Apr 16, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Guerillas in power

Guerillas in power

Edward Aspinall

The new deputy district head of Aceh Jaya, Abu Tausi
Edward Aspinall

Aceh’s new governor, Irwandi Yusuf, is not a typical Indonesian politician. A US-trained veterinarian, he was a leading strategic thinker and propagandist for GAM. For several years after the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 he led a shadowy existence, dividing his time between composing GAM press releases and slipping away to the field, where he oversaw a major restructuring of the movement’s guerilla forces. Eventually, he was captured by the authorities after they declared martial law in Aceh in May 2003. He was imprisoned in Banda Aceh until the December 2004 tsunami destroyed the jail in which he was being held, allowing him to escape. A brief period as GAM’s chief representative during the disarmament process which followed the August 2005 Helsinki peace agreement gave him the public profile with which to run for office.

Now, as governor, he has delighted public opinion by refusing the use of his chauffer-driven Mercedes and instead driving himself around town in his modest ‘kijang’ van. He also invites delegations of foreign investors and other dignitaries to sit with him in Aceh’s smoky coffee shops. He has declared a moratorium on logging in the territory, said that he will wage war on corruption, and regularly conducts lightning inspections of government offices and schools (often finding them to be deserted). His great obsession, which he discusses publicly at every available opportunity, is encouraging economic growth and foreign investment.

Irwandi’s preoccupations are testimony to the success of the Aceh peace process. Instead of fighting for independence, GAM leaders are now occupied with the mundane business of running government and devising economic strategy. Two years ago, when representatives of the government of Indonesia and GAM met in Helsinki to sign the Memorandum of Understanding which brought peace to Aceh, few people predicted that such a dramatic political change would come so quickly. Nor did they foresee that the peace agreement would be implemented with so little violence or disruption on the ground.

However, without detracting from the successes, it is important to note that beneath the surface not everything is so calm. GAM leaders are nervous about whether they can meet the challenges which face them now that they are in government, and what the implications of failure might be, both for themselves and for the broader peace process.

Guerillas to bureaucrats

Irwandi’s election as governor was made possible as a result of the political deal which lay at the heart of the Helsinki agreement. In the negotiations which preceded the agreement, one of the thorniest issues was deciding on a new political format for Aceh. In exchange for giving up the independence goal, GAM wanted a chance to compete for power.

This was a difficult proposition because national legislation required political parties, if they wanted to register to run in elections, to show they had representation in two thirds of the districts in two thirds of the provinces of the country. GAM, however, was interested only in Aceh. In the end, a deal was struck. It entailed, first, an article in the MoU which was interpreted as allowing independent candidates to run for executive government positions in the province and, second, provisions to allow local political parties before the next legislative elections in 2009.

Last year’s election made good on the first half of that compromise. So far, most media attention has focused on Irwandi. But the December elections (plus a later one in Bireuen, in June) also brought to power GAM-supported candidates in eight of Aceh’s 22 districts and towns. At this level, the transformation of the former independence fighters is even more dramatic.

Nurdin Abdul Rahman, the GAM candidate in Bireuen, on the campaign trail
Edward Aspinall

Some of the new bupati (district heads) and mayors supported by GAM are relatively experienced. The mayor of Lhokseumawe, Munir Usman, is a former bank manager. Nurdin Abdul Rahman, the new bupati of Bireuen, was once a university lecturer and headed a humanitarian NGO, and later spent several years in exile in Australia .

More of the new GAM-affiliated government heads have humble rural backgrounds. They came to prominence because they were skilled nationalist orators or guerilla commanders, not because of their administrative skills. The new bupati of West Aceh , Ramli MS, was the headmaster of a village school. Ilyas A Hamid, the bupati of North Aceh , was an orator and propagandist. Muslim Hasballah, a taciturn and modest former guerilla commander, received paramilitary training in Libya in the late 1980s and dedicated his life to insurgency thereafter. Now he is the bupati of East Aceh .

These candidates won in large part because they were seen as embodying the old spirit of struggle against Jakarta . Not surprisingly, GAM candidates did best in areas where the GAM insurgency had been strongest, and less well in most urban areas and districts with ethnically heterogeneous populations. At one GAM election campaign rally I witnessed in Bireuen, most of the speakers were former GAM guerilla commanders and fighters. They did not talk much about the future of Aceh, but instead about the struggle and sacrifices of the past. Voters need to recall their past suffering, they said, and not vote for candidates who had remained silent when they had been ‘tortured’.

