The election on December 11 of Dr Irwandi Yusuf (right) as governor of the Indonesian province of Aceh has finally laid to rest one myth deliberately peddled by successive governments in Jakarta: that the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is a fringe group. For weeks before elections, officially-inspired reports, eagerly exaggerated by the Western media, said no candidate would win a clear majority. Further, such reports also questioned whether any GAM candidate would be able to garner more than a few thousand votes from an estimated two million voters. By securing nearly 40 percent in a crowded field of eight candidates, Dr Yusuf’s victory not only demonstrates widespread support for GAM but also shows that the two GAM-backed candidates together secured nearly 60 percent of the Achenese vote (a week after the election, official reports started to downplay the total vote for GAM candidates). Yusuf was a local candidate; Ahmed Humam Hamdi and Hasbi Abdullah had the backing of the Achenese government-in-exile inSweden.
A deputy governor and 19 local officials were also elected. Government-appointed interim deputy governor Izwar Abubakar, who was supported by two major Indonesian political parties as well, ended in fourth place and conceded defeat even before the results were officially announced. It was interesting to note that as soon as Yusuf’s victory became certain, Western media reports started to raise the spectre of Shari’ah being “imposed” in the province, as if it were something the people oppose or dislike. The Western media’s concept of democracy does not include accepting the people’s choice; its purpose is to elect only those candidates whom the West favours.
Aceh suffered a devastating blow when the tsunami struck much of Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004. Entire villages and towns were wiped out; hundreds of thousands were killed. Dr Yusuf, who was in jail at the time, managed to escape but Sufian Ibrahim Tiba, another Acehnese leader, sent to negotiate on behalf of GAM with the Indonesian government, drowned because his jailers fled, leaving him locked up in his cell. Two years after the tsunami, people are still struggling to rebuild, even though some US$6 billion have been earmarked for reconstruction. Bureaucratic inertia, lack of effective planning and corruption are all affecting the reconstruction effort.
The election result has aroused high expectations among Acehnese, but it has left the government in Jakarta shell-shocked. Putting a brave face on an outcome that is definitely not to the government’s liking, presidential spokesman Andi Mallerangeng said thatJakarta welcomes the election result. But he stressed that any new Acehnese leadership must work “within the framework of the unitary Republic of Indonesia”. He also said that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had “followed the election closely and is happy it was conducted in a peaceful, safe and orderly manner really - so far, so good”. Perhaps, but the real test will come when Acehnese leaders ask for a fair share of revenues and effective control over decision-making to rebuild their province. A few days later, Indonesian vice president Josef Kalla warned that Dr Yusuf should not use the GAM flag as a symbol of his party.
If the land-registration and title-deeds affair is any guide, the Acehnese have more problems ahead than they can imagine. Andrew Steer and Jean Breteche, co-chairs of the Multi-Donor Fund for Aceh and Nias, shed some light on the situation in an article in the Jakarta Post on December 3, 2006. They revealed that of 120,000 parcels of land that have been surveyed and adjudicated so far, only 7,700 have actually been distributed to tsunami survivors. They wrote: “Some 20,000 land titles are actually lying ready for distribution, all the paper work complete, yet they remain stuck in the system due to simple administrative bottlenecks that could be resolved with decisive action. For half of these titles, all that remains is for the title certificate to be signed by the Land Office Heads in Aceh. The other half of the certificates, which are already signed, only need to be handed to the land owners.” Why it should take so long to hand a signed paper over to its rightful owner only a bureaucrat can tell. Considering that the Multi-Donor Fund allocated $28 million for the Reconstruction of Aceh Land Administration Project, such delays are inexcusable. But who will get the bureaucracy to move to alleviate the suffering of the Acehnese?
Much hope is pinned on the new governor; the Acehnese believe he will get some action on this vital front, without which people cannot build their homes or borrow money from banks. Before the tsunami, only 20 percent of Acehnese had properly registered title-deeds for their lands. The $28 million allocated to the Indonesian National Land Agency (BPN) is supposed to be used “to recreate land records destroyed by the tsunami, salvage those that can be, and build capacity for the creation of a new, modern land records system,” according to Steer and Breteche. The project’s plan is to register and title 600,000 land parcels, but at the current rate it will take nearly 80 years to complete the distribution of all title-deeds in Aceh. The task could be completed in two or three years if there were the will to do so. After all, the BNP has already distributed 365,000 titles in other provinces in almost the same time period. Part of the reason for Aceh’s being neglected may be found in the traditional Javanese-Acehnese animosity that was somewhat abridged in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami disaster and the Helsinki peace agreement on August 15, 2005, between GAM and the Indonesian government, but which may again be coming to the fore. It would be a great pity if chauvinism rather than common sense were allowed to prevail in dealing with the long-suffering Acehnese.
But for now one thing is unarguable: that the election has been a success. Even months before the elections, politicians and ordinary people were keeping a positive outlook on development in Aceh. It takes a lot of courage to have a sense of confidence in a region where peace deals had crumbled before, and where tens of thousands have lost their lives as a result of the decades-old conflict in Aceh, made worse by the Indonesian army’s brutality. It is now up to the parties concerned to make good the outcome of the elections.
As Irwandi himself said in December last year, “Those weapons were our friends during the years of war... We would no longer use weapons to fight for the interest of Aceh. All we now need is a new tool – political tool – to shape the future of Aceh.”