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Aceh Conflict Indonesia

Notes on ICG’s Latest Indonesia Report: “GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections”

ICG Report Header:  "Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections"
ICG Report Header: "Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections"

A few days ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) issued their latest Asia Briefing titled “Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections.” ICG reports are always excellent and this one is no exception, featuring a clear review and honest assessment of the internal divisions within the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) since their peace agreement with Indonesia in 2005, and how those divisions are playing out leading up to the governor (provincial) and bupati (district) executive elections to be held on 14 November 2011. The report begins with the announcement in February—which I have written about HERE—that Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party) would not nominate Aceh’s incumbent governor Irwandi Yusuf, also from GAM, for reelection. Instead they nominated Zaini Abdullah, a senior figure within GAM’s government in exile during the conflict, and Muzakir Manaf, former commander of GAM’s armed forces, as his running mate. They have since been cleverly dubbed the ZIKIR ticket. Irwandi, still a popular front-runner according to polls, intends to run for reelection anyway. The ICG report argues that if violent friction on the ground can be prevented, then GAM’s internal divisions may add healthy competition to the electoral process and “produce better policies and improved governance” for Aceh.

GAM vs GAM
GAM vs GAM

But that’s not how Partai Aceh sees it. The party has autocratic tendencies, backed up with thug tactics on the ground by KPA (Komite Peralihan Aceh, the Aceh Transitional Committee, representing the interests of GAM ex-combatants), which they are using to steamroll toward one-party rule in Aceh. The political issue at stake to ensure their ZIKIR ticket wins is whether independent candidates (without party nomination) may contest executive elections. If Irwandi cannot run as an independent candidate as he intends, then he effectively loses the election as nomination from one of the national parties would compromise his credibility as a former GAM leader, and there are no other local parties that could (or would) capably back him. In order to ensure this outcome, Partai Aceh leaders are arguing that independent candidates are not allowed under the terms of the peace agreement even though Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has clearly established the legality of independent candidates running for executive office across the country and specifically found this particular provision of the Aceh peace agreement unconstitutional. The irony here is that it was precisely GAM’s peace agreement with Indonesia that allowed independent candidates to run for the first time anywhere in Indonesia (thus enabling Irwandi’s first term), at least until local parties were formed. GAM’s own precedent paved the way for the Constitutional Court to allow independent candidates all across Indonesia, widely seen as a crucial democratic reform for the country. Now that Partai Aceh has a near monopoly over Aceh’s government, GAM is backtracking on its pioneering step for the country from which they no longer seek independence.

That’s a quick summary of the ICG report, which has a lot more detail about political maneuvers in Aceh, violent incidents that may be related to GAM’s electoral competition, and a refreshingly honest assessment of the emerging candidates for governor. I found two particular points in the report worth discussing further:  one is symptomatic of Partai Aceh’s poor governance, and the other is an amusing linguistic footnote.

Partai Aceh’s Delay Tactics as a Mode of Governance

Perhaps as a kind of face-saving measure to cover up their all-out effort to consolidate power, Partai Aceh has turned the issue of independent candidates into an ideological battle between Aceh and Jakarta. They claim that when the Constitutional Court struck down the article of Aceh’s autonomy law that awkwardly allows for independent candidates until local parties have been established (i.e. effectively for the 2006 executive elections only), it violated the peace agreement by interfering with Aceh’s autonomy. This is classic GAM ideology based on decades of rapacious and brutal intervention from Jakarta that understandably validate Acehnese suspicions of central government motives. If Partai Aceh allows the court to chip away at the powers granted under the autonomy law, their argument goes, then it’s just a matter of time before other aspects of Aceh’s autonomy law are revised, presumably toward Jakarta’s advantage (ICG, p.4).

But since assuming legislative office in 2009, Partai Aceh’s inability to legislate or resolve pressing issues has in many ways invited Jakarta’s intervention. Take for example the two controversial “last minute” laws—the Qanun Jinayat and the Qanun Wali Nanggroe—that the outgoing politicians from national parties passed in 2009 just before Partai Aceh legislators assumed office, widely criticized as cynical legislative gamesmanship. Both laws pertain to Aceh’s special autonomy but outgoing legislators framed them quite differently than what GAM intended when negotiating their autonomy provisions during the peace process. Irwandi refused to sign both laws, but then the new Partai Aceh legislators failed to take up either law for revision, leaving the central government to respond to related pressing matters in its own fashion.

