Catherine Smith and Thushara Dibley
The crowd strains to see the wali
‘We miss you wali nanggroe’ reads a banner carried by 16 year old Ikhban standing on top of a truck outside Banda Aceh’s Great Mosque. Ikhban was one of thousands gathered to welcome Hasan Muhammad di Tiro – Aceh’s ‘wali nanggroe’ (guardian of the nation) – back to Aceh after decades spent in exile. Although di Tiro has been absent from Aceh since well before Ikhban was born, Ikhban was enthusiastically awaiting his return: ‘He’s our leader – he’s Acehnese like us – we’re grateful to him.’
An old figure in a new Aceh
Hasan di Tiro was the founder and leader of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) which fought a guerrilla war seeking independence from Indonesia from 1976 to 2005. In 1979 di Tiro left Aceh when his movement was driven to the verge of extinction by the Indonesian military. He took with him the goal of ‘internationalising’ GAM’s cause, eventually setting up a ‘government in exile’ in Sweden. During his absence from Aceh he played a key role in the formation of GAM ideology, presenting Aceh as economically marginalised within the Indonesian state and oppressed by Javanese domination as an extension of Dutch colonialism.
There have been many other well-known GAM leaders operating from within Aceh. But di Tiro has always played an important, if at times distant role within the GAM hierarchy. In the new Aceh, however, di Tiro’s popularity goes beyond his role as the founder of GAM. He has become a symbolic figure who brought Aceh to the attention of the world and whose charisma and commitment to Aceh appeals to Acehnese of divergent political views.
The violent conflict between GAM and the government came to a political resolution through negotiations held in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2005. Following the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the GAM leadership and the Indonesian government, GAM demobilised and demilitarised. Hasan di Tiro’s old dream of an independent Aceh came to an end, yet GAM has reinvented itself as a prominent civilian political force.
Di Tiro’s visit was sponsored by Partai Aceh, the party founded as the vehicle for former GAM members and the most visible of Aceh’s local political parties. One of the provisions of the MoU allowed Aceh to become the only province in Indonesia to have local political parties. For several months Partai Aceh flags and offices have been springing up all over Aceh in preparation for the parliamentary elections in April 2009 in which local political parties will run for the first time. The atmosphere of anticipation and nervousness associated with Aceh’s pre-election fervour formed the backdrop for di Tiro’s visit.
Hopes and doubts
Trucks full of Partai Aceh supporters began to flow into Banda Aceh in the days leading up to the wali’s scheduled arrival. They slept in football fields and the grounds of the Great Mosque. The night before his speech we met a crowd preparing to sleep in a field on the university campus. ‘A million people from all over Aceh will come’, one told us. That night the atmosphere was tense, heavy with expectation. The usually deserted university campus was a hub of activity – motorcycles, pedestrians and trucks lined the streets. The few women present in the field seemed afraid to talk to us, while the men were bold, waving and draping themselves in the Partai Aceh flag in a charged atmosphere of anticipation. Many Partai Aceh supporters were eagerly awaiting the events of the next day. ‘We miss him. He’s like a president that’s been gone for a long time’, said one person. Another said: ‘People have travelled so far because Hasan di Tiro is the one who can help the poor people who are unemployed and bring an end to their problems.’
These high hopes for di Tiro were also tinged with a sense of uncertainty about what would unfold the next day. A man stopped us on the street to explain: ‘Hasan di Tiro is the hope for the young generation. Everybody loves him, but I hope that there won’t be trouble. Tonight there was a bomb in North Aceh.’ Word had spread by text message of a grenade attack in North Aceh, later confirmed in the Serambi newspaper. This was one of many recent grenade attacks associated with the lead up to the elections. These attacks and other unexplained incidents are generating a sense of uncertainty and fear.
Supporters climbed the walls of the mosque itself, sat on top of buses and leaned out of the windows of surrounding buildings hoping to glimpse the wali’s face
The next morning some friends said that they didn’t want to go the speech as they were afraid of a violent incident. One friend sent a text message saying that we should pray for safety. The becak driver told us he would rather read about it in the paper the next day. He didn’t want to go all the way into town as he thought it would be ‘heated’ and ‘unsettled’. But when we arrived at the Great Mosque, the location of di Tiro’s reception, we were greeted with an atmosphere of happy celebration.
A jubilant reunion
Despite spending the night sleeping in football fields, trucks and mosques, the crowd was enthusiastic and those present were eager to share their expectations of the day with us. Although many less than the estimated one million people were present, the area in central Banda Aceh surrounding the Great Mosque was filled with buses, groups of men waving the Partai Aceh flag and families sitting under trees in the mosque’s compound. Others climbed the walls of the mosque itself, sat on top of buses and leaned out of the windows of surrounding buildings hoping to glimpse the wali’s face. Most present were too young to have seen him in the flesh. Several times in the past, rumours of di Tiro’s death had spread throughout Aceh. For some people in the crowd, seeing his face was confirmation that he was still alive.
In contrast to the tension of the previous night and the concerns of many who did not attend, the event was remarkably ordered and positive. The day before his arrival an Acehnese government spokesperson appealed to the public ‘not to say, let alone yell’ the word merdeka (freedom). Merdeka is a powerful word which during the conflict years expressed GAM’s desire to secede from Indonesia. People worried that even uttering the word ‘merdeka’ could trigger violent confrontation. For the most part the crowd complied. A few stray individuals were wandering around calling ‘merdeka, merdeka’, but nobody joined them or reacted to their calls.
