seats in the regional Parliament that governs Aceh, winning the majority of the vote in 23 Aceh regencies and cities.

Despite their lack of political experience, the former guerrilla fighters dominated the seats in the regional parliament and won control of the Aceh government. In one fell swoop, former combatants had switched gears: from armed struggle to politics.

And last April, for the second time since the peace treaty of Helsinki, Aceh held general elections for its governor, regents and mayors. Zaini Abdullah and Muzakir Manaf of the Aceh Party won elections for governor and vice governor respectively, with 1,327,695 votes (55.78 percent of the total), defeating four other pairs of candidates.

While voting on election day proceeded largely without problems, the campaign period was colored by violence and intimidation. Between March 12 and April 15, the Aceh Institute, a nongovernmental research organization, identified 77 cases of violence that included intimidation, verbal threats, physical violence, and damage to public property. In some instances, the police found that the perpetrators were members or partisans of the Aceh Party. This suggested that more work is still required to fully complete the transition from a violent struggle to a political one.

But efforts to maintain peace remain the focus of Abdullah and Manaf’s regional government. “In the first year [of governing], we are going to keep a true peace in Aceh. Furthermore, we are trying to improve the economy for the welfare and prosperity of Aceh’s people,” Abdullah said on April 17, speaking to a group of journalists at his home in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

However, in addition to continuing to speak out publicly against violence, Abdullah and his Aceh party must do more. The potential for violence remains real, as illegal weapons have been circulating widely in the province and election violence continues to be reported. The fact is that there is evidence that violence is still considered a tool for political change. Abdullah must seek support from the government of Indonesia for a more assertive police crackdown on owners of illegal weapons and criminal behavior. Only then will Aceh be safer.

These former guerrilla leaders have a duty to teach their constituents by example. This means that even though the Aceh Party won seats in the government, peace for all Acehnese will only be preserved when the rule of law prevails.

Ayi Jufridar is a journalist and novelist. He previously worked for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper of Japan and the Associated Press in Aceh. He is now a correspondent for Jakarta’s Jurnal Nasional daily. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (

Source : The Daily Star Lebanon