The Qanun Jinayat legislates some of the more barbaric aspects of Islamic law such as the stoning of adulterers to death (Aceh is the only province that may legislate Islamic laws), and triggered a wave of embarrassing bad press and international scorn for Aceh. When Partai Aceh refused to revise the law, perhaps wary of alienating their Islamist constituents in Aceh, the discourse shifted to leaders  in  Jakarta  such  as  the  Chief  Justice  of  the Constitutional Court, the President’s spokesperson, the head of the Department of Internal Affairs, and leading national human rights activists, who all publicly speculated upon the legality of the law’s harsh punishments for adultery and other crimes against Islamic law. The debate is no longer whether Jakarta should intervene to repeal Aceh’s religious laws if they violate human rights, but how.

The Qanun Wali Nanggroe establishes a royal leader for Aceh reminiscent of the Aceh sultanate prior to colonialism, and the outgoing legislators passed a version of the law that establishes merely a ceremonial figurehead, far from what GAM had in mind. While the Wali Nanggroe’s status remained ambiguous, in early 2010 the central government issued a routine government regulation that outlines the role and authority of governors across Indonesia and took the initiative to specifically include the Wali Nanggroe as a member of the Regional Leaders’ Forum (Musyawarah Pimpinan Daerah, MUSPIDA) for Aceh. The regulation states that the governor convenes and leads MUSPIDA, placing the Wali Nanggroe figure in a subordinate role, which accords with Jakarta’s understanding of the position. The regulation does not prevent Partai Aceh from enacting a revised law investing the Wali Nanggroe with more authority, but it does reinforce Jakarta’s normative understanding of the institution.*

When Aceh cannot get its legislative house in order, small discursive acts from Jakarta establish—in a piecemeal fashion and on an as-needed basis—precisely the kinds of regulatory precedents over Aceh’s autonomy provisions that Partai Aceh is worried about. The ICG report describes Partai Aceh’s second tactic to prevent Irwandi’s reelection bid (after disputing the Constitutional Court’s ruling), which is to delay issuing election regulations so that the clock will run out on Irwandi’s chances of mounting a campaign before his term ends (ICG, pp.4-5). This pattern of delay, whether strategic or merely incompetent, clearly invites intervention from Jakarta, most recently prompting the National Election Commission to instruct Aceh’s Independent Election Commission to follow the 2006 election law if the Partai Aceh led provincial assembly is unable to pass one for 2011. Partai Aceh only has itself to blame, and choosing now to pick an ideological battle with Jakarta reeks of hypocrisy given their inaction on other matters of importance to Aceh’s autonomy.

GAM & the Sacred Terms of Indonesian Statehood

I enjoyed a few LOLZ at Partai Aceh’s expense when the ICG report quotes senior party figure Adnan Beuransyah commenting on the Constitutional Court ruling. ICG correctly translates his statement as “rejection of the ruling is non-negotiable.” But in a footnote we learn that what he said in Bahasa Indonesia was “Menolak Mahkamah Konstitusi adalah harga mati,” where the phrase “harga mati” is translated as “non-negotiable.” For Bahasa Indonesia speakers, at least those who have spent a long time in Aceh, the kneejerk association with the rabidly nationalist and militaristic phrase “NKRI Harga Mati” is unavoidable. The acronym NKRI stands for Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (The Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia), a state philosophy used as a bulwark against federalist frameworks (Republik Indonesia Serikat) that some argue would herald the disintegration of national unity. Pro-Indonesia groups in Aceh (especially national security forces) included this phrase in every statement and banner related to the conflict and subsequent peace process. While “non-negotiable” is a correct translation for “harga mati,” one may also infer more confrontational overtones because the phrase literally means “the price is death.” “Harga mati” conveys the sense of an aggressive line drawn in the sand.  (Meanwhile, Google Translate defines “harga mati” as “fixed price.” What.)

