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The perils of peace

Former rebels have come to power in Aceh but they now face the twin challenges of winning greater autonomy from Jakarta and controlling corruption in their own ranks, writes Edward Aspinall

Edward Aspinall 2 July 2009 4512 words

Acehnese in Banda Aceh react to the signing of a peace agreement between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement in Helsinki in August 2005. Binsar Bakkara/AP Photo

IN A QUIET VILLAGE in North Aceh, Amran is contemplating his new life as a politician. Amran (not his real name) is about forty years old and in many respects he’s like a lot of other middle-aged men in this part of Aceh. Born in a sleepy rural backwater, he grew up in the shadow of the massive natural gas fields opened up in North Aceh in the 1970s. In his youth he travelled to Malaysia, and stayed there almost twenty years – just as many young men have left this part of Aceh for Malaysia, often illegally by boat, to seek their fortune. When he was first in Malaysia, however, Amran also joined the Free Aceh Movement – Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM – and he was one of the first people from his sub-district to sign up. When he came back to Aceh a few years later he was a low-level commander in what became one of Southeast Asia’s longest-running guerilla wars.

For much of the next two decades Amran divided his time between Malaysia, where he was a successful small businessman, and Aceh, where he was a guerilla fighter. “It’s easy to go illegally to Malaysia from here, across the sea. Lots of people do it,” he explains to me as we talk on an open-sided wooden platform under the coconut trees in the yard of his family home.

The scene is a village not far from the main highway that snakes down Aceh’s eastern coast. It’s a world of broad rice fields and closely-knit communities where, just a few years ago, there was also a military post every few hundred metres. Now, men walking or cycling down the road stop off for a while, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and listen to the conversation. Though Amran is respected here for the role he played as a guerilla leader, nobody treats him with special deference. Instead, there’s an atmosphere of casual intimacy. In the war years, these close ties were put to the service of the rebellion, as village people raised money for local fighters, supplied food to them, or hid them in their houses. Now, they’re being used to bring about a political transformation.

Amran was elected to the local district parliament in April. One of thirty-two members of the Partai Aceh to be elected to the forty-five member parliament of North Aceh, he was part of a wave that saw members of the party of former GAM members swept into local legislatures across Aceh during Indonesia’s nationwide elections. The party won 48 per cent of the vote for the provincial legislature, just short of an absolute majority – a level of support that is very rare in Indonesia.

Amran and a number of his colleagues who join in the discussion are satisfied with their victory, but they are worried that their party won’t be able to live up to the promises it made at election time. If the legislators can’t keep their supporters happy, “I won’t be able to come back and live here in the village,” he laughs, looking around. During the campaign, the leaders of Partai Aceh said a lot of things about achieving a new vision of self-government for Aceh and about generating greater economic prosperity for the people. The legislators-elect doubt that they’ll be able to put it all into practice to the satisfaction of their supporters. One of them, a local religious teacher in an Islamic boarding school, is especially worried that they didn’t quite win 50 per cent of the seats in the provincial parliament: “The other parties are national parties,” he explains, “They are more loyal to Jakarta than to the Acehnese nation. How can we get self-government with them?”

Of course, politicians the world over worry about how to deal with their rivals, satisfy their supporters and win re-election. What makes this group of newly elected legislators distinct is that they worry they will not only generate disillusionment, but also face demands for money, threats and even violence from their supporters and former comrades.

THE ELECTION VICTORY of Amran and his friends is the latest act in a peace process that is rightly praised as one of the most successful in the world. But the peace is still heavy with unresolved tensions. In August 2005, representatives of the Indonesian government and GAM signed a memorandum of understanding in Helsinki, ending almost thirty years of on-again off-again guerilla warfare in Aceh. At the heart of the peace deal was a compromise in which GAM agreed to give up its armed struggle and its demand for complete independence from Indonesia in exchange for “self government” for Aceh. It also won the chance to compete for political power at the local level. An early step in this process came when a former GAM propagandist, veterinary science lecturer Irwandi Yusuf, ran as an independent candidate and was elected as Aceh’s governor back in December 2006. A total of ten GAM-affiliated candidates were also elected as mayors and districts heads, covering just under half of Aceh’s districts.

