The unwanted gift to Aceh…and Indonesia

Giving the right gift is an art. It takes time, consideration
and effort.  And, despite the best efforts of friends and family the best gift is often one you choose yourself.

It seems that the Acehnese understand this principle. How so?

Remember the long-running conflict in Aceh, on the northernmost tip of Sumatra? Tragically, it took the devastating tsunami of December 2004 to finally trigger an end to about three decades of conflict between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement, better known as GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka).  The tsunami eventually led to the Helsinki Peace Agreement, signed on Aug. 15, 2005 (almost exactly four years ago), officially ending the conflict between GAM and Jakarta.
But years before the tsunami struck, talks were held and peace packets offered, and one of them led to the limited implementation of sharia. In 1999, Aceh was gifted special status by Jakarta, and in 2002 formal sharia-isation began, with the full support of the provincial government.

Cynics say it was a ploy by Jakarta to win over local Muslim clerics, and this was probably true. Aceh is considered to be one of the strongholds of Islam and is often called Serambi Mekah (Mecca’s veranda) because it’s thought of as one of the main portals for the entry of Islam
into South East Asia. So it is a natural assumption that Acehnese want the full implementation of Islamic law.

Or do they? I read a paper Dr. Arskal Salim presented last week at a seminar in Melbourne (, that revealed a new twist to the plot – quite a dramatic one, in fact.  It should give us plenty of food for thought about giving gifts.

In recent years, Arskal said, things have begun to change in Aceh, because two important new actors have stepped onto the political stage. Irwandi Yusuf, former head of GAM, was the first. He was elected Governor of Aceh in 2007.  The second new actor stepped up in 2009: Partai Aceh won 33 of the 69 seats in the April elections, making it the biggest player in the new provincial legislature (DPRA), due to be sworn in next month.

The point is that Irwandi and Partai Aceh are both basically opposed to sharia-ization – Partai Aceh even ran on an overtly non-religious platform.

Irwandi’s position is not that surprising, given that GAM was never all that keen on sharia anyway. It has always been afraid that implementing Islamic law would hand power to the ulamas, Islamic religious scholars, GAM’s natural rival for power.  And they don’t want the world to label the Acehnese “fundamentalists”.

For the same reasons, Irwandi also objects strongly to the death penalty for adultery that is proposed in a bill for a new Qanun (Acehnese Regional Regulation) on Islamic penal rules (Rancangan Qanun Hukum Jinayat) currently before the DPRA together with another on harsh Islamic penal procedures.

These were prepared for the 2007 regional legislation program (Prolega), but were only looked at in late 2008.

Can you imagine what they would do to Indonesia’s struggling human rights reforms and our international reputation if they were passed?

Maybe they won’t be. Time’s fast running out for the current legislators to do anything about the bills, which — believe it or not — would also introduce rajam (stoning). The new DPRA will be filled with Partai Aceh faces, and it’s very unlikely they’ll pass the bills, at least not without heavy watering-down.

There are other factors that make it look like Islamization maybe won’t stick in Aceh. The Ulama Consultative Assembly (MPU, Majelis Permusyawaratan Ulama) is one of the key governance agencies in Aceh.

A relic of Soeharto’s New Order (1966-1998), it’s made up of ulamas and Muslim intellectuals, and has been an assertive supporter of harsh and conservative Islamization.

Now its political power is declining, not just because of opposition from groups including human rights NGOs and women’s organizations, but also because of the emergence of competing ulama organizations, notably HUDA and MUNA.

HUDA is the Association of the Dayah Ulama of Aceh and MUNA is the Nanggroe Aceh Ulama Council.

They have set themselves up as rivals to MPU and, despite being ulama organizations themselves, MUNA at least is more in line with Partai Aceh and Irwandi– in fact, he attended its inauguration!
Perhaps the key to understanding what’s happening in Aceh is Irwandi’s interpretation of sharia, which is not just focused on punishment. In an interview with a local women’s tabloid, Beujroh, Irwandi stated: “Economic empowerment must be considered part of sharia: Making people to be honest, improving welfare and increasing healthy lives are all core values of sharia.”  That makes sense — since when did cutting hands ever alleviate poverty? The recent elections suggest most Acehnese agree.

I think the developments in Aceh are good news for the rest of Indonesia, and are indicative of trends throughout the country: We don’t want sharia-ization!

Those who want to give us “gifts” like the Pornography Law and various Islamizing Perdas (regional ordinances) that oppress and criminalise women, and curtail freedom of expression, should take their gifts elsewhere.

Seems that the Acehnese, like the rest of the Indonesian people, would prefer to be left alone to choose their own gift of freedom and democracy!

The writer ( is the author of Julia’s Jihad.

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