 "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh (photo by Mercedes Chavez) "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh

"NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh

Perhaps Adnan was deploying some satire with this turn of phrase, but the two times I met him in 2009 he had the sense of humor of a lamp post, so I’m guessing he spoke without a trace of irony. GAM has a habit of defining their struggle against Indonesia with sacred, thoroughly Indonesian, nationalist terms. Merdeka (as in Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), meaning “freedom” or “independence,” is an attenuated allusion to Indonesia’s revolutionary war for independence from the Dutch. On every Indonesian independence day, the word merdeka echoes across every village and city of the archipelago. Now Adnan Beuransyah defines his non-negotiable opposition to a court decision issued by Indonesia’s highest constitutional authority with similarly sacred nationalist grandiloquence. The ease with which pro-Aceh activists slip into rhetoric that evokes Indonesian nationalism has led some observers to emphasize the point that Acehnese and Indonesian identities were never mutually exclusive.** At a more prosaic level, other observers note the ease with which former GAM activists have slipped into a thoroughly Indonesian style of governance through patronage.*** And that’s what seems to be at stake here: Irwandi has not patronized Partai Aceh enough to earn their nomination. In order to consolidate their fiefdom, Partai Aceh will shamelessly try to cut Irwandi out of the electoral process in order to get what they want, but there are few left who are fooled by their stall tactics and appeals to a hollow “non-negotiable” ideological opposition to Jakarta.

* This discussion of Qanun Jinayat and Qanun Wali Nanggroe is paraphrased generously from the Syiah Kuala University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies publication titled “Aceh Peace Monitoring Update September – December 2009” 

** Siegel, James T. “Possessed.” In The Rope of God. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

*** Aspinall, Edward. “Combatants to Contractors: The Political Economy of Peace in Aceh.” Indonesia, no. 87 (2009): 1-34.

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Aceh Conflict Indonesia

The Aceh Governor’s Election Heats Up **

After months of speculation the leaders of the GAM conglomerate—here defined simply as the combined leadership of KPA (Komite Peralihan Aceh, or the Aceh Transitional Committee, which lobbies on behalf of GAM ex-combatants) and Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party, which won the 2009 legislative elections)—held a press conference and released a statement on Sunday 6 February 2011 announcing their candidates for governor and vice-governor in the upcoming executive elections in October. The statement, signed by Muzakir Manaf (head of KPA and Partai Aceh, and senior commander of GAM combatants during the final years of the conflict) made six points:

  1. The KPA leadership meets routinely to evaluate the peace process, security, development, and the political situation in Aceh.
  2. The leadership agrees that the peace and security situation in Aceh—Alhamdulillah!—remains conducive although there are minor exceptions “here and there.”
  3. The leadership agrees there has not been a significant advance in Aceh’s development in light of the available resources.
  4. In advance of the 2011 executive elections, KPA is evaluating possible candidates, especially those associated with Partai Aceh, but looking for coalition opportunities with other political parties.
  5. For the governor’s race, Partai Aceh will not join in coalition with other parties, whereas for a number of districts and municipalities, Partai Aceh remains wide open for coalition opportunities.
  6. KPA nominates Dr. Zaini Abdullah and Muzakir Manaf as Partai Aceh’s candidates for governor and vice governor respectively for the 2012-2017 period.

Muzakir Manaf
Muzakir Manaf

There had long been speculation that the nomination would go to Dr. Zaini Abdullah, the Foreign Minister for GAM’s government in exile in Sweden and the older brother of Hasbi Abdullah, current speaker of Aceh’s parliament. The surprise was in choosing Muzakir Manaf, who never professed an interest in running for office and preferred to focus on his lucrative post-conflict business opportunities in Lhokseumawe. Earlier rumors suggested that PA/KPA would choose Aminullah Usman, a former banker, reminiscent of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s choice of Boediono for his Vice-President.