With much of the local executive government in their hands, the next step in GAM supporters’ road to power came when people in Aceh were allowed to form local political parties. To compete in elections throughout the rest of Indonesia, parties must show that they have branches spread across much of the nation: that they are national parties. The explicit goal is to prevent regional sentiments and loyalties from gaining a foothold in the formal political system. An exception was made for Aceh when Indonesia’s national parliament passed the Law on the Governing of Aceh in mid 2006. This law embodies many (but, in the eyes of GAM supporters, not all) points from the Helsinki memorandum, including its provision for local parties.

Aceh’s transformation is testing the ability of Indonesia’s ruling elite to manage regional tensions of the sort that have produced a series of local rebellions since the country declared independence over six decades ago. There is still a vast gulf between what most former supporters of GAM think self-government entails and what Jakarta is prepared to give. But the peace process is also testing the former GAM rebels who, having agreed to give up their armed struggle, are faced with the complexities of overseeing Aceh’s public administration and economic development while resisting the temptations of corruption.

Partai Aceh achieved its electoral victory by relying on both the muscle power and the credibility it built up during its war to free Aceh of Indonesian rule. The war left GAM and its successor organisations with a network of former combatants, cadres and supporters that penetrates down to the villages. The network was a powerful tool for mobilisational during the elections. Especially in the relatively densely populated strip along the east coast, many villages are virtual GAM fiefdoms, and solid Partai Aceh territory. Candidates from rival parties cite examples of former GAM combatants in these areas threatening their supporters, denying them access to villages, or “accompanying” villagers while they cast their votes.

But everybody agrees that Partai Aceh would have won an impressive victory even if its followers had practised no intimidation. And it is a moot point what the overall effect of irregularities were: Partai Aceh supporters insist that they also lost seats because of the military’s intimidation of voters and manipulation of the counting in some inland and southerly districts – places where the population is sparser and more ethnically diverse and where GAM has always been weaker. In these areas the military is still a significant political actor, and it often works hand in hand with powerful local business-political clans.

As well as organisation, the key to GAM’s strength in the war years was the depth of the Acehnese nationalism it was able to arouse in the population. For almost thirty years, GAM’s fighters were motivated by the doctrine, instilled by the movement’s founder Hasan di Tiro, that Indonesia was a neocolonial fabrication and Aceh had a glorious and much longer history as an independent nation-state. Independence would allow Aceh to reclaim its rightful place in the world.

Partai Aceh’s victory drew on a recalibrated version of that vision. Party campaigners say that during the campaign they stressed the party’s loyalty to the old traditions of struggle and promised to remain true to them. As one former fighter turned parliamentarian recalled, “We told the people that we gave up our weapons for the Helsinki MoU and to uphold the dignity of the Acehnese nation; now Partai Aceh is our weapon to continue that struggle.” They always stressed that the party would hold firmly to the Helsinki memorandum, which means that they no longer struggle for independence. Yet they are adamant about asserting Aceh’s distinctiveness and its special rights. In many respects, even the leaders of Partai Aceh are far from being reconciled with Indonesia. They know that the struggle for independence is well and truly off the table, but they seek to maintain, in the words of party spokesperson Adnan Beuransyah, “a clear dividing line” between Aceh and Indonesia. They begrudgingly accept that Aceh is part of the Indonesian state but, as Beuransyah puts it, “we must have entirely separate authorities.”

DESPITE its decentralising reforms over the last decade, in some respects Indonesia remains a highly centralised polity. Certainly, many national government officials maintain a very centralistic mindset and are reluctant to interpret either the Helsinki memorandum or the Law on the Governing of Aceh in a way that maximises Aceh’s autonomy. The Helsinki memorandum includes this key sentence: “Aceh will exercise authority within all sectors of public affairs, which will be administered in conjunction with its civil and judicial administration, except in the fields of foreign affairs, external defence, national security, monetary and fiscal matters, justice and freedom of religion.” GAM supporters interpret this to mean that the central government should have authority only over these fields in Aceh, and that Aceh’s government should have unfettered authority over every other imaginable policy area. But Indonesia’s law on regional government, which applies to the whole country, contains a very similar phrase, and the central government still manages to have far-reaching national laws and regulations that cover everything from the internal organisation of the civil service to mining and the formation of new districts.

