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Story of revenge and sharing of spoils in Aceh

Publication Date : 17-04-2012


It is a bitter irony for voters in the April 9 Aceh governor election, that after enduring 28 years of brutality at the hands of the central government and going through one of the world's worst natural disasters, they should still have to contend with getting their liberators-turned-politicians to keep the peace among themselves.

After all, veteran Aceh watchers say they had not experienced the same level of intimidation in rural villages in the lead-up to the election as they had when military agents were waging a terror campaign against supporters of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

The 2004 tsunami effectively brought that protracted struggle to an end, with the insurgency already on the ropes. But in more recent years, that conflict has been replaced by an internal and deadly tussle within GAM itself, marked by assassinations and other violent incidents.

Voters were well aware that if they cast their ballots for incumbent governor Irwandi Yusuf, 52, GAM's former propaganda chief who ran as an independent, it would only be a recipe for more violence.

In the end, rival Aceh Party (AP) candidate Zaini Abdullah, GAM's one-time foreign minister-in-exile, won 55 per cent of the vote, streets ahead of Yusuf on 29 per cent. In fact, the margin of victory was more surprising than the result itself, with the party capturing nine of the biggest 17 districts.

"Everyone in Aceh is still traumatised by the conflict," says one Acehnese political analyst, noting Jakarta's obvious hand in the election outcome. "They still have many bitter memories of that period and they don't want to go back there."

A shuffling 71-year-old, Abdullah may be the senior figure in the hierarchical-conscious AP structure, but the real power belongs to running mate Muzakir Manaf, 48, the former GAM field commander who enjoys the loyalty of thousands of disgruntled former combatants.

While maintaining the peace was an underlying preoccupation with voters, GAM's hardcore leaders, which the AP represents, have now been presented with their first opportunity to show what they can do as a political organisation.

Refusing them a seat at the table would have only led to further alienation and a denial of the sacrifices they made in a conflict that cost up to 40,000 lives.

The guerillas fell short of winning independence, a goal they have never actually renounced. But Jakarta was compelled to grant the province special autonomy status and a degree of latitude the AP is now sure to exploit to the fullest.

Originally scheduled for last year, the election for governor was delayed three times because of politically motivated violence. Election Day itself was remarkably peaceful, but the AP's stalling tactics meant Yusuf's term expired a month beforehand, leaving his job in the hands of a Home Affairs Ministry caretaker.

Analysts say the victory was more about revenge than power. The roots of the infighting go back to 2006 when Yusuf defeated the GAM leadership's anointed pairing of Humum Hamid and Abdullah's brother Hasbi for the governorship. Abdullah and other political leaders, including the late Tengku Hasan di Tiro, then held Swedish and other foreign passports from their decades in exile and were not eligible to run in the election.

The rift widened in the years that followed, in part because Yusuf did not show due deference to an older generation schooled in the ways of the centuries-old Acehnese sultanate.

But that was not all. While he focused increasingly on a free health scheme to maintain his popularity, Yusuf fell behind in mandated education spending and had little success in attracting foreign investment or creating jobs.

More crucially, there was serious mismanagement of the Aceh Reintegration Agency's US$40 million fund to help the 3,000 GAM combatants adjust to their new lives, with some funds even going to disbanded government militiamen.

When it came to awarding public works contracts, Yusuf earned further ill will by spurning admittedly inexperienced GAM-affiliated firms in favour of Jakarta-based companies, many owned by well-connected businessman Tommy Winata.

The governor did not communicate well with the central government. His engagement with the private sector suffered too as a result of the deteriorating security situation and pressure from hardline clerics to enforce syariah law.

Yusuf's eventual fate may well have been sealed last year when 14 of the 17 regional leaders of the Aceh Transitional Committee, formed from GAM's old armed wing, were fired for opposing Abdullah's candidacy at the AP's August convention.

That is seen to have robbed Yusuf of much of his influence as the conflict with his former comrades-in-arms intensified to a point in early March when he himself was the target of what turned out to be a failed assassination plot.

Intriguingly, three retired generals joined the AP campaign in its final weeks, among them former Aceh regional chief Major-General Soenarko, whose mission seemed to be aimed at presenting AP as an inclusive party to attract the support of Javanese transmigrants.

Apart from giving the military a co-opting presence among its former enemies, local analysts also believe it had a lot to do with sharing some of the commercial spoils arising from a GAM victory.

In a once-rebellious province, where it often took extortion and petty crime to keep GAM afloat in the later years, money and politics remain ever-present bedfellows.


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