Indonesia: A Conflict Transformed


Edward Aspinall

Indonesia often receives a bad press in Australia. That's one reason why we should recognise Indonesian success whenever it happens. The victory of two former pro-independence leaders in last week's historic elections in Aceh was one such success story. Amidst the slew of civil wars and separatist conflicts that continue to cause great suffering around the world (in our region alone, think of Sri Lanka, Burma or the Southern Philippines) the Aceh peace process stands out like a beacon.

When the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) signed a peace agreement in August 2005, many commentators were skeptical that the peace would hold. They feared that GAM would use the peace to press home its campaign for independence, and that hardliners in the Indonesian security apparatus, fearing the same outcome, would undermine it.

Peace survived because of discipline and leadership on both sides. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono and his deputy, Jusuf Kalla, faced down fear-mongering by nationalist parliamentarians and ensured that there was no significant resistance from the military. GAM, for its part, stopped all talk of independence, refrained from antagonising the government, and kept its demobilized guerillas under control.

But the election doesn't end the challenge. The outcome of the election, in which former GAM leaders won at both the provincial level and in about half the districts, has come as a great shock to those nationalists in Jakarta who had always resisted making peace with 'separatists'. Some have muttered darkly that it's a first step toward 'national disintegration'.

The winners, governor-elect, Irwandi Yusuf, and his deputy, Mohammad Nazar are deeply disliked by many senior Indonesian security officials. Many such officials privately suspect that their victory is part of a long-term, step-by-step plan to make Aceh independent, something the pair strenuously deny.

Irwandi was a former propagandist and military strategist for GAM, and although he earned admiration for his judicious leadership during the disarming of the former guerillas, many senior officials in Jakarta remember darkly how he tricked them during the conflict years. He openly boasts of his skills in 'counter-intelligence' and 'psy-war', fuelling fears that he harbours a hidden agenda.

Muhammad Nazar is even more disliked: back in 1999-2000 he was the leader of a student group which organized massive rallies in favour of an independence referendum. He was famous for his impulsive personality and for his impassioned speeches condemning Indonesian 'tyranny' and 'colonialism'.

Ensuring that there are no covert attempts to stir up violence in Aceh to undermine the new provincial government will pose a continuing challenge to President Yudhoyono and his aides. But it will also pose a challenge to Irwandi Yusuf and Muhammad Nazar, who will be under intense pressure to make early symbolic gestures to confirm that they can not only work with, but also defer to, Jakarta and that they do not intend to 'leave the rails of the Unitary Republic' (as one of the conventional phrases in Indonesian political vocabulary puts it). Every sign of equivocation, of emphasizing Aceh's interests over those of Indonesia at large, will fuel nationalist fears in Jakarta.

The second challenge that these new leaders will face is meeting the expectations of their own supporters, many of whom voted for them precisely because they believe that they will actively confront Jakarta. They now have a delicate balancing act to perform.

GAM grew and became a force in Aceh, first, under the repressive rule of President Suharto from the late 1970s and, later, in the vacuum which followed the collapse of his government in 1998. It gained support because of the inequality, depredations and oppression of the Suharto regime, and because it offered a solution - independence - which was attractively simple. GAM leaders never offered a detailed social or economic program: to win support all they needed to do was emphasise the glories of the Acehnese nation and its history, and the glittering future which awaited an independent Aceh.

Now that the former GAM leaders will be in power, within Indonesia rather than independent of it, they will need to deliver tangible benefits to the population. Former GAM fighters and supporters will expect rapid improvement in their economic circumstances.

During the election campaign, Irwandi and Nazar spoke of rapidly developing Aceh's economy, but the policies they offered (for instance, improving infrastructure, employment, education and health care) didn't differ much from what was offered by other candidates. Transforming largely rural Aceh, after years of conflict, into an economic powerhouse is going to be a daunting task.

In the end, therefore, last week's election outcome might end up taming the separatist shibboleth once and for all, rather than reviving it as some in Indonesia fear. In the old days, when the authorities tried to eliminate GAM militarily, the brutal methods they used ended up transforming GAM into martyrs and deepening support for the independence cause. Drawing the former separatists into government and confronting them with the mundane challenges involved in democratic administration, is likely to demystify them and the cause they once espoused. This is just one example of how the old Indonesia, built on military force, is giving way to a new one which is not only more democratic, but which will also in the long run prove to be more stable.

WATCHPOINT: How will newly elected Irwandi Yusuf and Muhammad Nazar perform in their difficult balancing act?


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