Aceh Polls Pose Challenge for Rebels

JAKARTA ~ Local elections in Aceh pose a challenge for former separatist rebels in their transformation from an armed insurgency into a political movement, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said this week.

A peace agreement last year between the Free Aceh Movement rebels and the central government paved the way for the first direct elections in Aceh to pick the heads of the province and its 21 districts.

Former rebels are standing in the December 11 polls “but differences over candidates have split their leadership, raising questions about the movement’s political future,” the ICG said on the release of its briefing on Aceh’s Local Elections: The Role of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

“The political distance Aceh has traveled since the December 2004 tsunami is remarkable – that GAM members would be contesting local office and the Indonesian government would permit it seemed unthinkable two years ago,” the ICG said in a press release.

“But infighting within GAM is complicating its transition from armed insurgency to political movement.”

The Brussels-based think-tank said the Acehnese see the elections as “a critical reinforcement” of the August 2005 Helsinki peace agreement that ended nearly three decades of conflict.

While for GAM, “they are a test of political strength and an indication of how much work it will have to do to win the much more important 2009 elections, when seats in the provincial parliament will be at stake.”

The ICG said the military and many Jakarta-based officials see elections as a test of the GAM’s good faith – whether it will refrain from suggesting independence is just around the corner – while for many Acehnese they are a gauge of whether the peace will hold.

The split in the GAM leadership over election candidates could set back the movement’s plans to form a local political party, the ICG said.

“The rift evident today may be a natural outcome for a guerrilla group catapulted into the political sphere faster than it expected, and GAM may reunite or fracture after the elections,” said Asia program director Robert Templer.

“Either way, the negotiations that GAM undertook in Helsinki have set the stage for a stronger, more democratic Aceh, whether or not its own people take charge,” he said.

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