The loser here, it would seem, is Aceh’s current governor, Irwandi Yusuf, who was hoping for Partai Aceh’s nomination, but will definitely run for reelection nevertheless. Adding insult to injury, during the press conference Muzakir Manaf called on Irwandi not to run, so that the GAM conglomerate will speak with “one voice” in the next election. That’s extremely unlikely, since Irwandi still leads most polls in a race that for the moment unofficially also includes the current Vice Governor Muhammad Nazar, the rector of Syiah Kuala University Professor Darni Daud, sociologist and human rights activist Otto Syamsuddin Ishak, and the former bupati of Aceh Utara Tarmizi Karim. The Zaini-Muzakir ticket might be a game changer if PA/KPA can get their rank and file—and their effective field operation—to fall in line and get out the vote.

Within hours of the KPA/PA announcement, the supposed spokesperson for Partai Aceh, Tgk. Ir. Linggadinsyah, issued a fierce rejection of the Zaini-Muzakir nomination. Linggadinsyah accused the senior KPA/PA leadership of nepotism and rejected their anti-democratic approach to the nomination, claiming that 20 out 23 district level KPA/PA leaders do not support the Zaini-Muzakir ticket, and vowing their continued support for Irwandi. Linggadinsyah’s statement should be taken with a grain of salt, however, and not just because he has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Irwandi. The next day Muzakir Manaf called Linggadinsyah an illegitimate spokesperson for PA using the loaded religious term haram (meaning not just “illegitimate” but also “forbidden”), because he was relieved of the job three months ago! Beside Muzakir Manaf stood Darwis Jeunib, the KPA district commander from Bireuen, who was supposedly one of Linggadinsyah’s 20 local commanders opposed to the Zaini-Muzakir nomination but said he had no foreknowledge of Linggadinsyah’s protest and would never disobey KPA’s commander, apparently throwing his loyalty to Zaini and Muzakir. Welcome to the latest chapter of the GAM conglomerate’s long history of internal rifts.

Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf
Governor Irwandi Yusuf

For his part, on Monday (7 Feb 2011) Irwandi told journalists that Muzakir Manaf must have been joking when he asked Irwandi not to run, because just two days prior Manaf told Irwandi privately that he should run for re-election, adding that “Muzakir Manaf is one of my fans.” Then with a backhanded rhetorical fluorish, Irwandi indirectly cast aspersions upon the KPA/PA leadership by suggesting that if Muzakir Manaf really said Irwandi shouldn’t run for reelection, he hopes that the public doesn’t interpret the statement as a lack of confidence or an inferiority complex on their part when they have to run against him. Then, by SMS to Serambi and other newspapers in Aceh, Irwandi responded to KPA/PA’s statement that there hasn’t been any significant development in Aceh:

“Regarding Aceh’s development, even the blind can feel the difference. Orphans can rejoice, their misery has been reduced. The sick can laugh, Aceh’s prestige has gone up in the eyes of Jakarta and the world. Moreover the terrorists in Aceh are grieving, and there’s so much more that can be asked to the ex-combatants: Who is easier to meet? Me or ‘them’?” — Aceh’s Governor Irwandi Yusuf, by SMS to journalists in Aceh

Partai Aceh Terbelah
Partai Aceh Terbelah

Irwandi doesn’t have to explain who “they” are because everyone knows about the longstanding fault lines within the GAM conglomerate. KPA/GAM held their press conference at the home of Meuntroe Malek Mahmud, who heads “old GAM” ever since Hasan Tiro became too infirm to continue his movement for independence. Since the peace agreement, Malek Mahmud has moved back to Aceh, and is most likely the inheritor of the title of wali nanggroe since Tiro passed away last year. Together with Zaini, these are the Sweden guys who have come home to take (what they assume is) their rightful place at the highest levels of power in post-conflict Aceh. They do not get along with Irwandi, who in 2006 won the governor’s race because he was quite frankly closer to the young generation of rank and file combatants during the conflict. They mobilized for Irwandi and defied all observer expectations at the time when he won. For all his shortcomings, Irwandi is correct when he states that he has been more accessible than the detached leadership in Sweden, who by all accounts make imperious decisions and do not feel the need to answer for them.

