A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.
Indonesia: Tensions over Aceh’s Flag, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the political fallout from the Aceh provincial legislature’s adoption of a regulation on 25 March making the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) the province’s official flag. The central government says the regulation violates a law banning separatist symbols and must be changed. Partai Aceh, the political party set up by the former rebels, says the flag cannot be separatist since GAM leaders signed a 2005 peace agreement with the Indonesian government in Helsinki in which it acknowledged Indonesian sovereignty.
The briefing’s major findings and recommendations are:
- Partai Aceh sees no need to compromise because its leaders believe Jakarta will capitulate, as it has in the past. It also wants to use the enormous emotive power of the flag to mobilise voters in 2014.
- Either way, Partai Aceh wins. If Jakarta rejects the flag, the party can score points with its supporters, because defying the central government is a vote-getter. If it accepts the flag, Partai Aceh will be convinced that obstinacy pays, and its leaders are likely to press for more authority.
- Partai Aceh is systematically entrenching its control over political institutions in the province, making it less likely that any democratic challenge to its control will succeed. It already controls the executive and legislative branches in the provincial government, as well as most of the most populous districts. It is exerting influence over the civil service and local election commission. It is also in control of a new bureaucracy set up to safeguard Acehnese culture and values, known as the WaliNanggroe (Guardian of the State).
“This dispute is about much more than whether the flag constitutes a separatist symbol. It is about where Aceh is headed and what its relations with Jakarta will be”, says Sidney Jones, Crisis Group’s Senior Asia Adviser. “It is also about what the implications are for other areas, such as Papua, where raising a pro-independence flag has been the iconic act of political resistance”.
“Aceh looks increasingly like a one-party state”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “The question is whether Partai Aceh uses its power to improve the welfare of its poorest constituents or to entrench another elite”.