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Aceh's Future Challenges

Panjaj Kumar Jha was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 26, 2006

    The Indonesian Parliament passed the Aceh Governance Bill on July 11, 2006. Dissemination of information about the bill started two days later to ensure that the peace building process, which came into force after the peace accord was signed with Free Aceh Movement (GAM, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) in Helsinki in August 2005, stays on track. One clause of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) related to laying down of arms by GAM rebels and the passing of the Aceh Governance bill. The peace agreement stipulated that Aceh should be given autonomy with regard to public affairs, civil and judicial administration, while GAM would drop its demand of secession from Indonesia. The 116-page, 273-article bill clearly stipulates the guidelines for the retention of 70 per cent of Aceh's natural resources within the province, but the contentious issue is that the funds have to be redirected from the central authority in Indonesia. On the other hand, the bill endorses the long held demand of GAM rebels to form a political party in Aceh, which is a special treatment given to the province since according to Indonesian electoral law a political party can contest elections only if it has branches in half of the country's 33 provinces. In the bill the role of the military is stated to be unclear, and the retroactivity clause which stipulated that Indonesian military personnel could be tried in the human rights tribunal of Aceh for the atrocities committed during the conflict years has been dropped.

    Acehnese critics of the bill have been contending that sections of the bill have been left vague so as to accommodate Indonesian aspirations in future. These include: the rule of law, Indonesia's financial interests in the form of taxes, empowerment of army and the deployment of the military in case of unrest in the province, etc. Also, specific queries are being raised with regard to the language of the bill, which states that any laws to be passed by the Aceh provincial government and parliament have to comply with Indonesian norms and regulations. This in a way empowers Djakarta rather than the regional government in Aceh.

    On the other hand, nationalist critics of the autonomy clause in the bill are lamenting that Indonesia has given away too much and that this would snowball into an independence movement in Aceh in future. It is also feared that foreign clerics might foment trouble in the name of Islam. At the same time, ultra conservative clerics of Aceh have expressed concerns over the role of Christian missionaries, who they contend wish to convert Muslims in the area through the provision of greater relief to those willing to convert to Christianity. While Indonesian authorities and the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) have managed to pacify critics in this regard for the present, in future the issue might find some takers in Aceh's provincial government. If this issue were to revive, it would adversely affect reconstruction efforts in the province to a certain extent. Moreover, it would not be surprising were Aceh to become a playground for fundamentalist elements.

    There is a feeling in certain Indonesian quarters that autonomy might lead to calls for independence in Aceh in future. In addition, the ultra nationalist elements in the Indonesian parliament are wary of the Sharia laws being imposed on the minorities in the province, which could create an unpleasant situation in the future. The new law endorses that Aceh, a conservative orthodox Muslim province, can continue to implement Islamic Sharia law in the province. For the GAM leadership, the ordeal is to form a structured leadership, as a number of GAM leaders are not too pleased with the bill, saying that Indonesia's political elite has not adhered to clauses in the Helsinki accord.

    The concession given to GAM with regard to forming a political party, overlooking Indonesian electoral laws, might lead to the formation of political parties along similar lines in other strife torn provinces as well, thus eroding the centralized character of the country. GAM, on its part, had already announced the launch of its political party in May 2006 and has appointed two independent candidates for the gubernatorial election in Aceh. GAM might announce the names of these candidates in the near future. It is also in the process of consulting legal and constitutional experts to sort out any differences with the Indonesian government pertaining to the governance bill. Former GAM rebels have asked for amendments to the bill as, according to them, it falls short of the promise to give autonomy to Aceh on its internal matters and are apprehensive of the governance bill actually coming into force. This view came to the fore because the Djakarta-appointed governor has declared 16 Acehnese groups illegal, including some groups that have been campaigning to ensure that the Aceh governance bill strictly adheres to the terms of the peace deal. GAM leaders have stated that they would take the issue to the AMM and Crisis Management Initiative, one of the actors in the signing of peace agreement, if the Indonesian government falters on its commitments.

    Apart from issues pertaining to the Bill, Aceh also faces the daunting task of reconstruction and taking on board all the aspirations of the former GAM rebels who have not received any financial compensation for surrendering weapons in December 2005 as part of peace process. This has led to an upsurge in criminal incidents in Aceh. Within the bill there is a provision for the setting up of a human rights tribunal in Aceh to give compensation to the victims of past rights abuses.

    The peace process has entered the phase of discussions and debate in which both parties are attempting to resolve their differences amicably. In this process the role of AMM is very important. Indonesia has assured that amendments to the law could be made. At the same time it has tried to appease ultra-nationalist elements in the Parliament by dropping the retroactivity clause, though on the other hand it has allowed the establishment of political parties in Aceh. From the point of view of international interest, peaceful resolution of the conflict and prosperity in the province would in a way reduce piracy incidents in the Malacca Straits since a number of incidents occur along Indonesia's coastal areas.

    The situation is fluid but international agencies and AMM can resolve the differences and ensure peaceful gubernatorial elections in November. Till then restraint is required from the Indonesian government and GAM, so that the peace process does not end up on the path of conflict.