The massive but, happily, largely benign earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Wednesday left millions of people in Aceh reliving the nightmare the engulfed them on Boxing Day 2004, when a similarly large but different type of earthquake sent a wall of water across the lowlands, killing around 180,000 people.
That the earthquake and fear of another massive tsunami came just two days after a local elections and a major political upheaval only added poignancy to the otherwise frightening occasion. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Aceh separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) reached a peace agreement with the government in Jakarta, ushering in a period not just of rebuilding but of relative peace and electoral politics.
Contrary to such opinion that exists on Aceh, the peace agreement was not a consequence of the tsunami as such. Rather, and agreement to start peace talks had been reached just days before the tsunami struck.
There is no doubt, however, that the devastation caused by the tsunami caused both GAM and the Indonesian government to make an extra effort to find a solution to the three decade separatist war. Further, the international community made clear to both parties that if they failed to reach a peace agreement there would be little support for helping Indonesia’s reconstruction effort in Aceh.
The peace agreement produced, among other things, a democratic outcome. Local parties and candidates were allowed to stand for election. GAM candidates won just under half of the local legislature, forming a coalition with the Jakarta-based Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
However, internal divisions within GAM that had become evident during the peace talks surfaced over the selection of a candidate for the position of Aceh’s governor. There was agreement to found a new political party based on the old GAM, but divisions soon opened up over political control and vision for the organisation.
In this, GAM reflected a common experience with former independence movements that bring together often disparate groups of people under a common cause. Once the cause was gone, these groups gravitated to their more natural constituencies.
In GAM’s case, impetus for gravitating separately was spurred when former ‘prime minister’, Malik Mahmud, overturned a democratic vote for a candidate and imposed his own candidate. This was rejected by a significant section of GAM, which in turn backed former GAM intelligence chief Irwandi Yusuf, who subsequently won.
With Irwandi ensconced as governor, Malik turned back to the former military organisation, reorganising it as a new political party. The party’s structure closely followed the order and hierarchy of the old guerrilla organisation.
Malik had agreed to leave active politics, but selected his deputy, former GAM ‘foreign minister’, Zaini Abdullah, as the new Aceh Party’s gubernatorial candidate, with his deputy being GAM’s former military commander, Muzakir Manaf.
Irwandi had tried to seek an accommodation with the Aceh Party but Malik, angered by Irwandi’s ‘disloyalty – his independence and success in 2007 - rejected the overture. Irwandi ran as an independent, prompting some GAM members to revert to that which they knew so well; violence and thuggery to achieve their goals.
Politically, Malik sought to have the elections delayed, twice, to try to push out Irwandi through legal challenges. While these failed, they did give the Aceh Party time to further organise. Drawing on a loyal and organised base of Aceh Party cadres, Zaini and Muzakir easily won the election for governor, despite claims of continuing violence, intimidation, vote buying and other irregularities.
While there will no doubt be official challenges to aspects of the vote, the outcome is likely to stand. Interestingly, however, candidates who had previously been in favour of independence achieved over 90% of the vote.
As with other post-conflict, post-disaster societies, Aceh is still finding its way forward, playing democratic politics but in the hardest possible way. A peaceful administrative transition, however, will help consolidate the local process of achieving political outcomes not through the barrel of a gun but through the ballot box.
And the recent earthquake reminded Acehnese that no matter what their concerns, preferences and differences, some things remain larger politics.