This is why KPA/PA’s strategic decision to recruit Muzakir Manaf as the candidate for vice governor could be a game changer. As the former commander for all of GAM’s ex-combatants, Muzakir Manaf is one of a small handful of leaders within the GAM conglomerate who could bring the younger foot soldiers in the movement together with the old GAM leaders to speak with “one voice.” Even if Linggadinsyah was correct when he said that KPA/PA leaders out in the districts are unhappy with the central leadership in Banda Aceh, Irwandi loyalists will have to think twice if it means they have to campaign and vote against their former commander.

This is only one week’s snapshot in an early phase of the election cycle. Maybe KPA/PA are only testing public reaction. We can expect many twists and turns in the coming months, particularly as the other candidates start to formally campaign. Both the 2006 executive elections and the 2009 legislative elections were preceded by dozens of violent events, rampant money politics, and massive voter intimidation. It will be interesting to see how much this pattern repeats itself in 2011 as post-conflict Aceh slowly gets comfortable with its transition to peace and democracy.

** I have seen no articles in English covering these latest developments in the campaign for Aceh’s 2011 executive elections. This post summarizes information I found on several websites. The following articles were particularly helpful, and I thank Taufik Al Mubarak in particular for giving me his permission to summarize the news and analysis I found on his blog:

Edit 19 June 2011:  For an update on these issues, please see the excellent International Crisis Group report titled “Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections” published on 15 June 2011, plus my notes on the ICG report posted HERE.

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Aceh Conflict Indonesia Publications

Community Perceptions of the Peace Process: Eleven Case Studies for the Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR)

Logo for the MSR
Logo for the MSR

At last! The Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming: Identifying the Foundations for Sustainable Peace and Development in Aceh was finally published in hard copy a few weeks ago in Indonesia. This was an enormous undertaking, involving, well, “multi-stakeholders” ranging from various international donors, Indonesian national and Acehnese provincial government agencies, and civil society groups. The review has many components, including quantitative, qualitative, and historical analyses. The logo to the right has a ring of linked little circles surrounding the blue circle (with a map of Aceh inside it and the MSR letters superimposed) to represent these many complementary components of the overall project.  I urge everyone to click the logo to visit the main MSR page on the World Bank Indonesia’s Conflict and Development team website.  There you will find a description of the project, the list of stakeholders involved, and links to download the main report and the executive summary. Another page lists all the supplementary contributing components to the MSR (the little circles, if you will) as annexes. Although it took at least a year longer than expected to complete and then launch the final product(s), the MSR is exemplary not just for its exhaustive empirical findings, but also as a model for multi-stakeholder collaborations in settings of conflict recovery.

One of those little circles is mine. Paid for jointly by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and the World Bank, this component of the MSR is formally titled “Community Perceptions of the Peace Process: Eleven Case Studies for the Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR).” You can download these case studies in English or in Bahasa Indonesia on the MSR annex website (Annex 5), or you can download it directly from this blog here (English) and here (Bahasa Indonesia). There are some excellent and sophisticated quantitative analyses in the MSR, but these qualitative case studies used in-depth interviews and focus group discussions in conflict-affected communities all over Aceh to investigate a range of issues related to processes of reintegration and post-conflict development, the needs of particularly vulnerable groups, and emerging issues in the field that formal questionnaires either could not capture or could not anticipate. I also emphasize that the case studies reflect perceptions from conflict-affected communities, which are not necessarily based in fact, but are important for gauging the successes and failures of the peace process from the perspective of ordinary rural communities.  The fieldwork was conducted in July and August of 2008, three years after the peace agreement, so it’s dated now, in particular by the legislative elections of April 2009 which brought Partai Aceh into political power at the provincial level and in many district assemblies throughout Aceh. It has now been five years since the peace agreement, and the politics are heating up again for the next executive elections, to be held sometime in 2011.