Moreover, the Law on the Governing of Aceh already, in the eyes of GAM supporters and many other Acehnese, contains articles that weaken the provisions of the Helsinki memorandum. For instance, one article – 235.2.a. – gives the central government power to annul any regulation passed by the provincial parliament if the centre deems it to contravene the “public interest” – a rubbery phrase that will continue to generate dispute. The law also leaves many crucial aspects of Aceh–Jakarta relations to be defined by further central government regulations, some of which have already been issued, while others are still being prepared.

Already, some of these new regulations have proved to be troubling for GAM supporters. A 2007 government regulation, for instance, required local parties to register with the Justice and Human Rights Ministry. Central government officials then insisted that such local parties had to be, as presidential adviser Andi Mallarangeng told the Antara news agency, “consistent with existing laws and uphold the unitary principles of the state.” When GAM supporters tried to register the name Partai GAM they were refused on this ground, because the name GAM was seen as implying support for independence. They next tried to call their party the Partai Gerakan Aceh Mandiri (where mandiri is a softer word for “independent” than the original merdeka) but they were again refused. Eventually they settled on Partai Aceh.

It’s not hard to identify many future points of friction. One concerns the division of oil and gas revenues between central and regional governments, which has been a contentious issue ever since the development of the gas fields in North Aceh in the 1970s. For decades, Aceh was one of the world’s most productive sources of natural gas. ExxonMobil operated the gas wells, tankers from Japan and South Korea queued up off the coast, and engineers and other staff flew in and out from the neighbouring province of North Sumatra. A technologically sophisticated industrial enclave grew up, surrounded by rice-farming and fishing villages. The bulk of the government revenues went to Jakarta, and local people felt they saw little in the way of tangible benefits. It became an article of faith for GAM and other Acehnese dissidents that Jakarta was interested in Aceh only for its natural wealth. If Aceh were independent, they used to say, Aceh would be as wealthy as Brunei.

Under the Helsinki memorandum and the Law on the Governing of Aceh, 70 per cent of the revenues generated by oil and gas sales in Aceh will go back to the region. Although this provision has led to an increase in provincial revenues, many Acehnese think the increase should be greater. The problem, as they see it, is that revenues generated by Aceh’s oil and gas sales are collected by the central government, which then makes its own calculations and transfers to Aceh the funds it thinks the province deserves. Precisely how the centre calculates these amounts is a mystery even to Acehnese local government officials: details on the volume of sales, prices, and the contracts between ExxonMobil and the Indonesian government remain obscure. Every year, Acehnese government leaders claim the province has been short-changed, but they lack the solid data to prove their case.

To make matters worse, the oil and gas are running out. In the district of North Aceh where Amran and his friends live, a process of deindustrialisation is under way. ExxonMobil is slowly winding down its operations and two big fertiliser factories have already closed. As we drive between our appointments, Amran swerves his car left and right to avoid the potholes that stud the road. “This is an Exxon road,” he says, “In the old days it was never like this.” Having been a source of bitter resentment for so long, it’s a supreme irony that Aceh’s natural gas revenues are running down precisely as a political movement that was partly generated by that resentment is coming to power.

In May, the Indonesian finance minister, Sri Mulyani, announced that the central government this year was granting Aceh revenues from oil and gas revenues amounting to 554 billion rupiah (about $A67 million), much less than half the 1.32 trillion that had been written into the provincial budget. The central government blames the shortfall on declining production and falling world prices, but Governor Irwandi complained about the central government’s lack of transparency. The Aceh government has formed an “advocacy team” to try to find more accurate information about how the sum was calculated and to lobby for an increase, but with little success so far. It’s difficult for the Aceh government to be more than a supplicant on this issue, with the central government holding all the cards – as it still does on so many aspects of centre–region relations.