To the extent that GAM candidates did offer a vision for Aceh’s future, it was classical rural populism. They promised economic improvement and prosperity, better roads, irrigation, health care, education and employment, but rarely explained how they would achieve these goals. Even so, this was a powerful message in Aceh’s rural districts, where years of conflict have stalled economic development, destroyed basic infrastructure and gripped the population in penury. And GAM leaders also know the political calculus involved. As Ramli, the new bupati of West Aceh, put it in an interview with me last February, a few days before his victory in a second round of voting: ‘If elected, we will emphasise development of the villages first, from the grassroots first. In the past, the roots of rebellion were always in the villages’. Moreover, he added, GAM’s supporters were mostly in the rural interior, while in the towns ‘they are public servants and did not vote for us’.

GAM candidates also capitalised on the popular revulsion with the corruption which permeates the old political class in Aceh. Here, their image as ordinary, unsophisticated folk probably helped them. As Zamzami A Rani, the new deputy bupati of Aceh Jaya, recalls: ‘The security forces used to say that we were bandits and robbers. But when we came down from the hills, the people’s own experience of us was different. We had absolutely no money. They could see that.’

What now?

These guerillas-turned-politicians are aware that popular expectations are high and that they must make good on their promises. But this is not an easy task.

In the first place, as they are quickly discovering, running local government is technically difficult and complex. The 2007 budget for the district of East Aceh alone is 555 pages and it takes specialist skills to know how it is put together and what it means.

Most of the former GAM government leaders lack technical training and administrative experience. Ilyas A Hamid is the new bupati of North Aceh , the heart of Aceh’s natural gas industry and the wealthiest district, with an annual budget of over one trillion rupiah (around 100 million dollars). He attained his highest education in a rural dayah, or Islamic boarding school. During his election campaign (in a story which is perhaps apocryphal but is widely repeated) he told one audience that his government would pay for his campaign promises by installing presses to print new money.

Supporters of the GAM candidate at a campaign rally in Bireuen
Supporters of the GAM candidate at a campaign rally in Bireuen
Edward Aspinall

Mostly, the new government leaders are trying to cope by working with ‘teams of experts’ who have the requisite skills. Muslim Hasballah in East Aceh , for example, draws on some of Aceh’s best known former student and NGO activists. They have formed sub-teams which handle budgeting, administration and basic infrastructure. Individuals who I first met eight years ago when they were student activists are now no longer organising demonstrations against the military but instead poring over budgets, wrangling about bureaucratic appointments and worrying about how to increase government revenue.

The challenges these new governments face are enormous. In the old days, GAM fighters used to blame the Indonesian government for all of Aceh’s ills. It was because of Indonesian exploitation, they used to say, that Aceh’s people were impoverished. Now they are discovering that government budgets are inadequate to bring about the rapid improvements their supporters expect. In East Aceh , for example, there is an urgent need for new water bores in over 80 villages: the local government only has money for 14. Next year, there will be a dramatic spike in government revenues as a result of special autonomy arrangements, but still not enough to meet the needs.

Another problem is that the bureaucracy itself is deeply corrupt. Much of the local budget every year is lost to graft. This is an Indonesia-wide problem, but is arguably especially severe in Aceh, where the conflict meant most abuses occurred without much public scrutiny. The new GAM-supported district heads have all promised to punish corrupt bureaucrats, but they depend upon these same people to run the development programs which will deliver on their election promises. The bureaucrats have the capacity to sabotage government from within if they feel their positions or income-generating activities are threatened.

It is an open secret that many of the new GAM bupati and mayors fear that they will be entrapped by their own bureaucrats and end up in jail on corruption charges. They worry that, because they are still so ignorant of the rules, they will either be deliberately misled into committing illegal acts (for example, signing off on government expenditure without going through the proper procedures) or will simply follow past practices, many of which are themselves illegal. GAM government leaders, so the logic goes, have to be cleaner than their predecessors because hostile forces are everywhere looking for ways to undermine them. Fear of acting corruptly, on the other hand, can have paralysing effects. It has already delayed some development projects and even the payment of wages in some districts.

Making money

But the corruption problem cuts both ways. While GAM leaders routinely condemn the corruption of the Indonesian government and local bureaucracy, and their victories owed much to popular revulsion with graft, the movement itself is organised in a way which finds an easy fit with the patrimonialism which pervades Indonesia ’s polity and economy.

During the conflict years, GAM was both a national liberation movement and a money-making machine. It had a large need for funds, especially to purchase weapons and ammunition. In those days, GAM fighters raised much of their resources from voluntary contributions (often in kind) from ordinary villagers. But they also levied a ‘pajak nanggroe’ (state tax) on all manner of economic activities, especially by seeking cuts from local contractors who worked on small-scale local government construction jobs.

