More than a year has passed since the Aceh peace agreement ended three decades of bloodshed that claimed some 15,000 lives. In the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami, leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) agreed to hand in their weapons and halt their demands for independence for the resource-rich Indonesian province. In return, Jakarta strengthened Aceh’s autonomy, solidified last week in local gubernatorial elections in which former rebel spokesman Irwandi Yusuf came away ahead in the polls (TIME).
Should he be proclaimed victor when poll results are announced in early January, Irwandi, sprung from prison by the tsunami, faces daunting challenges (Reuters) as the province’s governor. One is poverty; a September World Bank report found that Aceh’s pre-tsunami poverty level of nearly 29 percent has likely increased. In addition, the Free Aceh Movement itself faces deep internal divisions between old members, exiled to Sweden during the conflict, and Irwandi’s new guard, as explained in this International Crisis Group report. Furthermore, GAM and the Indonesian government will have to erase decades of mutual distrust. Within days of the election, EU monitors of the peace deal and senior officials in Jakarta advised Irwandi to stop using the GAM flag (Australian) and other rebel symbols.
Another issue drawing global attention toward Aceh has been increasing adherence to Islamic sharia law in the region, located on the northern end of Indonesia’s island of Sumatra. In the past year prosecutions rose (BBC) for gambling and adultery, as well as against women not wearing veils in public, with canings becoming more common. Irwandi vowed to block a proposed bill to punish thievery with amputation and accused Jakarta-based fundamentalists of imposing sharia (Bangkok Post) in Aceh. In an article on the province’s return to normalcy in recent years, Terence W. Bigalke of the Hawaii-based East-West Center writes that Aceh has resisted fundamentalist Islamic movements in the past but is now “open to outside influence as never before.”
In recent years, Indonesia has experienced nearly annual attacks by religious extremists. Although Aceh has not been a base for such radicalism, its growing conservatism raises concerns that the province could attract extremism at a time when the country with the world’s largest and mostly moderate Muslim population continues to hunt down militants. One of those is Noordin Mohammed Top (Jamestown), a Malaysian explosives expert and key fundraiser for Southeast Asian terrorism network Jemaah Islamiyah. The network has been linked to al-Qaeda and was involved in several suicide bombings against Western targets, including the 2004 Marriott and Australian Embassy attacks in Jakarta and the 2002 Bali bombings. Indonesia plans a stepped-up police presence (AP) at the country’s churches during the Christmas holidays over fears that the at-large Noordin could carry out another attack. Abu Bakar Bashir,considered the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, told followers not to disturb (Bangkok Post) upcoming Christian celebrations.