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Indonesia's Aceh Province votes in test for peace process

Voters in Indonesia's Aceh Province, which until recently was wracked by a separatist insurgency, cast ballots for governor today. For most, the pressing issue is stability.

By Correspondent / April 9, 2012

A woman casts her ballot to elect Aceh's new governor in the Aceh Besar district of Indonesia's Aceh province April 9. Indonesia's Aceh province voted for a governor on Monday after a campaign plagued by violence that will test the stability of a region recovering from a separatist conflict and a devastating tsunami eight years ago.

Junaidi Hanafiah/REUTERS

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Tiro, Indonesia

With mountains that once harbored separatist guerrillas looming in the background, voters shrugged off worries of violence Monday to cast their ballots in the birthplace of a bloody separatist insurgency that wracked Indonesia’s westernmost province for three decades.

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All across Aceh, former combatants and women in colorful head scarves lined up to choose a new governor and one of 17 district heads in the second such election since the signing of a 2005 peace agreement.

In Tiro, a stronghold of the rebel group the Free Aceh Movement, known locally as GAM, voters said they were not afraid, despite concerns that recent violence could flare up during the polls. Some said they were voting for change, but for many, the more pressing issue was stability. The hotly contested election is seen as a test of the peace process in a province many view as a model of how former combatants can be brought out of the jungle and into politics.

“We cannot go back to where we’ve been,” says Yeti, a rice farmer who has spent most of her life moving to avoid the conflict. “We don’t want any more problems for Aceh.”

But the transition to civilian government has created bitter rivalries among the resistance-hardened rebels who now control the government.

Polls initially scheduled for last October were delayed several times due to a dispute over election laws and a spate of violence that has seen nine people killed, execution style, in the months since.

Observers say that violence was politically motivated and is not a sign of a return to conflict. What it does reveal, however, is the type of rule taking hold in this long-troubled province.

“Are we going to have a peace that’s moving forward and generally supportive of the democratic process, or are we going to have a peace categorized by fear and thuggery?” says Sidney Jones, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group consultancy.

A peace agreement signed in Helsinki, Finland, in 2005 granted special autonomy status to this conservative Islamic province – the only one in Indonesia ruled by strict Islamic law. It came just months after the Indian Ocean tsunami swept through, killing roughly 130,000 people in Indonesia.

The hope of the development community that poured into Aceh following that disaster was that money and aid could rebuild not just the physical infrastructure but also the institutions needed to usher in democracy. Billions of dollars went to programs aimed at reintegration and reconstruction.
 
Aceh now has a new port, smooth roads, and a sparkling city hall, but poverty and unemployment are among the country’s highest, industrial development remains in its infancy, and concerns over continued violence and corruption have kept investors at bay. Many former combatants, however, have grown rich by offering their support to provincial and district-level officials in return for lucrative infrastructure projects.

How a rebel rift opened up

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