A supreme ruler for Aceh?

A supreme ruler for Aceh?
Published: Dec 10, 2011

Gunnar Stange and Antje Missbach

Hasan Tiro returns to Aceh prior to his death. Malik Mahmud is directly behind.

The peace process in Aceh has been hailed as a great success internationally. Yet, in the years since the agreement was signed in Helsinki in 2005, a number of issues have arisen that could undermine peace. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is a controversy surrounding a pending local government law (qanun) on Aceh’s symbolic ‘head of state’ (Wali Nanggroe). The most hotly debated questions in this debate are whether the position should be a political or mostly symbolic one, and about what responsibilities should go with the office.

The debate reflects the strong desire of many Acehnese for symbols that reflect their unique cultural and religious heritage and their long-held desire for self-determination. But it also reveals deep insecurities regarding the question of what Acehnese identity is actually about. These insecurities became evident in late 2010 when there was public outrage about an attempt to enthrone Malik Mahmud, the former ‘Prime minister’ of GAM, the Free Aceh Movement, as the new Wali Nanggroe. The Aceh Party (Partai Aceh), the successor to GAM, was behind the attempt, and proposed providing the Wali Nanggroe with far-reaching quasi-authoritarian powers. This proposal, and the debate surrounding it, shows that GAM has a long way to go in transforming itself from a highly autocratic armed independence movement into a democratic player.

The Wali Nanggroe

Wali Nanggroe means simply ‘guardian of the state’. The term derives from the Arabic wali (protector) and Acehnese nanggroe (land). However, the origin of the institution of the Wali Nanggroe in Aceh is far from clear. It was a key position in the structure of GAM, but its deeper roots are questionable.

Colonial scholars and travellers who visited Aceh before the twentieth century reported nothing about the office of the Wali Nanggroe or its representatives. Until the occupation of Kuta Raja (today’s Banda Aceh) and the official annexation by the Dutch in 1874, Aceh had been an independent sultanate. However, the sultan’s authority was rather limited because the main power was in the hands of the local feudal land-owners and traders (uleebalang). While fighting against the Dutch invaders for more than 30 years, Islamic scholars (ulama) gradually obtained more authority in Aceh. The sultanate eventually ceased to exist in 1903 when the Dutch forced Aceh’s last ruler Sultan Mahmud Shah to abdicate and sent him into exile.

However, when the sultan abdicated he had already handed all his powers – symbolised by the royal seal – over to the famous ulama Teungku Cik di Tiro Saman back in 1880, empowering him as commander in chief for the duration of the war against the Dutch. Teungku Cik di Tiro happened to be the maternal grandfather of Hasan Tiro, the founder of GAM, who claimed the title of guardian of the state for himself when he founded the independence movement in 1976.

In Hasan Tiro’s view, the institution of the Wali Neugara (neugara is Acehnese for state) had passed to the Tiro clan for good, because the sultanate had become extinct. Even so, before Hasan Tiro took the title, another twentieth century Acehnese leader had already acted as the wali. This was Daud Beureueh, the leader of Acehnese rebels during the Darul Islam movement in the 1950s. This movement was a protest against Aceh’s incorporation into the province of North Sumatra, though its leaders also favoured an Indonesian state based on Islamic principles.

While some contemporary witnesses claim that Daud Beureueh passed the title of wali on to his student Hasan Tiro, Tiro himself does not report anything about this in his famous diary The Price of Freedom. Rather he says that his followers referred to him as wali upon his return to Aceh from his US exile in 1976. However, Tiro used the term Wali Neugara, not Wali Nanggroe.

This difference between ‘guardian of the state’, and ‘guardian of the land’, is small but important. It marks influence of the Indonesian government under President Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001), who tried to end the conflict in Aceh by offering the province special autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia. The 2001 Special Autonomy Law ‘re-invented’ the office of wali, promising to establish a Wali Nanggroe – but only as a symbolic not a political post. The Wali Nanggroe, the law said, would be responsible for revitalising and preserving Acehnese traditions. This reform was meant to offer Hasan Tiro a dignified way to come back to Aceh in the event of peace.