There are eleven case study reports.  In order of their appearance in the compiled annex, the eleven topics are as follows:

  1. ALA and ABAS: Provincial Secession Movements in Aceh
  2. Sawang [a sub-district (kecamatan) of Aceh Utara known for a series of violent events perpetrated by disgruntled GAM ex-combatants]
  3. Local Political Parties in Post-Conflict Aceh [note: the data precedes Partai Aceh’s victory, when there were six local parties competing against dozens of national parties for the first time]
  4. Post-Conflict Mental Health Services in Bireuen
  5. Conflict IDPs from Peunaron, Aceh Timur
  6. FORKAB – [Forum Komunikasi Anak Bangsa] – an organized group of ex-combatants who left GAM and became anti-separatists after participating in re-education programs sponsored by Indonesian security forces
  7. Community Perceptions Toward KPA
  8. Community Perceptions of the Peace Process in Aceh
  9. Community Experiences with Post-Conflict Assistance in Aceh
  10. Anti-Separatist Groups in Aceh [some call them “militias”]
  11. Ex-Political Prisoners in Aceh Three Years After the Peace Agreement

Although I wrote up all these case studies, they are based on the observations, interviews, fieldnotes, photographs, and preliminary analyses that were conducted by an extraordinary team of Acehnese field researchers. They come from all different backgrounds, including civil society activism, journalism, and academia. In no particular order, they are Fuad Ramly, Retno Wandasari, Isra Safil, Muhammad Nizar, Murniyati, Maimun Faudi, Siti Rahmah, Nyak Anwar and Sri Wahyuni.  I finished writing the reports, in February 2009, and even after I went home to the USA and the researchers had long ago picked up their last paycheck for this work, they were all gracious enough to continue communicating with me by email when I needed their help to make sense of the data. They have my thanks. Lanny Susanti did the translations into Bahasa Indonesia. She has my thanks too! I also got terrific support and feedback from my colleagues at the World Bank and other agencies involved in post-conflict recovery in Aceh. Nevertheless the opinions expressed in these case study reports and any mistakes you may find in them are mine and mine alone and should not be attributed to AusAID, the World Bank, nor any of the bodies who have supported the MSR, nor the authors of the main MSR report.

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Aceh Indonesia

Perceptions of Aceh in Yogyakarta

For the past three years, the Aceh Research Training Institute (ARTI), has trained young scholars from academia, government, and the non-profit sector in social science research methods. After two selective short courses, ARTI awards small 6-month research grants to the most promising proposals. I have had the great pleasure of mentoring four women in the program. As ARTI concludes its program (for now), the Australian director of the program together with the Director of Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) Graduate School (Sekolah Pascasarjana) decided to showcase this year’s ARTI researchers together with some UGM students at a day-long seminar at UGM’s grad school campus in Yogyakarta. The seminar preceded UGM’s first ever graduate student conference, and some of the ARTI researchers presented there as well. Altogether, it was three full days of Indonesian academic discourse for young and emerging scholars in the social sciences, with maximum attendance and plenty of interesting research content. ARTI supported eight researchers from Aceh to come to Yogya and take part in these events. Their research covered a range of topics such as:

  • Participation of Women Candidates in Provincial and District Level Legislative Elections in Aceh
  • The 2009 Legislative Elections in Post-Conflict Aceh
  • Child Abuse During and After the Conflict at an Orphanage in Aceh Utara District
  • Perceptions of Exclusive Breast Feeding Among First-time Mothers in a Suburban Village on the Outskirts of Lhokseumawe, Aceh
  • College Students in Banda Aceh and Their Efforts to Quit Smoking
  • The Politics Behind the Khalwat Legislation in Aceh
  • New Urban Sufism Practices and Institutions in Banda Aceh

Their presentations were great, as good if not better than the other researchers from Yogya and other parts of Indonesia. I advised three of the presenters and felt especially proud of their performance and the way they handled both positive feedback and constructive criticism during the Q&A.

