Tables Turn as Ex-Aceh Rebel Sweeps to Victory in Polls

BANDA ACEH ~ Elections in Aceh province have swept a former rebel leader to victory, results showed.

The polls, consolidating a peace accord after nearly three decades of war, were hailed by UN chief Kofi Annan as “historic” and by the European Union.

Vote tallies showed Irwandi Yusuf, the former spokesman of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), and his running mate Muhammad Nazar likely to secure a landslide victory for governor and deputy.

They won around 39 percent of Monday’s vote, leaving their nearest rivals trailing on 17 percent.

Election observers Jurdil Aceh said the polls for provincial governor and deputy – previously directly appointed by central government – and district heads were peaceful and transparent, with turnout a high 85 percent.

The UN chief said the “historic balloting” was the first since the peace agreement signed in Helsink last year between the Jakarta government and the rebels.

Annan “calls on all parties to respect the results of these elections in order to help consolidate the peace process, which aims to build a secure and prosperous Aceh within a united and democratic Indonesia,” his office added.

The European Union welcomed the progress endorsed by the elections, saying it hoped that they would “contribute to the further consolidation of the peace process to the benefit of the people of Aceh and the whole Indonesia.”

Analysts dismissed fears the government would oppose the rebel victory, saying it had showed its commitment to the peace process.

“It is the challenge for the central government, to prove that they would remain consistent to the Helsinki pact,” said Hari Prihatono, director of the Pro Patria institute pro-democracy group.

“The (peace) process is on track and it is very unlikely that it would not continue otherwise,” Prihatono said.

He warned that if the government disregarded the results, it would face the consequences in the 2009 national elections.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono convened a late-night meeting with Vice President Yusuf Kalla and several cabinet ministers to discuss the results, a report said.

“My priority is the grassroots community,” Irwandi Yusuf told reporters, labeling the vote as “a milestone for the future of Aceh.”

Yusuf, who was jailed in 2003 for rebellion, said he had never imagined he would be governor one day. “What I did imagine when I was in prison is how to get out as soon as possible,” he said.

He eventually fled when the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004, flooding his prison.

The giant waves killed more than 168,000 people in Aceh and compelled the rebels and Jakarta to reassess their priorities after decades of bloodshed.

Under the peace deal, the rebels laid down their weapons, Jakarta withdrew non-local troops and police from the province at the northern tip of Sumatra and granted an amnesty to GAM and political prisoners.

In return for GAM dropping its call for independence, the government granted the resource-rich region greater autonomy and allowed the establishment of local political parties, a first for Indonesia.


Facts about Aceh: (dgn gambar peta Aceh di backgroundnya)

POPULATION: About 4.5 million (before tsunami)

GEOGRAPHY: Aceh stretches over 55,390 square kilometers on the westernmost tip of Sumatra island.

CAPITAL: Banda Aceh.

LANGUAGE: Indonesian, Acehnese.

RELIGION: Muslim (97.6 percent), Christian (1.7 percent), Hindu (0.08 percent), Buddhist (0.55 percent).

ECONOMY: Coconuts, coffee, timber, tobacco, oil and natural gas.

HISTORY: In the 16th century, Aceh was an important trading center and seat of Islamic learning. Its power began to decline over the next century, but it remained independent of the Dutch, who dominated the rest of the Indonesian archipelago.

In 1873, the Netherlands declared war on Aceh after negotiating a treaty in which Britain withdrew any objections to their occupation of the region.

The first Dutch force of 7,000 retreated when its commander, General Kohler, was killed. A new army contingent, twice as large, succeeded in taking the capital, the central mosque and the sultan’s palace but the war dragged on for 35 years before the last sultan, Tuanku Muhammad Daud, surrendered.

Even then no Dutch area was safe from guerrilla attack from the Acehnese until the Dutch surrendered to Japan in 1942.

The Japanese were welcomed at first but resistance soon sprang up. This period saw the Islamic Party, which had been formed in 1939 under the leadership of Daud Beureuh, emerge as a political force.

With the proclamation of the Indonesian republic in 1945, Aceh was given special territory status, but in 1951, Jakarta dissolved the province and incorporated it into the mainly Christian province of North Sumatra.

Angry at the move, Beureuh proclaimed Aceh an independent Islamic Republic in September 1953.

This lasted until 1961, when military and religious leaders fell out. The central government resolved the conflict by returning the status of special province to Aceh.

In 1976 a separatist group, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement) was established to fight for an independent Islamic state.

Aceh was declared a military operation area in 1988 and Indonesian troops were deployed to quash the separatist movement. Soldiers have since been accused by human rights groups of widespread violations.

Operations were stepped up in May 2003 after the collapse of a brief truce prompted the government to impose 12 months of martial law.

The Indian Ocean tsunami disaster on December 26, 2004, devastated the region, killing an estimated 169,000 people, destroying entire towns and pulverizing its infrastructure and industry.

The catastrophe,, however encouraged both the rebels and the government to return to the negotiating table and in August 2005 they signed a peace deal in Helsinki.

The accord paved the way for Monday’s elections, the first in Indonesia to allow the participation of candidates without links to Jakarta-based political parties.

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