Hasan Tiro finally returned to Aceh from exile in Sweden in late 2008 in order to spend his twilight years in his homeland. This was after the war had ended, and he now played an unimportant role, mostly because of his poor health. Almost everybody in Aceh, however, considered him automatically entitled to the position of Wali Nanggroe, even though the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) of 2005 stated merely that ‘the office of Wali Nanggroe with all its ceremonial attributes and entitlements will be established’. The subsequent Law on Governing Aceh (LoGA) from 2006 that was supposed to implement the MoU, maintained that the office was meant to be neither a political nor an administrative office, but only a symbolic leadership position. However, the LoGA also maintained that the rights and responsibilities of the office would be defined by a qanun – a regulation passed by the Aceh parliament.

Symbolic figure or regional monarch?

A first version of the qanun was passed in 2009 by the outgoing Aceh parliament of that time. This qanun said the office of the wali would be part of an independent secretariat, equipped with its own budget and staff. It also said the wali would be elected every five years by a wide-ranging committee representing various government bodies and also political and civil society groups. It gave the wali mostly representative, rather than political, functions. However, that parliament suffered from poor legitimacy – it was elected back in 2004 when the armed conflict was intense, and before former separatists had been able to stand for elections. Governor Irwandi thus did not sign off on this regulation and it was not enacted.

One year later a new group of parliamentarians started to draft a new qanun. This group was now led by the Aceh Party, the party of the former GAM rebels, which had become the dominant force in Aceh’s parliament in the 2009 legislative elections. They made their draft public in December 2010, and it was dramatically different from the previous version.

In the new draft, the office of the wali was politicised. The draft gave the wali powers that otherwise were reserved only for constitutional bodies at the national level. For example, the wali would be allowed to dissolve the regional parliament, set dates for elections and even dismiss the governor from office. He would also have the authority to sign business contracts with foreign companies and to open Acehnese consulates abroad. The wali also had religious privileges, such as the final power to decide on fatwa (religious legal opinion), an authority previously vested in the local ulama council.

Malik Mahmud laying the foundations of the new Wali Nanggroe office

The new draft did not contain any provisions on a body for electing the wali. Instead, it stipulated that the wali would be appointed for life and explained that after Hasan Tiro’s death the office should be passed automatically to Malik Mahmud. Proponents of this stipulation argued that these provisions were based on the 2002 Stavanger Declaration, a statement produced by an international meeting of GAM members in Norway. However, back then, only about 40 people had participated in the meeting. According to witnesses, the appointment of Malik Mahmud as ‘Prime Minister of Acheh/Sumatra’ at that event was not based on any democratic process.

To make matters worse, Malik enjoys by no means an impeccable reputation among his former comrades, let alone in wider circles. While many former combatants admire him tremendously, and he is a dominant force in Partai Aceh, others dispute his right to succeed Hasan Tiro. His opponents in Aceh and beyond – especially in the Acehnese diaspora overseas – hold him responsible for a series of unsolved murders and for the embezzlement of funds during the conflict years.

Sabre-rattling and the schizophrenia of power

The debates about the Wali Nanggroe qanun have continued. Numerous civil society activists blamed the drafting committee and in particular the Aceh Party for having produced a draft that was undemocratic and unconstitutional. For example, in an urgent action workshop organised in December 2010 in Banda Aceh, civil society members criticised the draft. They said the grant of wide-ranging executive powers to the wali would turn Aceh into a monarchy. This would fundamentally contravene the constitutional principles of the Republic of Indonesia. Moreover, discontented with the increasingly authoritarian and ‘feudal’ style of the Aceh Party, activists also criticised the assumption that Malik Mahmud should be the wali. They said choosing an occupant for the post without any sort of consultative process or vote contradicted basic democratic principles.

Critics said choosing an occupant for the post without any sort of consultative process or vote contradicted basic democratic principles

In the course of the debate, members of the Aceh Party eventually realised they had gone too far. However, instead of dispassionately facing the objections, they now started to declare that the draft was actually not of their own making, even though it had been officially launched by Adnan Beuransyah, a prominent member of the Aceh Party, who also serves as speaker of Commission A in the regional parliament. Yahya Muadz, the secretary-general of the Aceh Party, even went a step further, claiming that the draft was the outcome of a political act of sabotage meant to discredit the Aceh Party.

