Damien & Abu Billy: A letter for the people of Aceh

Representatives of Free Aceh Movement (GAM) Nur Djuli, Bakhtiar Abdullah and Doctor Damien Kingsbury (right) speak during a presser 31 May 2005 in Espoo. Peace talks between the Indonesian government and Aceh rebels ended 31 May with both sides agreeing to a fifth round of meetings on July 12, the Finnish mediator said. AP

To the people of Aceh,

Next February, you will all have the opportunity to cast your vote for a new governor and other local representatives. As a sense of expectation builds around the elections, so too does our sense of concern: that the elections will again see the violence and intimidation that damaged the election process of 2012.

Having gone through decades of war and then achieved peace and “self-government”, you deserve better than to see the democratic promise of the 2005 Helsinki peace accord buried by another round of less-than-democratic elections.

As participants in that historic agreement and as dear friends of the Acehnese, we believe it would be a betrayal of everything the Free Aceh Movement ( GAM ) and the referendum movement struggled for.

The agreement, or MoU, signed between GAM and the government of Indonesia, was intended to end the power of the gun in Aceh; this was a commitment by GAM and the Indonesian government. It aimed to bring peace to Aceh – not just an end to the fighting between the Acehnese Military ( TNA ) and the Indonesian Military ( TNI ) – but peace, to all Acehnese in all circumstances.

William Nessen spent 6 weeks behind the lines with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and 40 days in an Indonesian jail.
William Nessen spent 6 weeks behind the lines with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and 40 days in an Indonesian jail. (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO0311/S00138/inside-indonesias-hidden-war-on-aceh.htm)

The agreement was intended to allow you to determine your destiny through free and fair elections. It was not meant to exchange one form of violence and intimidation by Indonesia for violence and intimidation by Acehnese themselves, to let one group of Acehnese or another force people to vote their way.

GAM wisely insisted that the Acehnese had the right to choose their representatives democratically and to form as few or as many political parties as they so chose.

The agreement was intended to ensure that Aceh’s political leaders listened to the wishes of the Acehnese, and reflected those preferences in policies that benefited the great mass of Acehnese, not just the presumptive leaders.

The peace agreement was based on the idea that political issues within Aceh should be resolved through the ballot box and the many other means available in a democracy. To assert the fullest measure of democracy possible within the Republic of Indonesia, the peace agreement gave you, the people of Aceh, the historic and unprecedented right to your own political parties.

During the talks in Helsinki, the Indonesian government offered GAM – in exchange for its cooperation in ending the independence struggle – sole political control of Aceh, the right to be the only Acehnese party. The GAM negotiating team, to which we were advisors, rejected that offer. Instead, GAM wisely insisted that the Acehnese had the right to choose their representatives democratically and to form as few or as many political parties as they so chose.

In GAM’s rejection of taking power without being democratically elected, and instead giving political power to the people of Aceh, GAM embraced the central Islamic principle of achieving peace through justice. By the use of force and intimidation in the 2012 elections, some of our beloved friends contradicted this noble principle and damaged the high promise of peace. The 2017 elections cannot be allowed to deepen that damage.

No group of Acehnese should be permitted to bully its way to power. It would be a betrayal of the goals of the Helsinki accord and of all that GAM, Aceh province ( DIA ) and the Acehnese struggled for.

During 2012 electioneering, some of the very men who fought for Aceh’s freedom turned to force and intimidation, and to attacking other candidates as traitors to the cause. They attacked and even killed members of other parties, fellow men of GAM. At the swearing-in of the current governor and vice-governor, the former governor, a GAM man, was beaten up by other GAM men. We felt ashamed that former brothers-in-arms, people we knew and lived with during the war, would do such things.

Those elections, unfortunately, demonstrated that guerrilla leaders who are good at war often have difficulty accepting democratic methods in times of peace. Used to giving orders and using force and violence for a collective cause, they have a hard time respecting people who challenge them when times have changed; when the common cause is the democratic process itself.

Now, for there to be justice, for the men and women of GAM to continue the struggle for justice, political leaders and supporters must listen to the democratic voice of the people. That voice will never die; it can only be temporarily silenced at the cost of destroying the very thing that GAM won.

There is no room for violence and the threat of violence. Those who seek to be leaders in Aceh or participants in Aceh’s future must forswear this, even if that means some other leaders, some other participants, prevail. That is the democracy.

The 2017 election must thereby reflect Islam’s commitment to being an abode of peace and goodness. The election must be Halal.

Any attempt to obtain political benefit through support for or by allowing threats or acts of violence in a place of peace is, and must be seen as by all Acehnese, Haram.

Peace through justice. Justice through free and fair elections.

May peace and justice prevail in Aceh.

Peace be unto you!

Professor Damien Kingsbury

William “Abu Billy” Nessen


Damien Kingsbury is professor of international politics at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, where he is director of the masters in international and community development. Prof. Kingsbury is author or editor of more than two dozen books on regional political issues and was an adviser to the Free Aceh Movement for the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement that ended almost three decades of war in Aceh.

William Nessen is a freelance journalist who spent considerable time with the Free Aceh Movement seeking to learn their motives for seeking independence from Indonesia. He also contributed as an adviser to the first round of the Helsinki peace process.

Original article from The Jakarta Post