Although the day was clearly a political event, sponsored by Partai Aceh, the atmosphere resembled that of a rock concert. Several times the crowd broke into loud cheering as they thought the wali had arrived. When the wali finally did appear on the small stage directly in front of the mosque, the crowd cheered enthusiastically. People held mobile phones and cameras high above their heads straining to get a photo of him.
Acehnese hope that di Tiro’s ‘international’ lifestyle will give him the unique ability to be a leader who can protect peace
The wali did not speak for long. After briefly greeting the crowd, he sat back down – ‘He’s crying ... he can’t speak … his heart is full’, people said. Malik Mahumud, the former ‘prime minister’ of GAM, delivered a speech on di Tiro’s behalf. The speech, read out in Indonesian, contained the main points of the Helsinki MoU and reaffirmed the significant changes in Aceh that have taken place since the tsunami and peace agreement. The content of the speech, however, seemed secondary to the wali’s presence. Far from being disappointed that the wali had not spoken himself, the crowd were euphoric.
A unique leader for peace
Climbing the walls of the Great Mosque
Di Tiro’s long absence from Aceh didn’t lessen the crowd’s commitment to him. Rather, many of them saw his time out of Aceh as increasing his ability to contribute to Aceh’s peace and future development. As one person explained: ‘We are already mixed up with the United Nations. We can’t have conflict again.’
Although they spoke about di Tiro with reverence, the crowd also spoke as if they had a personal relationship to him. It was as if he were a family member returning home after a long absence. People talked about ‘meeting up with the wali’, missing him, loving him and referring to the fact that he ‘had not been home for a long time’. This familiar language voiced the Acehnese ideal of solidarity (being akrab), which is an important expression of Acehnese identity. By using familiar language people were welcoming di Tiro home and showing that they still want to be ‘akrab’ with him, and that they still consider him Acehnese after his long absence.
People speculated about his language abilities after so much time away, excited at the prospect that his speech might be in Acehnese: ‘He can speak Acehnese and English but he can’t speak Indonesian anymore.’ The media coverage in the days after the reception reinforced this curiosity about the ways in which he has changed as an individual due to his experiences overseas. Much attention was paid to his personal habits – he likes to drink Coca Cola, he has a collection of sunglasses. One news magazine published a photo of the newsstand in Sweden where he buys his daily newspaper. These ‘foreign’ behaviours are not signs that di Tiro has become alien to Aceh. Rather, people are fascinated with the more superficial aspects of di Tiro’s lifestyle because they point to other kinds of personal transformation that di Tiro is expected to have undergone during his time overseas. His ‘international’ lifestyle portrays di Tiro as someone who has new forms of knowledge, networks and ways of life which Acehnese hope will give him the unique ability to be a leader who can protect peace.
In the end, di Tiro stayed in Aceh for just two weeks. He spent most of his time there visiting various historic sites, and the gravesites of past heroes and GAM leaders and fighters who died during the independence struggle. It became painfully obvious during his visit just how frail he is. He spent very little time in the public eye, and never said more than a few words in public, often not very coherently, and almost always immediately handing the microphone over to Malik Mahmud or some other GAM dignitary. Yet this hardly seemed to dim the enthusiasm of his supporters.
Indeed, many people assume that Hasan di Tiro’s status as wali nanggroe will soon be confirmed officially. The Helsinki MoU and the Law on Governing Aceh (Law 11/2006), which was designed to implement the provisions of the MoU, recognised the office of wali nanggroe. The duties and details of this office, however, have not yet been determined. There is debate about the extent of authority the office of wali nanggroe will carry. Some people suggest that the wali nanggroe should play a ‘consultative and coordinating’ role, focusing on religion and tradition. Others insist that the wali nanggroe should have decision-making authority above that of the governor. These issues are being debated by Aceh’s Acehnese provincial legislature.
Reaching for peace
Aceh is now in a state of transition. The post-tsunami activities of international NGOs are winding up, preparations for the April 2009 parliamentary elections are well underway and local political parties are making their presence felt. People are talking about peace, but there is still uncertainty about what is going to happen over the next few months. There have been acts of violence which the authorities have been unable to explain, let alone identify and punish the perpetrators. These incidents hardly reassure the people of the government’s ability to preserve peace. This creates a sense that peace in Aceh depends on factors that ordinary people cannot control. Events such as Hasan di Tiro’s arrival are important as they serve as an example that political expression can occur in Aceh without violence.
‘He is the one who can sort out the hopes of society so that Aceh can be peaceful. We need him to come.’
Three years after the signing of the MoU, Aceh is not as polarised as it was during the conflict, and more opportunities are emerging for people to express diverse views and identities. Some fear that this diversity is a threat to stability and indicates the potential for future conflict. In this context the return of a charismatic leader like Hasan di Tiro, who has appeal to different segments of Acehnese society – even when he says or does very little – plays an important role in reassuring people of Aceh’s potential for a peaceful future. ii
Catherine Smith (email@example.com) is writing a PhD thesis at the Australian National University based on the life histories of Acehnese women.
Thushara Dibley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is researching a PhD thesis about NGOs engaged in peacebuilding in Timor Leste and Aceh at the University of Sydney.