WITH PARTAI ACEH about to take a near-majority in the provincial legislature, there are some areas in which the new legislators will try to test the limits of Aceh’s authority. Amran, his colleagues, and other newly elected Partai Aceh candidates repeatedly told me that their main goal in power would be to achieve full self-government. They want to create a system of government that is distinctively Acehnese. One issue that is close to the hearts of many of them is the position of wali nanggroe or “guardian of the state,” the title that the GAM founder, Hasan di Tiro, conferred on himself in the 1970s. The term dates back to the nineteenth century, when Aceh was a sultanate and one of Hasan di Tiro’s ancestors was a leading figure in the war to resist Dutch invasion and colonialism. Both the Helsinki memorandum and the Law on the Governing of Aceh provide for the establishment of the position of wali nanggroe, but the outgoing provincial legislature prepared a draft regulation that makes this a symbolic post, representative of Acehnese culture and traditions.

The draft regulation has been put on hold, and the new Partai Aceh legislators speak of drafting a much more powerful version that will make the wali nanggroe akin to a monarch in a constitutional monarchy (“like in Denmark or Britain” as one of them put it to me), with the power to dismiss the governor and to sign laws. But such an arrangement would conflict with Indonesian laws, and even the constitution, which make the governor the head of provincial government.

Despite these and many other sources of potential friction, in practice the political behaviour of the former rebels has been much more accommodating than their rhetoric sometimes suggests. GAM leaders have forged close personal relations with some of Indonesia’s national political leaders, especially vice-president, and presidential aspirant, Jusuf Kalla, who was the leading Indonesian government figure behind the scenes in the Helsinki negotiations. Since then, Kalla has opened access to GAM leaders, and whenever there are tensions in the province they can visit or call him. Two weeks ago he made a much-publicised visit to the Partai Aceh office in Banda Aceh and promised that, if elected, he would amend the Law on the Governing of Aceh to make it accord more closely with Acehnese wishes. It’s an implausible promise, however, since Jusuf Kalla is unlikely to win next week’s presidential election and his Golkar party only has a minority of seats in the national parliament.

Many Acehnese are also favourably disposed towards the incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, under whose watch the peace deal was signed, and who has prevented the military from destabilising it. He is the favourite to win the presidential elections. During April’s legislative elections, many Partai Aceh leaders directed their supporters, at least informally, to vote for Yudhoyono’s Partai Demokrat in the elections for the national legislature (for which local parties like Partai Aceh are not entitled to nominate candidates) and the party won a handsome victory in the province at the national level. Governor Irwandi Yusuf and other GAM-affiliated public officeholders have become members of Yudhoyono’s “success team.”

So there’s plenty of evidence that, despite their sometimes incendiary rhetoric on self-government, the former separatists are prepared to compromise. With Yudhoyono likely to be re-elected, Indonesia will have a president who has a personal stake in the peace process. As long as Jakarta is not too blatant in its attempts to circumscribe the Aceh government’s new powers, it seems likely that Partai Aceh and other GAM leaders will continue to deal with Jakarta and to adapt to being part of government rather than opposing it. In such circumstances, the forces that are most threatening for GAM and its long-term political role come not from the government in Jakarta but from the predatory politics in which their own supporters are immersed at the local level.

BACK IN THAT VILLAGE in North Aceh, Amran and his newly elected Partai Aceh colleagues are worried about the pressures they’ll face from their former comrades-in-arms. “Just imagine,” Amran explains “there are about 15,000 KPA members in North Aceh alone, while there are just thirty-two of us in the district legislature.” (The KPA, or Aceh Transitional Committee, is the organisation of former GAM combatants.) “We’ll have an income and they do not: that’s how they will see it.” The Partai Aceh legislators, he thinks, will have to come to some sort of agreement among themselves. “We should divide our salaries of five million rupiah [about $A800] a month in two: 50 per cent for us and 50 per cent for our people,” but this would be done “on the condition that that’s it: no other request, no other demands, no anonymous and threatening telephone calls in the middle of the night.” Even so, “we can predict that we’ll get lots of curses from KPA folk: that’s certain.”

Since the Helsinki memorandum was signed, former fighters throughout Aceh have been scrambling to enrich themselves by using their access to local officials to win government construction projects or other lucrative economic opportunities. With the former separatists now the dominant force in the province’s politics, many ex-combatants feel that they should benefit personally from the control over government budgets and expenditures that political dominance brings. Petty violence and intimidation are often part of this story: former fighters threaten officials who allocate construction tenders, wreck the equipment of rival contractors, or terrorise rival workers. Former separatists who became heads of district governments are not immune, and many of them have to face endless and exhausting demands for money, projects or preferential treatment. Sometimes ex-combatants threaten them with violence.