The questions from the audience unwittingly revealed, one after another, the peculiar stereotypes and misperceptions that non-Acehnese Indonesians still hold about Acehnese society five years after the tsunami, and more than four years after the peace agreement that ended 30 years of separatist conflict against the Indonesian state. Here are three examples:

  1. Two presentations on the same panel covered aspects of GAM’s transformation from armed insurgency into a political machine that, following recent elections, now dominates the provincial government and many district governments. This prompted a woman in the audience to share her concern and ask whether GAM has a hidden agenda to resume their struggle for independence though internationalization. Indeed, the Acehnese diaspora did a terrific job of lobbying the international community, promoting GAM’s struggle, during the conflict. Furthermore, it was no small victory for GAM to hold the peace talks in Helsinki instead of in Indonesia. She worried that GAM still employs this strategy and her evidence was the provincial government’s international scholarship program for dozens (if not hundreds) of Acehnese to pursue graduate studies abroad. Never mind that the scholarship program began before Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party) was even established let alone won any elections. Never mind that the program is a smart investment in Aceh’s future now that the provincial government finally enjoys access to revenue from its natural resources (thanks to the peace agreement). Never mind that such investments are necessary after the conflict kept Acehnese society closed to the world of ideas for at least a generation. And never mind that investing in education is all the more urgent after the tsunami killed thousands upon thousands of Aceh’s most productive and skilled citizens in Banda Aceh and other urban centers along the coast. Her question about the scholarship program had nothing to do with the elections, the main subject of the presentations. Concerned Indonesian nationalists do wonder if Partai Aceh will pursue independence for Aceh through the political process now that they run the provincial government, but that’s not what she asked. She thinks GAM is sending out Acehnese missionaries to schools around the world to promote Aceh’s independence and she told us this after two talks about the elections. What.
  2. After a fascinating and deeply concerning presentation about the stack of problems that first-time mothers face in exclusively breastfeeding their babies during the first six months after childbirth, a woman asked whether Arab influence (arabisasi) is responsible for the decrease in breastfeeding mothers. The presenter already covered the far more proximate and convincing roles played by midwives, nurses, families, Acehnese beliefs about women and childbirth, postpartum diet, the baby milk formula and advertising industries, and basic health education. This woman felt that the Arabisation of Aceh should be added to the list, because, well, she once heard that Arab culture is not supportive of women and childbirth. Ya Allahhh (read: OMG)… OK, to be fair, the Arabisation of Indonesian society at large has been a subject of contentious public debate for at least the past ten years. And Aceh, after all, is known as “Mecca’s Verandah” (Serambi Mekkah), and was Islam’s point of entry into the Malay archipelago so many centuries ago. More recently, the formal implementation of Islamic law in Aceh this decade is held up as one of Indonesia’s most troubling examples of Arabisation. The woman who asked the question is tapping into the widely accepted notion that Aceh is full of Islamic fanatics and therefore must be prone to Arab influence, paving the way for the rest of Indonesia to follow suit. Arabisasi in Indonesia is a debatable phenomenon to begin with, a catch-all term to name the rapid changes in Islamic practice in Indonesia that feel inconsistent with local practice, even more so in Java than in Sumatra. But even if we accept Arabisation at face value, I wonder if she would ask the same question if the case study on breastfeeding was conducted in a suburban village on the outskirts of Yogya instead of Lhokseumawe? Let’s be clear: Indonesians think Acehnese are fanatics because Snouck Hurgronje said they were, 100 years ago! Post-colonial Jakarta inherited and perfected Batavia’s convenient othering artifice that first justified Dutch and then Indonesian military oppression in Aceh. I could go on and on about this, but the point here is that young Acehnese mothers have so much more to worry about when trying to breastfeed their babies than the Arabs.
  3. In Aceh, the word qanun means regional laws (peraturan daerah or perda in other provinces). There are a few qanun in Aceh that define a provincial-wide criminal code based on Islamic law. One of the presentations told the history of the khalwat qanun and the political and religious interests that surrounded it. I’m no expert in Islamic law, but the khalwat law forbids various sexual and other kinds of vice, and defines the corporal punishments for breaking the law which include caning with a rattan whip. After this presentation, a man asked the presenter whether or not “qanun” in Aceh (by which I think he meant various Islamic laws ratified and implemented in Aceh and not qanun in general) can survive when ganja farming and ganja use are such a huge problem in Aceh. Huh what? I guess he was implying that Acehnese society would never by pious enough to live by Islamic law if everyone in Aceh smokes ganja. To my knowledge, there are qanun based on Islamic law that deal with alcohol consumption, but I’m not sure if they cover ganja use. Anyway, setting aside ganja for the moment, many Acehnese still drink alcohol, gamble, cheat on their spouses, and enjoy pre-marital sex… and these are all clear breaches of Islamic law codified in qanun. This guy thinks that real world vice practices are actually a threat to qanun on the books. He even thinks that real world practices possibly not even covered in qanun will also threaten the qanun’s existence. Or maybe he just wanted to remind the presenter and everyone in the seminar room that Aceh has a well established, but illegal, ganja production and trade industry, and that reflects poorly on the people of Aceh and puts a stain on Indonesia’s reputation. Ganja has been a cooking ingredient in Aceh for generations, and the seeds are often crushed and used as a kind of “natural MSG” as well. I don’t believe this actually makes anyone high, but people like to joke that it does. Since the crop has always been a part of the local agriculture, it was exploited, especially as a source of black market revenue during the conflict, and developed into a lucrative industry, supplying the demand for ganja throughout Indonesia and possibly throughout Southeast Asia (I’m no expert on this either). These are real issues, but to call ganja a threat to the very survival of qanun based on Islamic law is quite imaginary.

