The people of Banda Aceh have not had a great last half-century. The people of this remote province have borne more than thirty years of civil war that ended only in a brutal tsunami that wiped out almost two hundred thousand people in a single morning. The Free Aceh Movement, known as “GAM”, was mobilized less than a decade after the war in Java that claimed half a million people. Ask any Acehnese about GAM and the insurgency, and you will get a tired response. Everyone loves a romantic narrative where fights for liberty are concerned, and there was certainly one spun for the so-called struggle for independence. It all began with its history.
Aceh’s strategic location on the tip of Sumatra places it on Indonesia’s most north, six hundred miles northwest from Singapore and on the same latitude as Sri Lanka in the Bay of Bengal. After the Dutch relinquished control of its East Indies, Aceh was handed to the Indonesian administration. There are various theories as to what caused the start of the conflict.
Aceh was one of the last bastions of the ancient Malay empire of Srivijaya, rooted in Sumatera, to resist colonial rule. It was a campaign of thirty years against the Dutch in the late 1800s that was mirrored in the thirty year struggle from 1976 against Jakarta, after the unshackling of colonialism lead to what the Acehnese viewed as unfair treatment and extortion by their new government. Broken promises by Sukarno, the charismatic first leader of Indonesia, are often cited in the origins of the conflict. Although the official start of the war between GAM and central government wasn't until 1976, the disorganised sorting and resorting of Sumatera and its provinces (and Aceh in particular) after Dutch rule ended thirty years previously resulted in continuing widespread civil unrest that preceded offical records of the insurgency. But independence? Civil liberty and justice? A poetic fight for freedom?
“Freedom is not the goal of guerrilla warfare.” Irwandi Yusuf peers at me through delicately framed glasses and a cloud of sweet-smelling cigarette smoke. “We were outnumbered by the Indonesian army; they came in thousands. But they could not defeat us, because they did not know our numbers!” He leans back and gives a sardonic laugh, unsuccessfully trying to conceal clear pangs of bitterness. “If it were not for the trees they would have shot us all dead, and perhaps the war would not be thirty years.”
So if freedom was not their goal, what were they fighting for?
“Look, if we could not beat the Indonesians, we would want to fight in order to negotiate a better situation. A little bit like haggling. When we arrived at a suitable deal, we signed the treaty in 2005.” Was it the money or control over Aceh's considerable natural resources? A tired shrug followed by a lazy drag from a clove cigarette, followed by the exhalation of sweet smoke with the words: "It was many things." So much for the oft-reported, poetic fight for justice.
Upon losing his seat as governor of Aceh in late April, Irwandi, a former insurgent and chief of intelligence for the Acehnese rebel army, has been engaging in his own kind of political guerrilla warfare. The creation of the new Aceh National Party (PNA), like the currently ruling Aceh Party, is comprised almost wholly of former rebel fighters from the now defunct Free Aceh Movement (GAM). All of the PNA’s founding members are defectors from the ruling Aceh Party or the Aceh Transitional Committee – the body set up after the peace treaty with Indonesia that dealt with the transition from martial law after the dissolution of GAM’s military units and the ending of the near-thirty year conflict.
“In 2001 GAM controlled almost all of Aceh, but in 2004 GAM was almost defeated. But Indonesia didn’t know that. They didn’t know we were almost defeated because we kept fighting. They didn’t know we had run out of people or ammunition.”
I asked him, “Where did you get your ammunition from?”
“From you,” he quips, and barks out a laugh.
Earlier this year the autonomous province of Aceh held its second election since the cessation of hostilities following the devastating 2004 tsunami. The first, in 2007, was won by an independently-running Irwandi and the latest by his bitter rival and former GAM comrade, the head of Aceh Party, Zaini Abdullah.
In response to his defeat (and continuing abandoned plans in 2007 to form a new party), Irwandi has not only established the Aceh National Party but has filed a lawsuit with the Indonesian Constitutional Court disputing the legitimacy of the local government, claiming that the elections were wrought with intimidation and fraud.
The local warlords who make up the senior echelons of the Aceh Transitional Committee have a sprawling chain of authority in the villages of Aceh that penetrate right down to the local level. In Aceh Darussalam, one of the most Western parts of Aceh, a combined effect from the tsunami and decades of conflict has led to a complete disintegration of the local judicial system, with a drastic decrease in the number of reported cases and a mass exodus of legal staff who have fled due to fear of hostility and intimidation according to a 2010 report by the UNDP. It’s a pattern that has been repeated throughout the province, and may be one reason that such brazen violence and intimidation by campaigners and party members was pervasive in the lead-up to April's gubernatorial elections.
