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Notes on ICG’s Latest Indonesia Report: “Averting Election Violence in Aceh” **

March 7, 2012

When International Crisis Group (ICG) released it’s latest Aceh report last week, Indonesia: Averting Election Violence in Aceh, I wrote the above tweet with tongue in cheek.  But the truth is that when I inevitably lose track of every twist and intrigue in Aceh’s electoral politics, I know that I can always count on ICG to efficiently summarize the events, players, and issues that keep this drama unfolding, without resorting to headline-grabbing hyperbole or convenient generalizations.  This latest report is the tenth that ICG has published about Aceh since a peace agreement in August 2005 brought an end to the Free Aceh Movement’s (GAM) separatist conflict against Indonesian security forces.  Taken together, the reports document the slow transformation of politics in Aceh from center-periphery conflict into internal conflict.  That’s not to say Jakarta isn’t still a major player in Aceh’s “transition to peace,” but rather the prevailing axis of conflict is now more localized and horizontal; it’s “GAM vs. GAM” as the last ICG report called it.  Power brokers in Jakarta are left figuring out how to take sides (or how to take advantage), but they’re not making their choices in unison.

ICG Report Header:  "Indonesia:  Averting Election Violence in Aceh"

ICG Report Header: “Indonesia: Averting Election Violence in Aceh”

Recent Attacks on Javanese Migrant Labor in Aceh

Last January, I happened to be visiting Aceh for the first time in 18 months when the last few in a series of shootings against poor Javanese migrant laborers unfolded one after another.  At the time everyone was talking about (or refusing to) the ongoing electoral paralysis, but the shootings added a new layer of violence and terror to the coffee-shop conversations.  Attacking Aceh’s most disenfranchised residents has no obvious connection to electoral politics, and yet everyone was absolutely sure there was a political motive behind the violence.  This new ICG report does a great job contextualizing these killings in the current political climate, but the evidence always remains reliably inconclusive.  Check out the investigative detail here that makes a valiant effort to trace a connection:

The first attack took place at a workers’ barracks of the PT Setya Agung plantation in Kreung Jawa, Uram Jalan, Geureudong Pase, North Aceh on 4 December. Setya Agung, a company based in Medan, North Sumatra, has usufruct rights (hak guna usaha) for planting cacao, palm oil and rubber over an area of some 8,000 hectares in North Aceh. Like most companies working in Aceh, it contracted with a GAM-owned company, CV Cimita Rata, which manages the rubber plantation.

PT Setya Agung merely collects a fee of Rp.1,250 (about $0.14) per kilo on the rubber, but CV Cimita Rata does all the work, including hiring the labour. Many of its workers are ex-combatants, but the company also brought in about 100 Javanese workers from Medan and housed them in a barracks owned by Setya Agung; these men were hired by a CV Cimita Rata official reportedly loyal to [Governor] Irwandi. (p.4)

ICG is quick to point out, however, that until now there is still no smoking gun and too much opacity in the investigation of the recent killings.  Instead, ICG’s careful chronology of events correlates the violence in Aceh with Partai Aceh’s extraordinary lobbying efforts with various power brokers in Jakarta to postpone the elections until after Governor Irwandi’s term ended on 8 February 2012, when he returned to private citizenship without the organs of state at his disposal to support his campaign.  Violence against Javanese labor gets Jakarta’s attention, ICG argues, and intimates similar or worse violence to come if Partai Aceh does not get its way.  When the ministries, the Constitutional Court, and probably the president himself in Jakarta finally coalesced upon a policy of appeasement to Partai Aceh’s implicit threats, the violence against Javanese in Aceh ended. Partai Aceh leaders have no shortage of plausible deniability, but the optics could not be more clear.

Questionable Alliances

Most people I spoke with in Banda Aceh in January were sick of Partai Aceh’s manipulative and hypocritical interpretations of the peace agreement, and in particular their antagonism toward the Constitutional Court.  These aspects of Partai Aceh’s horrible governance are well-documented in the ICG report, but it’s important to remember that they still have a loyal base of supporters in large swathes of the GAM heartland.  Many supporters and even some detractors aren’t convinced that Partai Aceh (or rogue elements therein) was behind the recent violence.  ICG reflects back some of the theories I heard as well, and it draws upon a long history of epistemic murk that has characterized Aceh’s conflict:

no one is sure who the perpetrators are, and even if some prove to have Partai Aceh connections, it will be hard to prove the party leadership knew of or condoned the attacks. With no information available on current police investigations, there are as many Acehnese willing to believe the attacks were part of a security operation as to believe the party was involved. (p.5)

Ensuring this lack of clarity persists until the election and beyond, Partai Aceh recently announced the endorsement of Aceh’s former military commander, Lt. General Sunarko, the extremely unpopular and belligerent voice of the TNI during the 2009 legislative elections.  This is the guy who tried to prevent election monitors from coming to Aceh in 2009; who tried to prevent Partai Aceh from using GAM symbols in their campaign; who vilified Aceh’s local political parties, one of the key achievements of the peace agreement; who routinely engaged in counter-productive public hissyfits with Governor Irwandi.  Some speculate that Sunarko’s awful relationship with Irwandi drove him into an alliance with Partai Aceh, while others suggest “Sunarko is collaborating on economic projects with former GAM commanders” (p.6), but most observers can hardly understand what benefit accrues to either Partai Aceh or Sunarko in their bizarre alliance (this Radio Rumoh PMI transcript published in Aceh Kita does a decent job of sorting out the pros and cons, pitting the words of erstwhile peace activist and now Partai Aceh spokesperson, Fachrul Razi, against a well-known military and defense analyst, Teuku Ardiansyah, on the subject of the Sunarko endorsement).