To the credit of the presenters, none of them even bothered to answer these three questions. The questions were so fantastically disconnected from the content of each presentation that the presenters probably didn’t even know how to begin a much more fundamental and complicated conversation that breaks down the assumptions and stereotypes that non-Acehnese Indonesians still hold against Aceh. Like the questions themselves, such a conversation is off-topic from the research findings they came to discuss. At a graduate conference, full of graduate students (and their professors), at least three people in this educated group couldn’t let go of their bias and fear, and sadly allowed themselves to ask foolish questions.

On the flip-side, an Acehnese graduate student (not from our ARTI group, thank goodness!) from Nagan Raya district stood up and embarrassed himself as well. Following a presentation about women’s participation in local politics in Aceh Utara and Lhokseumawe delivered by a very smart and articulate woman from Malikusaleh University, this guy from Nagan Raya told her that she really should have checked the election results from Nagan Raya in 2004, when he was on the elections oversight board (panwaslu) there, because a lot of women won in his district. He embodied the worst in Aceh gender dynamics, challenging the presenter more rudely than he would have if the presenter was a man. Again, he was off-topic, as she had clearly demarcated her research to the 2009 elections in Aceh Utara and Lhokseumawe, completely on the opposite coast of Aceh from Nagan Raya. The panel moderator had told the audience very strictly and clearly that each person could ask only one question, but this dude wanted to ask four! A friend of mine who was sitting next to where he was standing reached over and turned off the microphone because everyone in the auditorium was protesting the number and length of his questions. Our Aceh delegation from ARTI was pretty embarrassed, because as the above examples illustrate, Acehnese have enough negative perceptions stacked against them. This Acehnese guy from Nagan Raya spoke publicly at UGM in a way that confirms and diminishes other Indonesians’ image of Aceh.

Since I started working in Aceh in 2005 I have become familiar with many of the assumptions and stereotypes that people in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia (in Java and Bali especially, where the majority of Indonesians live anyway) hold against Aceh, but this conference demonstrated many of them in concentrated and instructive form. Their assumptions interfered and prevented them from carefully listening to the young scholars from ARTI and understanding local dynamics in Aceh as they were reflected in the ARTI scholars’ presentations. Beyond this seminar, the ways that powerful people in Jakarta and in Indonesia’s most distinguished halls of academia like UGM misperceive Aceh has more sinister consequences. My advisor has had the surreal experience of presenting findings at UGM from our research about levels of violence and psychological disabilities in conflict-affected communities in Aceh. The numbers are powerful and scary, and there is an implicit message about Java’s complicity in the violence that occurred there. Reactions from the audience vary, but a common response is a somber “we never knew.” Such ignorance may be largely attributed to an orchestrated disinformation and obfuscation campaign by the government, but such an effort is so much easier when you can rely on century-old discourses about Aceh that always and already make sure that you never wanted to know in the first place.