Unofficial results from yesterday’s election in Aceh are predicting the election as governor of former rebel leader Irwandi Yusuf, with 39% of the vote against seven other candidates.

If Australia’s foreign policy establishment had its way we would probably not even know that Aceh existed, but for half a century its people have been struggling for independence from the Javanese empire (and before that from the Dutch). Last year, following the Asian tsunami, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) signed a peace agreement with the Indonesian government in which it officially renounced the claim to independence in return for autonomy and the withdrawal of occupying troops.

Irwandi, a prisoner of the Indonesians up until the tsunami, represents the locally-based wing of GAM, as distinct from the exile leadership based in Sweden. This sort of division is common in independence movements, where the locals who have done the actual fighting often resent the interference of their nominal superiors based overseas.

Sometimes the locals represent pragmatism and the exiles doctrinal purity, but in Aceh commentators have suggested that it is the exiles who are “politically savvy”. Not savvy enough, however, for their candidate, Ahmad Humam Hamid, to prevail. Other unsuccessful candidates, according to Mark Forbes in The Age, represented the Jakarta establishment and the hard-line Islamic movement.

Irwandi’s aspirations seem clear. As he was quoted in yesterday’s Australian, “Acehnese themselves already constitute their own nation … Indonesia consists of many nations – it is like a mini United Nations — and, for instance, when the nation of Papua struggles, we support them, and in the past when we have struggled, they supported us. National freedom is not just about national boundaries.”

The cause of independence has been shelved for now, but it is unlikely to go away permanently. Irwandi’s task will be to build up the institutions of autonomy, no doubt with the hope that one day they will be strong enough to unobtrusively cut away the legal ties with Indonesia — just as Ireland (and in a sense Australia) once did in relation to Britain.

Regardless of the ultimate future, the peaceful conduct of democratic elections is a major step forward for Aceh. If only West Papua could be so fortunate.

Peter Fray

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