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Aceh: From insurgency to administration

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5 August 2010 13:10

Aaron Connelly is a Fulbright Scholar and visiting fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta. He also writes at Jakartica. He visited Banda Aceh for The Interpreter.

Hasbi Abdullah (pictured) exudes energy and authority. Now chairman of the Acehnese provincial legislature, it is not hard to imagine Hasbi as he was during the insurgency: lecturer in economics by day, clandestine supporter of the outlawed Free Aceh Movement (GAM) by night. Hasbi has now made the transition, along with many of his former comrades from the GAM, to the political process.

Sitting behind his desk in the legislative building, Hasbi tells me he was finishing up work on his doctoral degree at a university in Bandung, on Java, when he was asked to run for deputy governor in 2006. He and his running mate came in second. After he lost the election, Hasbi says with a wry smile, 'I was too lazy to return to Bandung to continue my studies.' But as one of the former GAM's best educated leaders, Hasbi has found a successful second career in local politics.

Five years ago this month, Aceh emerged from three decades of on-and-off-again insurgency with the signing of the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding. The conflict took an estimated 15,000 lives, and sapped Aceh of much energy and industry. Peace has brought stability and opportunity, but the post-conflict dynamic has exacerbated problems — inept administrators, corruption — familiar to any province in the country.

The former GAM rebels have transformed their organisation into a political party, Partai Aceh. In 2006, one of their number, the American-educated veterinarian, Irwandi Yusuf, was elected governor. At the same poll, voters chose members of Partai Aceh as heads of 10 of the province's 19 kabupaten (districts) and mayoralties. Then, last year, the party took part in provincial legislative elections for the first time, defeating all other parties by large margins, and claiming a governing plurality in the local legislature, the body which Hasbi now leads.

The transition to government has not been easy for some of Partai Aceh's insurgents-turned-administrators. Unlike Hasbi, many lack the education to be good administrators, according to Jeliteng Pribadi of the Aceh Recovery Forum, a local think tank.

The bupati (district head) of West Aceh, Ramli MS, has issued extraordinarily conservative Islamic bylaws to distract residents from shortcomings in the provincial government's administration of development funds, say several foreign aid workers who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by the bupati. Among Ramli's more infamous measures is a regulation prohibiting women from wearing tight trousers, a policy that strikes most Acehnese in other districts as absurd. Ramli's office told me he was unavailable for an interview.

Governor Irwandi is widely praised by the few remaining international non-governmental organisations in the province for opposing such measures most of the time, and for his administrative skill; though some local civil society leaders, such as Jeliteng Pribadi, say that performance has slipped as the new administrators have become accustomed to the perquisites of office.

'The perception of corruption in Aceh is still high. Everywhere. I think the bigger (problem) is in the provincial level because they have the authority to spend money,' says Jeliteng. Referring to the provincial administration, he argues, 'If the top leader is good, the rest will follow. But if the top is bad, then you cannot hope that the bottom is good...The main problem is from the top.'

Jeliteng says the governor and his deputy, Muhammad Nazar, have become unreachable by ordinary Acehnese because they spend too much time in Jakarta, or with new luxury vehicles. 'How come suddenly after (Irwandi) becomes governor, he has three expensive cars? Rubicon, Mercedes...Nazar has a E2000 Kompressor Mercedes.' I tried to pursue this with the governor and his deputy, but they were both in Jakarta when we were in Aceh. Their staffs did not return requests for interviews made in person at their offices.

The governor, his deputy, and the district heads and mayors will all be up for re-election next year, assuming they choose to run. Irwandi suffered a stroke in 2008, and persistent speculation about his health has led to rumours that he will not seek re-election. Others in the province say he will do so after dropping Nazar, with whom he has had a rocky relationship, in favour of a running mate from President SBY's Partai Demokrat. Nor is it clear what Partai Aceh, which did not endorse a candidate in the 2006 election, will do this time around.

Whatever happens next year, there can now be no doubt that Irwandi has become the province's dominant personality, and that Partai Aceh has become the province's dominant political organisation. Much depends on how this group of former rebels continues to adapt to the mundane processes of provincial politics.

Photo by the author.

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