Widespread reports of violence, bullying and intimidation to voters across the province have led to a sparring point between the opposing candidates. The regional polls that determined who the next governor would be were originally scheduled for the end of November last year, but were pushed forward four times by central government in Jakarta, citing ‘security disturbances’ in response to increasing levels of hostility and a greater need for supervision at electoral stations around the province. According to various NGOs, supervisory volunteers received threats during the campaign period. Evi Narti Zein of the Coalition of Human Rights told the Jakarta Post that some of their 108 volunteers had encountered threats during monitoring.
In February, masked gunmen opened fire on the house of an election campaign team member. On New Year’s day this year, a group of armed men opened fire on a small café in Banda Aceh killing eight people and wounding six. In the past six months, 12 people have been killed from indiscriminate shootings, not including the New Year’s café attack, and in February Darma Sahlan, a journalist for a local magazine who was investigating embezzlement, was found dead in a ditch in South East Aceh. In the week before the gubernatorial elections last month police released a statement saying that they had arrested six men for illegally possessing explosive devices which they linked to an uncovered terrorist plot before the elections. At the same time, some 3,000 protestors gathered outside a local office of the Aceh Independent Elections Committee in the Gayo Lues district, hurling rocks and stones at the building.
A few days after I spoke with Irwandi, the General Secretary of Aceh Party, Yahya Muadz, alongside the party spokesperson Fachrul Razi, assured me that instances of intimidation “had happened on both sides”. In truth, I had to press both party members twice to address the allegations directly, after initially responding with comparative details on the amount of money spent on the competing campaigns. Yahya, sombre and earnest as he sat with me under the whirring of an old fan in the brick red Party office, illustrated his point with an example from Irwandi’s own hometown. He described how members of Irwandi’s campaign team attacked villagers with knives and machetes when they tried to prevent them from removing an Aceh Party banner from the street. Intimidation, he said, was definitely happening on both sides.
“Don’t call it intimidation,” Irwandi had told me only a few days earlier. “It’s terrorism. They terrorized. They killed my friend.”
In July 2011 an influential former commander of GAM, Saiful Husein, was shot dead in a coffee shop after defecting from Aceh Party and encouraging other party members to switch their allegiance and support Irwandi in the elections.
Iskandar Hasan, chief of the regional Aceh police, announced in March that six people had been arrested with possession of explosive devices on suspicion of planning a terrorist plot. The men were also linked to the death of Saiful Husein from Irwandi’s campaigning team. When asked about the incident, Yahya refuted the claims, saying that they were unfounded because the police had not issued a statement. He did not accept Iskandar’s announcement.
Yahya irritably stubbed out his cigarette, leaned forward and spoke to me in English for the first time during our interview: “Listen. Usually in our system of politics, people like Irwandi can make claims like that. But what he probably didn’t tell you was that he used a lot of money during campaign time and gave much of it to his team; new cars, new brands for the campaign. He took a lot of money from the citizens of Aceh. But us, we just used Rp5.5 billion ($591,250) in total and we still beat him.”
Irwandi – though debonair, eloquent and engaging - is not exactly spotless himself. In August of last year during his governorship, it was reported that Irwandi granted permits for a palm oil concession in the Tripa Peat Swamp in Aceh despite an existing moratorium between Indonesia and Norway. Given his green credentials, which were the defining part of his electoral campaigns, the scandal caused disillusionment amongst many of his supporters.
Despite the bickering between the two young parties, Irwandi stressed that the PNA was there to stay, and because of that, their first objective is to work in cooperation with Aceh Party. He even went as far as saying that the media ought to be forgiving of their mistakes in their first official year of office.
The long tale of Aceh’s many plights have certainly appealed to many journalists over the years. After the tsunami thousands of western reporters and documentary makers descended on the small town of Banda Aceh. Out of the rubble came films of hope and renewal, of wide-eyed, brown-faced children quaintly dressed in colourful t-shirts bearing branded slogans and happy shots of local and bule alike rebuilding schools, clearing debris and embracing in shows of friendship. But the regeneration in Banda Aceh was certainly not exaggerated, and buffeting through town on the back of a moped taxi I saw little evidence of the brutal destruction that left the town little more than a tropic waste land. Amzi Olivin is a local civil engineer, and recalls his despair at the extent of damage. “I remember going around the town and surveying the damage – it would take five, ten, maybe more years before we could build Banda Aceh to what it used to be.
“But it seemed the Western world felt sorry for us, and saw all the things that the journalists were writing and filming...buildings came out of the ground and streets returned within one year, and after three or four years it was like tsunami never happened.”
The earthquakes and tsunamis that have battered these shores may one day return, and the violence that has occurred across Aceh is unlikely to ever be properly examined in spite of Irwandi’s referral to the Constitutional Court. The Aceh Party is moving swiftly past the elections with implementation of new policies and Zaini Abdullah’s installation. Now that the campaigning period is over it is hoped that Aceh will see relative peace and respite from this last year of shootings and violence. Until the next round of elections, at least.