Armed police officers stand guard as election officials carry ballot boxes to be distributed to polling stations at a local government office in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Tuesday. Pic: AP.

By Robert Yates

On Tuesday last week, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a car decked out with political banners in Indonesia’s northernmost province, Aceh. Three people were killed, including a child of 18 months.

Across most of the country, the run-up to yesterday’s legislative elections heralded little more than a bewildering array of campaign posters and portrait shots of various candidates being pasted on every available surface. However, Aceh found itself plagued by a spate of violent incidents commonly held to be politically motivated, stretching back over several months.

The April 1 murders came less than a fortnight after clashes between opposing party campaigners left one hospitalised and two critically injured. In the same week, a local councillor had his car and house destroyed in what was deemed a retaliatory attack. On March 2, a legislative candidate from the Aceh National Party (PNA) was shot dead and, on February 6, the PNA’s head of the Kuta Makmur sub-district was beaten to death by two assailants.

By March 24, the Aceh Democratic Forum had already recorded 36 local cases of supposed political violence since the beginning of the campaign period, with spokesman Agusta Mukhtar telling a press conference: ‘The violence has doubled since the beginning of March’. These incidents included shootings, assaults, vandalism and destruction of property, and even grenade attacks.

Aceh is sadly familiar with conflict and loss of life. In 2004, the ‘Boxing Day tsunami’ destroyed the region’s north coast and decimated the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, claiming over 150,000 lives and rendering a further 500,000 homeless. Before this, a three-decade-long struggle between the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian national government saw more than 25,000 killed, with both sides accusing the other of kidnappings, torture and civilian murder.

In the sobriety that followed the 2004 earthquake, and largely due to the region being forced to open its doors to governmental and international aid, fighting between GAM separatists and the national military abated, and in 2005, in Helsinki, an MoU was signed officially ending the civil conflict that had been burning consistently since the 1970s. Under the agreement, government troops were withdrawn in exchange for GAM’s disarmament, the region was granted greater political autonomy, and local parties were permitted to run against national parties at the provincial, regency and municipal levels, a privilege not afforded to Indonesia’s other 33 provinces.

Yet, despite the Helsinki agreement, Aceh has remained a politically turbulent region. The main party to spring from the GAM movement, the Aceh Party (PA), suffered a fracture in 2012 when former governor Irwandi Yusuf formed a new National Aceh Party (PNA), a move that led to a string of shootings allegedly involving former GAM combatants divided in their allegiance. It is between these two sides, originating from the same separatist nest, that subsequent violence has emerged.

In Medan, a city just south of the Acehnese border, I talked with an ex-GAM combatant who fought against national soldiers between 2002 and 2005. Although physically separated from the recent political unrest in his homeland, JN, as he prefers to be named, is an open supporter of the PA and voices anger at the schism caused by the PNA’s 2012 defection. Like many ex-GAM members, he still dreams of a fully independent Acehnese nation, a dream that he sees jeopardised when the region is internally divided.

“We must have one group in Aceh,” he says, speaking a week before the election. He hints at the prospect of an autocratic ban on opposing parties, a step that can appear favourable to those still striving for Acehnese independence. “If the PA win, maybe the PNA can’t speak anymore.”

Some believe the multi-party system damages Aceh’s chances of ‘liberation’. Furthermore, many PA supporters see their political opponents as having close ties with the national government. JN even posits the idea that the government paid Yusuf to spearhead the formation of the PNA, causing a schism that hampered the still active separatist cause. “Jakarta claps its hands when they see conflict in Aceh,” he adds.

In line with JN’s suspicions of the Indonesian government secretly revelling in the province’s internal instability, there is the accusation from some that the national police could be doing more in response to the recent political unrest. On March 23, police charged 21 members of the PA in relation to a string of violent attacks, after having initially arrested 50. However, despite such legal interventions and a greater number of police personnel being deployed to the province, Zulfikar Muhammad, executive director of the Aceh Human Rights Nongovernmental Organization Coalition, voiced concerns that could be shared by separatists and non-separatists alike.

“We feel our local police performance has been weak, especially in reducing gun violence. Our people continue to face acts of brutality ahead of the elections, despite the additional troops deployed in Aceh. We challenge the National Police to solve the [April 1] shooting before the April 9 legislative elections. If they fail to do so, then they have failed to provide the citizens of Aceh with a sense of security during a crucial time.”

The Helsinki agreement has held, in principle, since 2005. Yet, the yearning for an Acehnese nation has not died out. For many, including JN, the benefits of such an autonomous state would be a solidifying of Aceh’s already notoriously strict Islamic law, a restriction on immigration and perhaps even an expulsion of ethnic and religious minorities – he names Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and ethnic Javanese as groups that are not welcome in his homeland.

The continuing presence of such protectionist and nationalist zeal in a young Acehnese generation – JN is only 36 – and the recent political violence between those who once fought for the same separatist cause paint a picture of a region far from stable, a region where democracy functions alongside intimidation, where legislative but reluctant links with the wider Indonesian nation, a nation of huge ethnic diversity, are hampered by religious intolerance and occasionally uninhibited xenophobia. Even if one party were to dominate in these elections, the future of Aceh envisaged by young men such as JN may not be unified or peaceful.

I ask him whether he thinks GAM could re-form to fight for independence again and he says yes. I ask him whether he would be willing to join the fight a second time and he says yes, barely hesitating. Our translator, 24, also Acehnese, turns and says: “Me too.”

Rob Yates is an NGO worker based in Medan, Indonesia. He is a part-time editorial assistant for Latitudes.nu and has previously contributed to music review site musicomh.com as well as various university publications in the UK.