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Aceh's rebels turn politicians

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Banda Aceh

Rebels of the Free Aceh Movement with weapons in 1999
Rebels before they disarmed in 2005

Balanced on the north-west tip of Indonesia, its nose pointing up across the Indian Ocean to India and the Middle East, is the slender province of Aceh, a place of religious passion and fierce identity.

It is the place where Islam is first thought to have reached Indonesia, and where, until a few years ago, separatist guerrillas fought the Indonesian army in a bloody war.

One of those guerrillas was Adi Sulaiman. Small and wiry, with a quiet authority, he fought side by side with his comrades from the Free Aceh Movement (Gam), in Aceh's jungles.

But since the peace deal signed between Gam and the Indonesian government three years ago Adi, like many of Aceh's former rebels, is fighting a different kind of battle - not for independence, but for parliament.

Parliamentary elections

Indonesia is due to hold parliamentary elections next April, and under the terms of the peace deal, Aceh has been given special autonomy, allowing local parties to contest the polls for the first time.

And of the six new local parties to have sprung from that agreement, the one that is tipped to do best in next year's polls is the one formed by Gam: called simply the Aceh Party.

Adi is one of the Aceh Party's young hopefuls.

He told me it was no big deal switching from fighter to politician; that Gam still holds the real power.

But when we met him in the Gam stronghold of Pidie, several hours' drive outside the provincial capital, he was looking harassed and was hard to pin down.

Adi Sulaiman, Aceh Party
The peace deal hasn't been fully implemented. It's incomplete and the Indonesian government is cheating itself by betraying what it agreed to
Adi Sulaiman, Aceh Party

Gam security guards in red-and-white sashes stood around under plastic awning, set with rows of chairs, grizzled old fighters greeted each other with wrinkled smiles; and lines of civil police were being drilled on the road outside.

Adi was moving briskly between them all, giving orders, and smoking a lot of cigarettes.

Former rebel

He was preparing for a visit by Gam's founder and leader, Hasan di Tiro, who returned to Aceh this month after 30 years in exile.

But with the war Mr di Tiro waged for independence over, what is Adi's political fight about now?

"The peace deal hasn't been fully implemented," Adi told me. "It's incomplete. And the Indonesian government is cheating itself by betraying what it agreed to."

What the central government agreed to is to give Aceh broad, day-to-day control over its own affairs, while keeping authority over six key national areas, such as foreign policy and defence.

But much of the province's new autonomy has yet to be implemented, and there are tensions between Aceh and Jakarta over the detail of exactly what that autonomy means.

The Aceh Party wants to be seen as the guardian of that new autonomy.

And who better to make that point than the man who started the war, and then backed the peace? Mr di Tiro is a powerful brand here.

The Aceh party flags that trailed him during his visit told the story: "He's ours," they said.

Intimidation

Aceh Party officials have already complained about their rivals "provoking conflict" by claiming they too have links to GAM.

Hasan di Tiro arriving in Pidie, October 11
Hasan di Tiro, founder of GAM, visited Pidie on October 11
But those rival parties have their own complaints in turn: complaints that they have been threatened and intimidated when trying to campaign in certain areas; that some of their offices have been burned; that their representatives have been kidnapped.

No-one wants publicly to name names, and the culprits probably bear more than one political colour, but privately some in Aceh point the finger towards Gam's new politicians.

There are six new local parties contesting these elections - as well as the existing national ones.

The Aceh Party already has a few advantages: existing village networks, for example, and huge amounts of funding - reportedly more than their national party rivals.

They are expected to do very well in April's elections, sweeping district posts in the north and east, and perhaps even winning control of the provincial parliament.

The question is whether the Aceh Party's policies will deliver what the Aceh people want.

Most of those we talked to in Pidie's local coffee shop were, perhaps unsurprisingly, Aceh Party supporters.

But they were more interested in keeping the peace and making a bit of money than the minutiae of power relations with Jakarta.

That may change of course, as pressure gathers to roll out all of Aceh's new autonomy, but after three decades of war and a devastating tsunami, many people are simply glad for a bit of normality.

And whoever wins, this election will be a key test of Aceh's new stability.

As one politician put it: people think it's the end of the peace process here. Actually, it's the beginning.

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SEE ALSO
Aceh guerrilla leader flies home
11 Oct 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Peace monitors end Aceh mission
15 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Ex-rebel becomes Aceh governor
08 Feb 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Indonesia
07 Aug 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Indonesia
07 Aug 08 |  Country profiles

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