However, it has to be noted that the public debate about the wali did not only involve criticism of the Aceh Party. Some participants also saw the institution in a more positive light, as a chance for Aceh to politically and governmentally start from scratch, after the disruptions of the conflict years. University lecturer and public intellectual Fuad Martadilla advocated in his articles and lectures that Wali Nanggroe should become a supra-governmental institution. He stresses, however, that it should not only be up to the Aceh Party to decide who becomes wali and what powers that person enjoys, but that these decisions should accommodate the aspirations of all the Acehnese people.

Nevertheless, the Aceh Party still dominates the debate. A clear sign of its dominance within the regional parliament is the allocation of Rp 34.970.200.000 (AUS$ 3.800.000) within the province’s budget for the construction of the future office of the Wali Nanggroe. This allocation was made despite the fact that the regional law actually establishing the office has not yet come into effect. On 16 December 2010, Malik Mahmud laid the foundation stone for this new building. The whole ceremony appeared like an election campaign for the Aceh Party, which had decorated the surprisingly well-advanced building with its own flags.

Quo vadis Wali Nanggroe?

Against the backdrop of public outrage caused by the new draft in early 2011 the Aceh Party started again to work on a new draft. Given the brouhaha its predecessor had triggered, understandably, this latest draft is still being kept secret. But, according to Aceh Party leaders, this time it will conform to the Indonesian constitution.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the party has completely given up on the idea of equipping the wali with some measure of political power. Ironically, for this endeavour they have received some unexpected supported from Jakarta. According to Government Regulation 19/2010 that seeks to strengthen the position of the governors vis-a-vis district heads and mayors, chapter III, article 6, paragraph 3 states that Aceh’s so-called coordination and leadership forum should not only consist of the governor, the head of police, the local military commander in chief, the senior prosecutor and the chairperson of the local parliament, but also the Wali Nanggroe. With regard to this stipulation, the Aceh Party now argues that Jakarta in fact welcomes the Wali Nanggroe playing a political role.

Moreover, they will likely see room to manoeuvre thanks to separate changes under consideration which aim to revitalise other local customary institutions. These changes might include the abolition of the position of camat (sub-district head) in Aceh and its replacement with the traditional institution of the mukim head. The mukim is a kind of parallel territorial structure, which incorporates several villages. It is already formally in place in Aceh, because it has already been revived by the Special Autonomy Law of 2001, although it has not been vested with any authority. According to the perspective held by leaders of the Aceh Party, since the Wali Nanggroe would be in charge of traditional institutions, even under the LoGA, this could include the mukim, an outcome that would provide the wali with a chance to at least exercise some control over the lower ranks of the public administration.

The Wali Nanggroe debate reflects not only diverging interpretations of the function and the role of a particular institution in Aceh’s dramatically changing and highly fluid political landscape. It also reveals uncertainties about Aceh’s much-discussed historical, cultural and religious uniqueness as well as the collective identity that supposedly derives from that uniqueness. The debate shows that it is hard to find agreement on an institution which, in the views of its advocates, lies at the very heart of Aceh’s distinctive culture and identity. This uncertainty is underlined by the fact that representatives of the Gayo ethnic minority who live in the central mountainous region of Aceh have repeatedly rejected the institution of the Wali Nanggroe altogether, saying that it is an institution of the Acehnese ethnic group and not representative of the diverse population of the province as a whole.

All in all, the various drafts prepared by the Aceh Party attest to an ongoing autocratic claim for absolute power and leadership by and for Hasan Tiro’s successors. They see their leadership role as an automatic right deriving from GAM’s leadership of the 30-year long struggle for Aceh’s independence. Negotiation and compromise in the political arena are still a novelty to the movement’s elite. It is rather ironic that GAM members welcomed free and democratic elections to make their way into Aceh’s political system, only to now try to remain in power with the help of quasi-authoritarian methods.

Antje Missbach (antjemissbach@googlemail.com) is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne and author of Separatist Conflict in Indonesia: The Long-Distance Politics of the Acehnese Diaspora (2011). Gunnar Stange (Stange@em.uni-frankfurt.de) is a researcher and PhD student at the Department of Anthropology of the Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main, whose doctoral research focuses on identity politics in Aceh after the signing of the Helsinki peace agreement.

Inside Indonesia 106: Oct-Dec 2011