By Ayi Jufridar
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. Adopting sharia (Islamic principles of jurisprudence) as the basis for their legal system in 2003, a nine-year military occupation in this province resulted in thousands of casualties. Armed conflict claimed the lives of Indonesian soldiers and police, 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 the new government, 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 prioritise reconstruction over political differences. And in 2005, GAM and the government of Indonesia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) 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 MoU. And in the 2009 legislative election, the Aceh Party won 42 of 69 seats in the regional parliament, which governs Aceh, winning the majority of the vote in 23 Aceh regencies and cities. Despite their lack of experience in the political arena, 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 in 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 as governor and vice governor with 1,327,695 votes (55.78 per cent of the total) defeating four other pairs of candidates.
While voting on election day proceeded largely without problems, the campaign period was coloured by violence and intimidation. Between 12 March and 15 April, The Aceh Institute, a non-governmental research organisation, found 77 cases of violence that included intimidation, verbal threats, physical violence, and damage to public property.
In some cases, the police found the perpetrators were members or partisans of the Aceh Party, suggesting that more work is still required to 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,” said Abdullah on 17 April, speaking to a group of journalists at his home in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.
In addition to continuing to speak out publicly against violence, Abdullah and his Aceh party must do more. The potential for violence is real, as illegal weapons are widely circulated and election violence is reported, 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 behaviour. Only then will Aceh be safer.
These former guerrilla leaders have a duty to teach their constituents by example 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 and the Associated Press in Aceh. He is now a correspondent for Jakarta’s Jurnal Nasional daily.