Except for a very few, GAM was not a path to riches. But it was a path to prestige and respect for local commanders in small-town and rural Aceh. It provided a livelihood, if not a secure or luxurious one, to ordinary fighters. At the same time, a layer of people grew around the movement who were used to striking shady deals with local entrepreneurs and bureaucrats.

Peace meant that thousands of fighters were demobilised. Most had few skills, capital or prospects of employment. They had endured great hardship during the conflict years and now wanted to live normal, if not prosperous, lives. Many of their commanders, already schooled in unorthodox fund-raising methods, had grander ambitions, if not for their own sakes, at least in order to look after their followers.

Partly in anticipation of this, ‘reintegration’ funds were provided by the government to former GAM combatants to smooth their transition back into civilian life. There were many problems with the distribution of these funds, largely because the government only provided enough for 3000 former fighters, while the real number was much higher than that (the figure of 3000 was written into the peace deal when GAM negotiators were trying to minimise the number of weapons they would have to surrender). As a result, there have been many conflicts within the KPA (Aceh Transitional Committee, the body established to represent former GAM combatants) about who got money and who did not.

But the official reintegration funds are only part of the story. There is a lot of money slushing around Aceh. As well as the regular local government budgets, swelled by special autonomy funds, huge sums are available for post-tsunami reconstruction and lesser sums for post-conflict rebuilding.

Former GAM leaders are accessing these funds. In virtually every region, they have established companies and cooperatives and transformed themselves into contractors or ‘kontraktor’. Mostly they are active in the construction industry: building houses, public offices, roads, bridges, irrigation channels and other infrastructure, and supplying sand, rocks and other building materials. In Aceh, as in the rest of Indonesia , the construction industry is one of the most politicised sectors of the economy. Contractors need ties with bureaucrats and politicians if they are to win government contracts (by far the largest source of construction work) and kickbacks are expected when contracts are divvied up.

Former GAM commanders are winning plenty of contracts because of their new political importance. Even before last December, many local politicians directed business opportunities to GAM commanders in their regions, often with the hope of securing their political support. Long-established contractors, also sensing which way the wind is blowing, are trying to strike deals and work together with outfits run by the former guerillas.

Muscle and intimidation are also part of this story. Wherever you travel in Aceh stories abound of local KPA leaders and their followers exerting pressure in the scramble for contracts, employment or money. Sometimes, former fighters turn up at the offices of officials in charge of allocating tenders and show them bullets or make other threats. Sometimes, anonymous telephone calls or SMS messages convey threats to burn down an office if a contract is not awarded ‘correctly’. Other messages are only marginally more subtle, such as when local commanders warn international NGO officials that they will not be able to guarantee the ‘security’ of their program in a village, unless the construction and security jobs are filled by GAM men, or the building materials sourced from GAM ranks. Aceh is rife with low-level intimidation and harassment of this sort.


Some activists in Aceh’s NGO sector, who in the past were highly critical of corruption by local government officials, are now reluctant to criticise GAM supporters. If the peace process is to be successful, they say, former fighters need to be granted economic opportunities. If there is some discrimination and heavy-handedness in the process, so the argument goes, that may be the price paid for peace. There has already been an upswing in armed robbery, especially along the east coast. People worry that lawlessness could increase if GAM commanders are shut out of business opportunities.

On the other hand, Irwandi Yusuf and GAM bupati and mayors apparently fear that thuggishness and corruption among their supporters will undermine the movement’s long-term political prospects, especially in the approach to the 2009 elections. They have ordered their followers to stop levying pajak nanggroe on businesses and NGOs.

But even as people talk quietly about the rise of political ‘premanisme’, or gangsterism, in Aceh, it is worth putting this development in its wider Indonesian context. In an interview earlier this year, one prominent local businessman told me that, bad as the situation was in Aceh, it was much worse in Medan, the capital of the neighbouring North Sumatra province. There, gangster-run ‘youth groups’ organise violent protection rackets and extort money from local businesses at a rate much greater than anything seen in Aceh.

Aceh’s peace process still has a long way to travel. But the transformation of GAM since last December’s elections provides grounds for optimism. GAM-endorsed heads of local government are now becoming obsessed with development targets and the investment climate, much like other elected officials throughout Indonesia . Even their followers are accommodating themselves to patterns of politico-criminal organisation that are common throughout the archipelago.

Edward Aspinall (edward.aspinall@anu.edu.au) researches Indonesian politics at the Australian National University , and is the coordinating editor of Inside Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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