Elizabeth Drexler’s 2008 ethnography about the conflict in Aceh shows how both GAM and TNI each benefited from a polarizing conflict narrative while the messy realities on the ground reveal a range of questionable alliances that only in the post-conflict era have come out of the closet.  Profit flows up the chain of command on both sides, and civil society suffers excessively without any accountability.  The situation hasn’t changed much when the police stubbornly refuse to investigate and account for the murder of Javanese laborers, when Jakarta capitulates to Partai Aceh in order to “maintain peace” at all costs, when Partai Aceh forces its agenda with thug tactics and brazenly inconsistent governance, and when sworn enemies join forces to defeat a common foe.  As a result, ICG concedes, “time is now very much on Partai Aceh’s side, and it has three major advantages: a strong political machine, a capacity and willingness to use intimidation and the support of powerful figures in Jakarta” (p.6)…

…but it has cost them legitimacy and trust from Aceh’s civil society.  After the shootings, a number of friends urged me to cancel plans to visit Bireuen and Bener Meriah during my January visit, so I stayed in Banda Aceh (with just a short trip to Blang Pidie on the west coast).  Think of all the other canceled road trips and its economic impact on the east coast in the wake of the violence!  And there are other costs:  The Javanese migrant exodus back home has created a labor shortage for the grunt jobs where most Acehnese wouldn’t deign to work.  Some other friends of mine have lost their jobs while waiting for this electoral paralysis to end because investors are waiting to see how patronage networks will reconfigure before they resume operations in Aceh.  Business owners need to know who are the right politicians to bribe in order to secure a license renewal; their employees, in the meantime, have been waiting more than six months while the elections were postponed four times because of Partai Aceh’s strategy to delay until Irwandi was out of office.

ICG Recommendations

The ICG report concludes with four recommendations:

  1. Deploy as many election monitors across Aceh as possible, immediately.
  2. Investigate the shootings in December 2011 and January 2012 and bring the perpetrators to justice.
  3. Empower the election oversight committee (panwas) to investigate electoral violations and take action.
  4. Leading candidates must control their supporters in the field, particularly the committed loyalists to Partai Aceh and Irwandi, because they both have strong ties with former GAM commanders who tend to rely on intimidation and violence to get out the vote.
pemantau asing (pemilu 2009)

The presence of monitors (and routine press coverage of their work) dampens egregious acts of violence, intimidation, and fraud.

Based on my experience as an election monitor in Aceh in 2009, recommendations 2, 3, and 4 are completely unrealistic.  The police in Aceh rarely bring perpetrators of politically motivated violence to justice, especially if there is even a hint of TNI, and nowadays ex-GAM, involvement.  Panwas officials, if their impotence is not already bought and paid for by one candidate or another, have the most narrow criteria for pursuing electoral violations that relies upon an undue (and unethical) burden of proof upon witnesses, thus ensuring their powerlessness while facing even the most flagrant violations.  Finally, the candidates practically celebrate their unruly supporters because their uncontrollable behavior ensures plausible deniability when they attack supporters from opposition campaigns or engage in voter intimidation.  Party leaders and their candidates love talking about how they can’t possibly control the “excess euphoria” of their supporters!

“Peace Provocateurs”

To be fair, ICG places the most emphasis on their first recommendation to bring election monitors to Aceh as soon as possible.  Given the time constraints and certain pushback from local authorities to accommodate them, this recommendation too might be a challenge, but the very presence of monitors (and routine press coverage of their work) does dampen egregious acts of violence, intimidation, and fraud.  What excited me the most, however, was ICG’s suggestion to enhance the role of election monitors.  Citing a recent practice used to avert violence in Ambon by activists calling themselves “peace provocateurs,” ICG suggests that election monitors, and perhaps civil society in Aceh more broadly, can make use of text messages, Twitter, and facebook to counter provocative rumors:  “Election monitors in Aceh could usefully keep track of and work with journalists to counter ‘black campaigns’ via SMS that have the potential for sparking violence” (p.9).

One of the most impressive and elusive electoral intimidation techniques in Aceh back in 2008 and 2009 was the use of text messages.  Using resonant idioms such as Acehnese poetry or reliable bogeyman figures such as the PKI (Indonesia’s long-extinct Communist Party), these messages spread like wildfire across Aceh, with both veiled and explicit threats, from sources that were always impossible to trace.  Peace provocateur election monitors could work with local civil society activists and journalists throughout Aceh, using the same technology as conflict provocateurs to check rumors, collect proof with digital photos, and disseminate corrections.  This technological innovation would not have been possible even in 2009, as the data networks (or availability of wifi) and use of smartphones to quickly send images along with text were not quite so pervasive or affordable in Aceh at the time.  User saturation and a supportive technological infrastructure have skyrocketed since then.  With just a little bit of planning and ingenuity, I agree with ICG that supporting a network of peace provocateurs would be the smartest investment in peaceful elections.

For the last two elections since Aceh’s peace agreement, I was in Aceh.  This time around I’m sending high-fives to Aceh’s civil society and their peace provocateurs from Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I’ll be paying attention to the campaign and the electoral outcomes—and ICG’s next report—from a distance, but with no less interest.

**  Last year, I wrote two blog posts about the politics surrounding these elections, including notes on the previous ICG report:

13 February 2011:  The Aceh Governor’s Election Heats Up

19 June 2011:  Notes on ICG’s Latest Indonesia Report: “GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections”

For more coverage in English, Edward Aspinall wrote a terrific summary of Aceh’s electoral issues in Inside Indonesia up through December 2011, at a moment when it looked like Partai Aceh would boycott the elections altogether:

11 December 2011:  Aceh’s No-Win Election

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