Aceh elections and the fragility of peace

With a fragile peace under threat, Indonesia’s Aceh Province votes on Monday.

The conflict in Indonesia came to a grinding halt when tsunami struck the shores of Aceh in 2004 [GALLO/GETTY]

This article is the ninth in a series by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, exploring how a litany of volatile centre/periphery conflicts with deep historical roots were interpreted after 9/11 in the new global paradigm of anti-terrorism – with profound and often violent consequences. Incorporating in-depth case studies from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Ambassador Ahmed will ultimately argue that the inability for Muslim and non-Muslim states alike to either incorporate minority groups into a liberal and tolerant society or resolve the “centre vs periphery” conflict is emblematic of a systemic failure of the modern state – a breakdown which, more often than not, leads to widespread violence and destruction. The violence generated from these conflicts will become the focus, in the remainder of the 21st century, of all those dealing with issues of national integration, law and order, human rights and justice.

Washington, DC – On Monday, Aceh Province in Indonesia will face its second provincial election since the cessation of armed conflict and granting of autonomy for Aceh in 2005. This fragile peace is under threat. It is currently being challenged by many reports of violence connected with the election. As a precaution, the government has deployed thousands of troops and national police. 

This election will test more than the viability of autonomy in Aceh. It will illustrate the ability of the central government and the periphery to move beyond conflict and heal the wounds from a history filled with bloodshed and mutual hatred. Most important, it will establish the ability of the periphery to shoulder the responsibilities of civil government. 

Indonesia’s tsunami hit Aceh recovers well

The name Aceh, for many, has been synonymous with violence and Islamic militancy for decades, with the central government and Aceh locked in series of violent struggles dating back to the 1950s. At the heart of the struggle was self-governance and autonomy for this culturally and historically distinct corner of Indonesia. After the apocalyptic horrors of the December 2004 tsunami, Jakarta and Aceh finally found peace. 

There have been a number of struggles in the post-conflict era in the areas of economic development and investment in Aceh. The region continues to carry the stigma of instability and conflict as it returns politicians who are more familiar with military skirmishes than the halls of government.

The Aceh Sultanate

To better understand what is currently at stake for Aceh and the Indonesian nation, we look to the tumultuous past of Aceh.

Medieval Aceh was originally a series of small trading kingdoms visited by such prominent travellers as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, who both noted the piety of the Muslims they encountered. In response to Portuguese incursions into the region in the 16th century, Sultan Ali Mughayat Shah united these kingdoms into the Sultanate of Aceh in 1514, which ruled for almost four centuries as a regional trading power.  The Sultanate quickly became a centre of Islamic learning and culture, developing economic and political links with the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire.

The Aceh Sultanate largely ruled along the coast and left the interior highlanders, divided into tribes and clans, free to practice their traditional code of behaviour, which emphasised honour, hospitality, revenge and freedom, without interference from either the Sultan or his ruling class of nobles. 

When the Dutch invaded Aceh in 1873 as part of their colonisation of Indonesia, they were met with stiff resistance. The conflict quickly devolved into a decades-long struggle against decentralised guerilla forces, ending in the early 20th century. The Dutch governor of Aceh in the 1930s spoke of the “fanatical love of freedom” held by every Acehnese. 

After World War II, the Dutch did not attempt to regain control over Aceh, and Acehnese lent their support to the struggle for Indonesian independence. Sukarno, the founding father of Indonesia, personally travelled to Aceh to meet with the Acehnese, calling them “heroes” and praised their role in the struggle for independence.

The attainment of Indonesian independence in 1949, however, did not resolve many of the contentious issues leftover from the colonial era as Acehnese complained of a new colonisation from the central government in Java. Jakarta absorbed Aceh into the government of its southern neighbour, the Province of North Sumatra. 

As a result, the Acehnese antipathy to central rule and loss of self-governance found voice in the national Darul Islam movement, which sought the establishment of an Islamic State of Indonesia. Fighting ceased in Aceh when the government, led by Sukarno, re-established the Province of Aceh and granted autonomy in the areas of religion, culture and education.

Aceh’s fortunes would again shift with the emergence of General Suharto, who moved to centralise power and dispatched leaders handpicked for their loyalty.

