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Aceh: Two views

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28 July 2010 09:06

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

The local newspaper of record here, Serambi, told a story of two provinces with its front page on Saturday.

Above the fold, the paper continued to carry the tale of American missionaries who had been run out of the area by the West Aceh district government three days prior. 

The two-inch headlines and accompanying copy documented in breathless detail the rather spectacular accusations made by three local residents that they had been put under hypnosis by the missionaries prior to accepting the Christian faith.

Below the fold, a different province appeared. A large photo showed the governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, accompanying the American financier George Soros on a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh, just off the coast, where he was said to have enjoyed a day of leisure on the island’s beaches.

The paper treated the visit as remarkable only insofar as a provincial paper in any developing country might find a Soros visit remarkable. An article in the middle of the paper noted the travel plans of the governor and his guest. Only in the last paragraph, and merely by way of background, did the paper note that Soros is an American of Jewish heritage.

Yet it is the first Aceh — the Aceh of religious confrontation, the Aceh of piecemeal shariah law, the Aceh where a training camp run by radical Javanese was discovered earlier this year — that most often appears in the foreign press (and, in particular, in the Australian press).

The tolerant Aceh — comprised of a majority which rejects religious extremism out of hand, and which has been led by a governor and a legislature which also rejects these things, following free and fair elections in 2006 and 2009 — gets far less ink.

My colleague Andrew Siddons and I were sent to Aceh by The Interpreter to attempt to better understand how these two provinces exist side by side. Over the next few days, I will be filing dispatches from Aceh that I hope will help illuminate the complexity of the situation in this, Indonesia’s westernmost province.

Photo by Flickr user ya3hs3's photostream, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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