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Indonesia's Aceh struggles to integrate former rebels fairly

As Indonesia's Aceh Province works to rebuild from decades of bloody battle - and a devastating tsunami - many analysts say feelings of injustice could wedge a new community divide.

By Correspondent / May 3, 2012

A man rides a motorbike near houses which were rebuilt on the area heavily affected by the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, April 18.

Heri Juanda/AP

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Banda Aceh, Indonesia

The misty terrain of this long-troubled Indonesian province is dense and arresting and laced with contrasts. Eight years ago gunfire riddled lush paddy fields. But today small mansions stand out among clapboard villages.

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Home to a decades-long separatist insurgency, Aceh has been mostly peaceful for the past seven years. Last month former rebel Zaini Abdullah was elected governor of the province in largely non-violent polls that international observers called a successful test of the peace process.

With his win, Gov. Zaini Abdullah, the former foreign minister of the separatist Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, gained control of the resource-rich land for which he and his group of rag-tag supporters fought for more than 30 years. 

His entrance into politics, however, belies another fracture that has grown deeper recently, say analysts. Since the signing of a 2005 peace agreement in Helsinki that ended the fighting – in part by getting former combatants from GAM to lay down their arms and enter politics – the government has struggled to reintegrate ex-GAM members into society.

As this fragile province works to rebuild from decades of bloody battle – and a devastating tsunami in December 2004 – many analysts say feelings of injustice could deepen community divisions and spark violence from disgruntled ex-GAM who see the spoils of their struggle fall victim to nepotism and political corruption.

A return to wholesale, organized conflict is unlikely, says Ed Aspinall, a political professor who specializes on Aceh at Australian National University. But “sporadic, low-level squabbles over economic access” are “certainly possible.”

Many former rebels are unemployed, lacking basic skills needed to fish or farm, while money from a state assistance program aimed at easing the transition has been unevenly distributed.

Samsul Bahri, a cocoa farmer tasked with guarding his village during the rebellion, says he received a one-time lump sum of Rp 500,000 (roughly $55), a quarter of his current monthly salary.

“It’s nothing,” he says, explaining that funds from the reintegration program only went to two of the former combatants in his village, who then split them among the 30 others.

Within political circles, meanwhile, some former rebels have grown rich on lucrative development contracts in return for supporting provincial and district-level officials.

Powerful political brokers

Part of the problem comes from GAM’s former military wing, which was transformed into a transitional body popularly known as the KPA and tasked with seeing that ex-combatants got jobs.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group, which keeps a close eye on developments in Aceh, says that in some places the KPA has become, “a thuggish, Mafia-like organization.”

“Senior KPA members have not just received jobs; they have become powerful political brokers and businessmen demanding and usually receiving a cut on major public projects,” the Crisis Group report says.

The contrast is evident in Bireuen, a stronghold of former Gov. Irwandi Yusuf, who Abdullah officially unseated by winning 55 percent of the vote in April 9 elections.

Along the ruined road to the village where Bahri lives, a siren-red Mercedes Benz slinks by modest thatch-roofed houses. Elsewhere, homes with cathedral windows and gaudy statues sprout from rice fields.

Bahri says life is better now that he doesn’t have to carry a gun, but it bothers him that some of his former comrades have benefited so much more from the peace agreement than others.

“Before we were together as rebels, and now they’ve forgotten about us,” he says, casting his eyes down at the table before continuing. “Some ex-combatants, including me, feel it would be better to have war again so everyone would be equal.”

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