Economically marginalised

On top of their loss of autonomy, the Acehnese were economically marginalised and relegated to second-class citizenship. With the discovery of abundant natural resources such as natural gas and oil, Aceh quickly became the fastest growing provincial economy in Indonesia. The profits earned in Aceh filled the coffers of Jakarta but had little impact on the majority of Acehnese.

Indonesia PM pulls through for food carts

This neglect and marginalisation of the Acehnese was the background for the formation of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) under Teungku Hasan di Tiro in 1976. For the next two decades, GAM would fight for Acehnese independence based in the historic sovereignty of the Aceh Sultanate. 

In the 1990s, Jakarta launched a major new offensive and designated Aceh a Military Operations Area (DOM). The local population experienced over a decade of gross human rights abuses, as Indonesian troops were given the powers to arrest, interrogate, torture and kill any suspected “militants”.

After the resignation of Suharto in May 1998, the promise of peace, highlighted by the public apology of the commander of the Indonesian military General Wiranto in Aceh for the thousands of “excesses” perpetrated by Indonesian soldiers, was short lived. The government saw the lifting of DOM as a policy in itself and did not offer any clear directives for Aceh in terms of re-establishing the organs of civil society and local law enforcement after the withdrawal of the military. 

When full accounts of the abuses of the Indonesian military emerged, there was a resulting backlash against Indonesian troops and Acehnese collaborators. The central government again responded with military force. Conflict between Aceh and the central government re-emerged despite Jakarta’s unsuccessful attempt to calm the situation by agreeing to the implementation of Islamic law in 1999.

After 9/11, Jakarta sought to link GAM with the US war on terrorism. Press reports in Indonesia and the West spoke of alleged al-Qaeda links with GAM and even a plan to transfer al-Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan to Aceh. The conflict escalated with President Megawati Sukarnoputri declaring martial law in 2003.

This conflict came to a grinding halt when the December 2004 tsunami struck the shores of Aceh. Out of 230,000 people believed to have been killed, 170,000 were in Aceh, with a further half a million displaced.

Out of this tragedy, Aceh and Jakarta found their common humanity. The GAM unilaterally declared a ceasefire the day after the tsunami and Jakarta followed suit with the opening up of Aceh to foreign aid and lifting of the civil emergency status. 

Acehnese autonomy

An agreement for Acehnese autonomy was signed in August 2005, allowing for the local recruitment of police, right to retain 70 per cent of revenues from local natural resources, the power to levy local taxes and the formation of local political parties which was formerly prohibited in Aceh.

Amnesty was granted to all former GAM fighters, now free to serve in the Aceh administration and police. The December 2006 elections in Aceh saw a number of former GAM rebels winning political office, including the election of an independent candidate, Irwandi Yusuf, a former GAM rebel, as provincial governor. 

With the new elections, the health and viability of Aceh’s autonomous political structure will be tested. There have already been reports of violence, murder and intimidation as part of election campaigning.

The elections have already been delayed four times due to disagreement between the Aceh Party, consisting of former GAM rebels and the incumbent governor, who has maintained his independence from party politics over the eligibility of independent candidates. Tensions between the two camps could result in further violence if they opt for bullets over ballots.

Shifting strategies in policing Aceh

In response to this internal strife, the central government has deployed some 8,000 policemen and 1,800 soldiers across Aceh to provide security for the elections, a slippery slope for a region with fresh memories of military abuses by the central government. 

Indonesia should be acutely aware of the critical juncture at which Aceh finds itself. Learning from the lesson of the past, the central government should support, without directly interfering, the development of Aceh’s fragile civil society and autonomous political system, while the Acehnese should adhere to the principles of democracy and the will of the voters.

As conflict between centre and periphery is recorded among many nations across the world, both Jakarta and Aceh should be commended for establishing an innovative autonomous system which helped to end the armed conflict and alleviate the long-standing suffering of the Acehnese people. It should, however, be remembered that this is only the first step towards the creation of a stable society. 

The people of Aceh need to be guaranteed their full human and civil rights by both the Indonesian government and the Acehnese government. Jakarta should see an autonomous and peaceful Aceh as a demonstration of its ability to successfully integrate the periphery into the Indonesian nation. This can provide a desperately needed model to other countries struggling to find peace with their own peripheries. 

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Harrison Akins is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.