This can be a scary environment for GAM members who are now in positions of influence, and it explains why Amran and his friends view their victory in last April’s legislative elections with mixed feelings. They know that a lot of the ordinary ex-combatants feel they haven’t benefited materially from the end of the war. Some people higher up the chain say they are compelled to get into business or engage in dubious fund-raising methods so that they can provide jobs to unemployed former fighters, or at least help them out when they are in financial distress. At the same time, this is also a very lucrative environment for those former guerillas who have enough personal authority, the right connections and the boldness to grasp the new opportunities for their own advantage. Everywhere you go in Aceh the fruits of their efforts can be seen in the fancy new houses and shiny new cars that former leading guerillas now possess.

And there are already signs that at least some of the GAM-affiliated local government heads are being affected by the culture of corruption that pervades the bureaucracy in Indonesia – or at least that they are unable to control it. The most spectacular example is Ilyas Hamid, the district head of North Aceh. This former guerilla commander quickly developed a taste for the trappings of power after being elected in December 2006. In particular, he became a figure of fun in his district because he cultivated a fanatical love of golf, the pastime par excellence of male members of Indonesia’s bureaucratic and business elite. Senior military officers regularly invited him to play as part of their confidence-building approaches after he was elected, and he got the taste for it. He is now reputed to spend several days a week at luxury golf resorts in the neighbouring province of North Sumatra, far from his own district.

More seriously, Ilyas Hamid’s government has become the centre of a large corruption scandal currently absorbing media and public attention throughout Aceh. A group of his advisers, and his deputy, were involved in a scheme to take 220 billion rupiah (approximately $A27 million) of North Aceh government funds to a bank branch in Jakarta. In the end, 200 billion rupiah was deposited in the bank and much of that which was deposited promptly disappeared into about one hundred separate accounts, some of them in the names of relatives of advisory team members, and was used for all sorts of purposes, including buying foreign currency. In mid June, the Aceh newspaper Serambi Indonesia reported police sources as saying that they had so far recovered only 177 billion rupiah. The investigations are still underway.

Several of Ilyas Hamid’s advisers have already been interrogated or detained. Some of them are locally reputed to have track records of involvement in corruption or as brokers in shady business deals. One, Salahuddin Alfata, was briefly detained in New York when, accompanying Governor Irwandi on an official visit, he tried to deposit a bad cheque for $US32.5 million; it turned out he was a victim of a so-called Nigerian scam. Ilyas Hamid’s precise role is still unknown. Some people are ready to give him the benefit of the doubt and allow that he was simply fooled by the carpetbaggers who have attached themselves to him. Even so, it appears that the money was transferred to the Jakarta bank on the basis of an order he signed without the required authorisation by the local parliament.

This is an extreme case, but it’s not an isolated one. Many of the districts headed by GAM-affiliated officials are in the midst of corruption probes. In many of these cases it’s far from clear that the government heads were personally involved, but in some they may be legally responsible. An investigation is reportedly underway at the provincial level into the sale of scrap iron from old bridges, which the Aceh rumour mill suggests involves many close allies of Governor Irwandi.

There is talk of dark conspiracies by Jakarta to ensnare the rebels-turned-officials in corruption charges. In fact, when I interviewed some of these same district leaders two years ago, just after they were elected, some of them told me that such an outcome was what they most feared. Corruption in the bureaucracy in Aceh is as pervasive as elsewhere in Indonesia, and it would take little effort by any law enforcement agency to find evidence. Some of the journalists who have been most energetically investigating corruption in the local governments do appear to have military protection. Already people in Aceh talk about an “Abdullah Puteh scenario,” referring to a former governor of the province who was jailed on corruption charges several years ago. Others draw parallels with the fate of Nur Misuari, the former Southern Philippines rebel leader who came to power following a similar peace deal only to be brought down by accusations of serious corruption. After attempting to lead a renewed insurrection he was captured and incarcerated. Such a dramatic breakdown of the peace is not on the cards in Aceh. But for many of Aceh’s new politicians, the danger is that political rehabilitation and reconciliation will end not with a breakdown of the peace and a return to armed struggle, but with the disgrace and disillusionment that corruption brings. •

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