From ballots to bullets in Aceh

Earlier this month, leaders of the former separatist group Aceh Free Movement (GAM) in Indonesia's northern province of Aceh won gubernatorial elections for the second time since giving up their armed insurgency in 2005. But they learned that governing by democratic means is just as challenging as waging guerilla warfare from the jungles -- if not more so.

Zaini Abdullah, who eight years ago served as foreign and health minister of the Aceh government-in-exile in Sweden, won the election, beating incumbent governor Irwandi Yusuf. Zaini's running mate, Muzakir Manaf, formerly the military commander of GAM, will serve as deputy governor.

A physician by profession who joined the independence fight in the 1970s, in recent press interviews Zaini has said that he will now focus on bringing peace and economic development to Aceh. Like most other former rebel leaders, however, he has not openly renounced his separatist aspirations, saying rather that he is "putting them aside."

Zaini was the chief negotiator for GAM when it signed the peace agreement with Jakarta in Helsinki in August 2005 that ended 30 years of bloody warfare. In return for giving up weapons and pledging allegiance to Indonesia, the former rebels are allowed to organize politically and contest the local elections if they want to govern the autonomous territory.

The GAM gambit paid off. The group transformed itself into the Aceh Party, which has since won local elections that have put many of its own people in charge of the provincial and district governments and the legislative councils.

Irwandi also won the gubernatorial elections in 2007 on the Aceh Party tick, but this year he had to run as an independent after the party withdrew its support and gave it to Zaini Abdullah. As a result, this month's gubernatorial elections were essentially a two-horse race -- and both of the candidates were ex-guerillas. Between them the two former rebel leaders won over 80 percent of the votes, sidelining the three candidates representing the interests of Jakarta-based political parties. The Aceh Party candidates also won many of the elections at the district level.

A strong reminder of the precarious situation facing the new Aceh leaders came just two days after the April 9 elections, when an earthquake measuring 8 on the Richter scale rocked the territory. The tremor set off a massive panic (the photo above shows people fleeing to higher ground), but the early tsunami warnings turned out to be unfounded. Ten people died, some from fear or heart attacks.

Ironically, it was the massive devastation of Aceh after the even bigger earthquake and ensuing tsunami in December 2004 (which killed over 200,000 people) that forced GAM and the Indonesian government to meet halfway and sign a peace treaty that enabled them to rebuild the devastated territory together.

Since then, the elected GAM members now in charge of running Aceh have had to learn the ins and outs of governance even while bearing much of the responsibility for rebuilding a territory ravaged by war and natural disasters.

As outgoing governor Irwandi has learned the hard way, failing to meet the people's expectations means being voted out of office. Zaini, who moves to the governor's office in May, could meet the same fate five years from now. And next time around, there's no guarantee that the Aceh Party will be as popular as it is today.

With peace and security remaining one of the biggest problems facing Aceh (since many former rebels have kept their weapons in contravention of the Helsinki agreement), Zaini will have to work together with the Indonesian police and military, the very same forces he and his GAM colleagues fought bitterly for more than 30 years.

In spite of the peace deal, violence remains the order of the day in Aceh. It increased during the election campaign, and the polling day had to be delayed by two months.

Aceh's precarious security condition also made it an ideal base for a breakaway group of the Jemaah Islamiyyah, the deadly Indonesian terrorist organization. The group set up a military training facility there that was discovered by the police only in 2010.

Zaini will also have to decide about what to do about sharia. At the height of the military campaign against the rebels, Jakarta gave the local government in Aceh leeway to impose Islamic law. It was all part of an attempt to drive a wedge between GAM and local Islamic leaders. GAM has largely been a secular independence movement and has never taken up Islam as its cause. Today, Aceh is the only province in Indonesia governed according to Islamic law. While beheading is not practiced, the caning of "sinners" has become a public spectacle after Friday prayers in some towns.

The biggest challenge facing Zaini and his GAM colleagues is how to bring prosperity. The people in Aceh count among the poorest in Indonesia even though the province is rich in oil, gas, and forestry products. Prolonged war, poor governance, and the fact that most of the gas revenues in the past went to Jakarta and its American oil contractors, have combined to keep Aceh impoverished. Today, under the autonomy deal, a larger share of revenues from natural resources stays in Aceh.

The former rebel leaders in Aceh have so much on their plates, and so many challenges to overcome, that independence seems a remote if not irrelevant issue, at least for now. The autonomy deal gave them the main thing they were fighting for, namely, control over their own destinies. Now they have to show that they can do the rest.


Democracy Lab

Happy Burmese New Year!

The Burmese New Year Festival has begun. Thagyamin, King of the Celestial Bodies, has come down to Earth. The day of his arrival is known as the Day of Descent, which was on April 13 of this year according to the Western calendar. There is the day of his departure from Earth, the Day of Ascent (April 16), and the day in between (sometimes two days, like this year), the Day of Sojourn. The day after his departure marks the first day of the Burmese New Year (April 17).

Khin Myo Chit, a leading writer of postcolonial Burma, tells us that Thagyamin is "responsible for seeing that people live in accordance with Buddha's way." His name is cited frequently in everyday conversation: To prove their honesty, the Burmese commonly say, "Thagyamin knows I'm telling the truth." During more desperate times, they may utter "May Thagyamin help me out of this."

The New Year Festival, known as "Thingyan" or "Thingyan Pwe," is not, strictly speaking, a religious event. Neighboring Southeast Asian peoples such as the Thai, Lao, Cambodians, and the Dai people of Yunnan Province in China also celebrate similar New Year Water festivals. People throw water on one another to wash away the sins of the previous year. At the same time, the festivities serve the practical purpose of relieving people from the heat, since April is the hottest month of the year in tropical Asia.

What's really worth noting, though, is that the Burmese version of the festival is changing. Over the past few years Thingyan has grown wilder. Crony-run businesses sponsor free outdoor concerts, and the water hoses used to shoot at roving revelers seem to be getting more powerful all the time. Observers have noted that the water festival, increasingly marked by binge drinking, revealing clothing, and street fights, has been the only outlet for the people to vent their frustrations after decades of military rule.

This year the country has undergone a rapid political thaw, and that, too, is having an effect on Thingyan. The most notable sign is that the government has removed a 23-year-long ban on thangyat chanting, rhymed couplets that are sung to the beat of a traditional drum on festive occasions. Thangyat chants are the heart and soul of the New Year Festival. The performance criticizes and makes fun of the foibles of society, a sort of verbal version of cleansing by water. Done properly, thangyat jokes are fun and fairly light, and the whole genre can be regarded as a particularly entertaining form of traditional performance art. Some famous political activists, such as former student leader Min Ko Naing, were thangyat performers in the 1980s. The ruling junta that seized power in 1988 did not find their satirical criticisms amusing, however, and banned the performances. Thangyat chanting survived only in exiled dissident communities.

The return of thangyat troupes boosts the legitimacy of the nominally civilian government, which has just received a big gift from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised the suspension of sanctions during his historic visit to Burma this past Friday. The most popular troupe for this year's festival chose to express a collective appreciation of the reforms by naming itself the "Well-Done-Indeed Thangyat Troupe."

The Burmese believe that when Thagyamin comes down to the human realm, he brings with him two books, one bound in a dog-skin parchment, the other in gold. In the dog-skin book he records the names of those who have committed bad deeds during the course of year, while in the gold one he writes the names of those who have performed acts of merit. He must be happy this time around, since this year he's presumably got a lot of new names to add to the gold book. Happy New Year, everyone.