Aceh Separatists Roll Out Sharia Law


Almost 10 years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami and the end of the 26 years of separatist conflict between the Indonesian Army and the Independent Aceh Movement (GAM), Aceh would seem entitled to enjoy some peace and stability. From the outside looking in it very much seems that way.

Closer scrutiny reveals that Aceh is slipping further into Islamic fundamentalism, enforcing Sharia law not only on its majority Muslim population, but for the first time targeting non-Muslim minorities like the Chinese, Christians and Westerners.

This should sound alarm bells for foreign investors and donor countries, especially the USA and Australia — two countries with a sizeable aid program in Indonesia — as non-compliance to Sharia codes could make working and visiting Aceh unpalatable at best and unsafe at worst.

Traditionally, Sharia law applied only for Muslims, but since early February Acehnese authorities have begun enforcing by-laws (Qanun), passed in December 2013, which require every person, irrespective of race or religion, to obey Muslim codes or face punishment either by Sharia or regular courts.

These Qanun regulate dress codes, physical proximity of unmarried couples, consumption of liquor, same-sex relationships, among other behaviour codes. Breaches of the codes carry punishment varying from cane lashes, detention of up to 60 days without trial and fines.

The first attempt to pass these by-laws in 2009 was thwarted by human rights activists, who compelled the then Governor Irwandi Yusuf not to sign off on their implementation. The new administration of ex-GAM members, now rebranded Aceh Party, led by Governor Abdul Zaini and Deputy Muzakir Manaf, approved the Qanun and are determined to ensure that Aceh becomes an Islamic state despite a possible stoush with the central government, if the new by-laws are not aligned with national laws.

The Aceh Party position on Sharia law has changed dramatically over the years. Sharia law in Aceh was introduced as early as 1999, much to the opposition of the GAM, which saw it as a “trick” intended to mislead the Acehnese people into supporting the much maligned Jakarta-backed provincial government. If GAM saw Sharia law as a tool of political and social control, its political reincarnation has embraced it with similar intent.

While the enforcement of Sharia law has repercussions for the whole population, it may help reveal the provincial government's position on collaborating with non-Muslims and institutions.

The divide between Muslim and non-Muslim Indonesia has a long history, as does anti-Western sentiment. Nonetheless, in the streets of Aceh antipathy towards Westerners is minimal; people are generally cordial, welcoming and hospitable. The story may differ at an institutional level.

The fiercely separatist attitudes of the Aceh Party contradict their attempts to woo foreign investment. Furthermore, the political alliances that the leadership of the Aceh Party have been forging appear disingenuous if not disregarding of foreign relation diplomacy.

A clear example is the adherence of Aceh deputy Governor Muzakir Manaf to the Gerindra Party, led by Prabowo Subianto, a front-runner candidate for the presidential elections to replace Dr Susilo Bangbang Yudhoyono.

Prabowo has been accused of human rights breaches, crimes against humanity and being one of the Suharto henchmen who carried out abductions and torture against activists during the New Order regime. Prabowo was dismissed as the commander of the Special Force and faced an armed forces tribunal but was never properly tried for his crimes.

He has since reinvented himself as a political force and is running second in the presidential polls, trailing only the popular Jakarta Mayor Jokowi, who is yet to nominate. As a private citizen Prabowo would not be eligible to enter the US and would be unlikey to get an Australian Visa. This would change if he became president.

Why would a prominent political figure of Aceh align himself with a former enemy is the subject of much discussion and conjecture. Suffice to say that Prabowo and his party provided much financial support to the Aceh Party during the 2013 Gubernatorial election, which the Aceh Party claimed with a landslide victory, securing almost 60 per cent of the votes.

The elections were disputed, and there is evidence of ex-GAM intimidation and threats in remote villages. Nonetheless, the result stood and the Aceh Party gained control of most of the political apparatus in the province.

This latest use of power to veto and enforce Sharia law is an attempt to suppress non-aligned people and minorities. While Chinese and Christians may feel the brunt of having to adhere to codes with which they don’t identify or recognise, Sharia law, as enforced in Aceh, discriminates against moderate Muslims, youth who look to embrace modern thinking, and women.

The UN Provincial Human Development Index Report provides credible evidence that while Aceh has achieved some economic development, the position of women and marginalised groups has deteriorated since the aftermath of the Tsunami. Human Rights groups have collected reliable evidence of instances in which women have been detained, assaulted and raped by the Sharia police. Some cases have been investigated, but most go unreported.

The current situation should serve as a warning to anyone intending to invest, assist or even visit Aceh. The decision to do so should be accompanied by attempts to advocate or secure conditions conducive to dialogue, implementation of rules respectful of human rights and equity for minority groups, women and marginalised people. Foreign investment, aid and tourism should reflect principles of equality and justice. Only then Aceh can begin to enjoy peace and stability.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.