Tuesday, December 19, 2006
ACEH TURNS A PAGE
|Fatima Syam, a tsunami survivor who lost 10 of her 12 children in the disaster, votes near her temporary shelter at Desa Alue Naga, near Banda Aceh. Photo: REUTERS/Tarmizy Harva|
lections were held in Aceh last week, where citizens voted for their Governor and Vice-Governor for the first time in their history. Under the newly-enacted autonomy laws, which followed the Helsinki peace accord signed by Indonesia and the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) separatist movement on August 15, 2005, Aceh was to be exempt from one restrictive regulation which applies to all other elections in Indonesia. Independent candidates without affiliation to a political party (defined as having a national presence and a minimum membership in all provinces) would be allowed to participate. The result has apparently shaken some power centres in Java.
There were eight teams of Governor/Vice Governor candidates on the ballot, leading most Indonesian observers to expect a run-off election (in the event of no team gaining at least 25% in the first round). As of Sunday evening, with around 70% of voting precincts counted, the independent team of Irwandi Yusuf and Muhammad Nazar were leading with about 34% of the vote, with their nearest competition at less than 20%. It appears that Irwandi Yusuf will become Aceh's next Governor. Official final results are expected on January 2.
Two years ago, Irwandi Yusuf was in a prison in the capital Banda Aceh. On December 26, the wave which killed more than 200,000 along Aceh's coasts, also destroyed the prison and set him free. Prior to his imprisonment, Yusuf had been a veterinary science professor at Syaiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, and also a member of GAM dealing with public and media relations.
Muhammad Nazar was a democracy activist in the heady period after the fall of Suharto, and headed the Aceh Referendum Information Center (SIRA). This civil society group had organised massive and peaceful demonstrations in 1999 and 2000, asking the central government to permit a referendum on independence. He was arrested several times for this democratic activity, and was handed a five year sentence in 2003.
The exile leadership of GAM had declared that there would be no "GAM ticket" for the election, and that GAM supporters should vote their conscience. However, the Sweden-based exiles did declare their support for Humam Hamid and Hasbi Abdullah, backed by the Development Unity Party (PPP, one of the old, established national parties). This is the team which is running in second place in the current count, with about 19%. So the pro-GAM vote split at least two ways, placing first and second.
There is some excellent analysis and further information on Yusuf and Nazar here at JakChat (wai Indonesia Matters). Most heartening for me is the possibility that the sharia law foisted on Aceh by the central government may eventually be done away with. To date this has amounted to patrols of "morality police" -- the Wilayatul Hisbah, comparable to the Saudi muttawa -- making sure women are dressed "properly," and no one engages in gambling or drinking alcohol. Punishments presently go as far as public canings, but in recent weeks there has been talk of instituting hand amputations for thieves. Irwandi Yusuf has already said he will not allow that to happen.
Aceh was bullied into accepting sharia law by the central government, which felt that this type of "special autonomy" would eliminate the desire for independence. I don't believe that most Acehnese want it, outside of some fundamentalist minority. During my time in Aceh in January of this year, I asked opinions on this from almost everyone I talked with. Very few felt that this regime of "Islamic law" would be beneficial for Aceh. In South Aceh, where I spent most of that time, it was not uncommon to see women out and about in the town without their heads covered, or riding motorbikes with hair blowing free. When I would ask my companions why the women were not afraid to do this, they would just say it's no big deal. "There might be a razia jilbab (headscarf "sweeping") on Saturday, so they'll just wear it then." Many people in South Aceh are hoping for tourism development in the future -- something which will never happen with sharia law in place.
GAM has never been an Islamist movement, but rather a secular, political one. Their aim had always been for a free, democratic (and independent) Aceh -- never for an Islamic state. Then came the disaster beyond comprehension, the renewal of peace negotiations, and a decision to trade their bullets for ballots. With the Helsinki accord, GAM pledged to disarm and work for the Acehnese within the framework of Indonesia. A GAM spokesperson said in September (quoted in the JakChat link above):
Notably the leadership of GAM, or the Free Aceh Movement, which negotiated the now year-long peace deal with Jakarta, maintains the implementation of democracy and not Sharia is its priority, and says that public floggings, for instance, are not part of Aceh's Islamic tradition.In an interview on Singapore Radio, Indonesia researcher Sidney Jones had this to say about Irwandi:
So for the state, what is the business of the state dictating how women should dress? It's ridiculous.
He was the only candidate with any concrete ideas on anything. He is somebody who is extremely smart, is US educated, has been working absolutely tirelessly since the MOU. And in fact, during the MOU as well, to try and ensure that the peace agreement was held. He was responsible for the de-commissioning of the arms and basically, secured some of those last weapons almost by personally yanking them out of people's arms. He has been tireless in his efforts to try and get benefits to some of the ex-combatants so that they will not be trouble makers, and will in fact commit themselves to the peace process. So I think overall, he is a good thing. I do not know some of the GAM people who have been elected at a district level but they are probably not all as competent as Irwandi is, but I think people should see Irwandi as one of the most capable of candidates that was running for governor.It will take some months before we will see how successful Irwandi Yusuf will be as Governor of Aceh. The provincial parliament (DPRD) is stuffed with people who are not likely to see things his way, so he may have problems getting measures through that body. But if he follows through on his promises of cracking down on the rampant corruption in the province and improving health, education and economic development, it might be possible to see sweeping changes at the next legislative election in 2009. With a new leader who is a strong believer in genuine democracy and equal rights for women, and who has pledged to bring more women into the political process, hopefully the days of morality police telling women what to wear will be numbered.
Aceh is the place Islam first entered present-day Indonesia many centuries ago. It would be fitting for it to be the place where the increasing politicisation of Islam in Indonesia would begin to be turned back. Neither Aceh nor anywhere else in Indonesia have any need for this overlay of Arab-style repressiveness. Aceh has a joyous culture and tradition of its own, and I hope that with Irwandi's election, a page has been turned.