Aceh’s bloodstained elections

BANGKOK, Thailand — Tranquility is hardly the norm in Aceh. This coastal Indonesian province has suffered more than a century of troubles: Dutch colonial warfare, a bloody insurgency and a horrific 2004 tsunami.

Recent years have offered a reprieve, arising from the tsunami wreckage. But political violence now threatens this relative peace.

An April 9 election will ask the Acehnese to choose between two viable camps. Both are headed by former separatists who had fought as part of the same rebel movement, to achieve Acehnese independence.

The run-up to voting has triggered violence — including a mysterious wave of killings — reminiscent of the insurgency they left behind. The incumbent governor, Irwandi Yusuf, claims that he too is marked for assassination. His supporters have been beaten, and his campaign vehicles have been torched.

All of this has occurred while the party founded by the defunct rebel militia — the Aceh Party — has broadcast unsettling insinuations that conflict could return to this far corner of Indonesia.

“They’re not saying, ‘We will go off to form a new guerrilla organization if we don’t win,’” said Sidney Jones, a conflict expert with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta. “It’s more of an implicit suggestion that, if you don’t elect us, conflict could break out again,” she said. “There is no specific threat, but they’ve managed to convince a lot of people ... that this could happen.”

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The election is largely a showdown between Irwandi, a US-educated former veterinarian, and the Aceh Party’s Zaini Abdullah, the rebel movement’s former “foreign minister,” returned from exile in Sweden. The Aceh Party is backed by the rebel militia’s former “prime minister,” who had hoped to lead a theoretical post-revolution Aceh.

Both candidates once belonged to the guerrilla Free Aceh Movement. But one year after the 2005 peace settlement, Irwandi broke away from the senior leadership’s orbit to form his own team of ex-rebels. They still resent his 2006 election victory as an independent candidate.

The two camps’ power struggle stands in contrast to their rebel-era common goal: forcing out the Indonesian state, seen as an occupying force. Aceh’s historical struggles have typically pit the conservative Islamic population against outside rule.

When the Dutch invaded in the late 1800s, the Acehnese fought them off with rifles and machetes. When Indonesia sought greater dominion over Aceh in the 1950s, successive guerrilla movements waged a decades-long struggle for independence.

The most recent guerrilla incarnation, the Free Aceh Movement, waged a 30-year struggle with Indonesia’s military that left roughly 15,000 dead. A turning point came in 2004 when “God’s diplomacy” — the tsunami — drew weary fighters from the jungle to negotiate for peace.

The disaster effectively hit the reset button on Aceh’s conflicts. After years of pursuing, torturing and killing separatists, Indonesia’s government allowed them to run for office and take on the painful task of rebuilding their homeland from the rubble.

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The contemporary challenge for Aceh’s ex-rebel politicians is not an external foe but their own infighting. The elections, Jones said, will test the loser’s ability to accept voting results without resorting to bloodshed.

That test largely falls upon Aceh Party, which already controls much of the legislature but seeks to bring the governor’s office under its control. In doing so, the party’s chiefs have weakened their insurgency-era vows to create a peaceful, democratic Aceh. The party is described by the International Crisis Group as an “autocratic, almost feudal party that brooks no dissent.”

Fearing a loss at the polls, the party pressured the Indonesian government to nullify Irwandi’s campaign under an annulled code of the post-tsunami peace agreement that bars independent politicians.

Their bid failed. It was followed by shooting sprees in December and January, largely against poor laborers seemingly chosen at random. This triggered a security act postponing the election. An investigation by Indonesia’s House of Representatives ruled that the 10 killings were politically motivated.

Police have not explicitly linked these killings — or attacks on the homes of Irwandi’s campaign strategist and coordinator — with Aceh Party's senior leadership. But they have cast a shadow on its reputation.

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“If the Aceh Party members continue to behave undemocratically, they will go down in history as nothing more than a ragtag bunch of ignoble former rebels who behaved eerily like their former ‘enemies,’” wrote Agus Wandi, an Indonesian post-conflict consultant, in a recent analysis published through Harvard University.

Irwandi, however, can present few knock-out successes to voters apart from a popular health insurance scheme. The insurance cards, to his rivals’ displeasure, double as campaign material: each card features his face. His image as Aceh’s pro-environment “green governor” was also sullied late last year when he allowed a large palm oil plantation to mow down trees in an area replete with rare orangutans and bears.

Most observers expect a close race, Jones said, although there's a lack of credible polling. In anticipation of violence, local police recently asked citizens to surrender all guns and bombs, still plentiful in Aceh from the insurgency days.

“The danger is necessarily between now and voting day,” Jones said. “It’s at the moment when results are announced or in the days that follow.”