Page last updated at 07:08 GMT, Sunday, 12 October 2008 08:08 UK

What role for returning Aceh rebel?

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Banda Aceh

Hasan di Tiro arrives at Aceh's new international airport. Pic: Fauzan Ijazah
Hasan di Tiro returns to a much-changed Aceh. Photos: Fauzan Ijazah

It must have been a strange moment for Hasan di Tiro.

Looking down from the steps of the plane at Aceh's new international airport, what would he have seen?

Rows of dignitaries and TV cameras, here to mark the return of an exiled rebel; his family, frail and wilting in the morning heat; and lined up on the tarmac, waiting to greet him, his former guerrilla fighters, now name-tagged and in suits.

For a man who slipped away in secret 30 years ago, it was a statesman's return.

Of course, Aceh has changed a lot in that time too.

The fact that Indonesia has allowed him back at all is a sign of how much.

Three years ago, in the aftermath of the devastating Asian tsunami, and under the glare of international attention, his rebel group the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) gave up its bloody fight for Acehnese independence and settled instead for autonomy within Indonesia.

But Hasan di Tiro's image - part royalty, part rebel leader - has outlasted all those changes.

Almost royalty

Truckloads of supporters, most of them too young to remember the last time he was here, began arriving in the Acehnese capital, Banda Aceh, days before he returned.

Young men like Neh who talk about a very personal attachment to this remote, elderly rebel. "We miss him like a son to a father," he told me.


Or like Sayeed, just a few months old when Hasan di Tiro slipped out of Aceh.

"I miss him," he said. "I want to see his real face, not a picture in the internet or the newspaper. I'm happy he's coming back, because he's the one person who really cares about Aceh."

Not bad for a man who has lived in exile for three decades.

But then Hasan di Tiro has two things going for him.

Firstly, he founded GAM back in 1976 and led the 30-year fight for independence and control of Aceh's rich natural resources.

Secondly, he really is almost royalty here - he is a descendant of Aceh's old rulers.

Some people here would like to see him take on a similar role again, to speak up for Acehnese interests under the province's new autonomy deal.

But of course not everyone would welcome that. Others resent di Tiro for his absence during the long bloody years of conflict. Many suffered as a result of it, and not everyone here was in favour of independence anyway.

But his appearance at the main mosque in Banda Aceh can still draw several thousand people, neatly packed into its wide open spaces, all hoping for a glimpse.

Crowds in Aceh. Pic: Fauzan Ijazah
Several thousand greeted Hasan di Tiro's appearance in Aceh

The question is, now that the separatist war has ended, what will Hasan di Tiro do with all his popularity?

This is being billed as a personal trip, the wish of an old man to revisit his homeland.

But the signs point elsewhere. It has been a highly organised event. And one organised by his former guerrilla colleagues - it is they who have largely managed his security, journalist access and crowd control.

Some of these men are now running for parliament under the banner of GAM's new political party - part of the terms agreed under the peace deal. Called the Aceh Party, it is expected to do very well indeed in elections due next year.

And its logo was everywhere during this trip; the hallmark of Hasan di Tiro's return.

Aceh Party flags peppered the crowds that came to see him - and the trucks that brought them. Party officials in party T-shirts helped with airport security as he arrived.

There had been some careful preparation of the crowds. Nobody who arrived in groups from the districts would talk about politics. But that couldn't hide the smell of it.

Powerful figure

For men like Sayeed and Neh - and some of their older neighbours - the independence fight wasn't just about splitting from Indonesia, it was fuelled by the desire to get a better deal for Acehnese; a greater share of the province's resources, prosperity and control over their own affairs.

Supporter in Aceh. Pic: Fauzan Ijazah
Supporter are now looking ahead to elections next spring

Much of that was delivered in the peace agreement. Yet while GAM may have stopped fighting for a separate state, but the struggle to safeguard Aceh's interests in relations with Jakarta continues. And it's likely to be the battleground for next spring's elections.

In that sense, Hasan di Tiro has it all - nationalist credentials, a blood line to Aceh's old sultan and 30 years of exile that have kept him apart from the new party politics.

But it's doubtful how big a role he could actually play, even if he wanted to.

He's an old man now; too frail even to deliver his own speech at his welcome rally; more like an elder statesman than a campaigner.

Yet he's still a powerful figure, and as a poster boy for his former colleagues-turned-politicians, he's probably irresistible.

Aceh guerrilla leader flies home
11 Oct 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Ex-rebel becomes Aceh governor
08 Feb 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Peace monitors end Aceh mission
15 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Aceh votes for major change
12 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Indonesia
07 Aug 08 |  Country profiles

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