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Aceh, Indonesia: A struggle commences over Sharia Law.

By Elizabeth Kendal

12/15/06 Indoensia (ANS) — On Monday 11 December, an estimated 85 percent of Aceh’s 2.6 million eligible voters cast their ballots in the autonomous province’s first gubernatorial elections since the peace agreement signed in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2005 that ended 30 years of conflict with Jakarta.

The result has implications not only for Aceh (Indonesia), but for the military-backed regime in Thailand which has proposed the “Aceh model” (autonomy with Sharia Law) be considered as a means of ending the Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s deep south.

Sharia Law was part of the special autonomy package that President Habibie offered Aceh in 2001 to end the long separatist insurgency. But while virtually all Acehnese wanted Aceh to have special status and autonomy, not all Acehnese wanted Sharia. International Crisis Group (ICG) comments that Jakarta regarded Sharia Law as “something the Acehnese wanted (although how much was debatable – after the Indonesian parliament granted it, one Acehnese called it an ‘unwanted gift’, and he was not alone)”.

US-educated Irwandi Yusuf (46) is a former veterinarian doctor and lecturer at Aceh’s state-run Syiah Kuala Universty. He became a military spokesman for GAM, writing GAM’s media releases, and speechwriting for several exiled rebel leaders.

In 2003 Jakarta charged Irwandi with sedition and sentenced him to nine years in prison. He was freed on 26 December 2004 when the tsunami washed away the jail where he was incarcerated.

In 2005 Irwandi represented GAM on the international Aceh Monitoring Mission overseeing the Helsinki peace process. Whilst associated with GAM he is and always has been primarily an academic, not a gun-toting rebel.

Irwandi Yusuf contested the 11 December 2006 gubernatorial election as an independent. He was the only candidate whose election platform included the promise to re-examine the controversial imposition of Sharia Law in the province. He clearly did not believe this would be political suicide.

Irwandi Yusuf was an outside runner whose presence caused the GAM vote to be split. Despite this, and contrary to all predictions that the race would be tight, Yusuf was the clear winner, polling more than 39 percent of the vote, more than double his nearest rival.

His win is not only a rebuff to Jakarta, it is also a rebuff to the Islamists and unpopular Sharia enforcers. A selection of articles that detail Irwandi Yusuf’s election campaign and give some insights into his views on Sharia can be found at link 3.


After his election win Irwandi Yusuf indicated that Sharia would not be his first priority, rather he considered improving living conditions in the tsunami-ravaged province to be far more urgent. Sharia he said is “something we’ll talk about later”. For Aceh’s Islamists however Sharia is clearly their first priority and they want to talk about it right now!

On Tuesday 12 December, the day after Yusuf’s election victory, Aceh’s Sharia Office published a draft law proposing amputation of the hand as punishment for thieves. The Sharia Office paid for the draft law to be published in an advertisement in Aceh’s Serambi newspaper. The advertisement called for readers to submit their comments so the draft law could be reviewed before being put to legislators for debate.

Irwandi Yusuf immediately responded, promising that he would block any such law if it was pushed through before he took office. According to Irwandi, GAM never fought for sharia.

The Aceh situation is making headlines in Thailand. The Bangkok Post reports:

“The incoming governor of Indonesia’s strife- torn Aceh province vowed to block a law to cut off a thief’s hand, if such legislation is enacted before he takes office, he told a group of visiting German press Saturday night. ‘I will stop this,’ said Irwandi Yusuf, a former rebel and political prisoner who fought for Aceh’s independence.

“The law was being actively pursued by the outgoing government, Irwandi said. Irwandi tried to allay fears that strict sharia law in Aceh might deter much-needed international investment. ‘The problem is that sharia law was imposed on us by the central government in Jakarta,’ Irwandi said.” He went on to express his opinion that Sharia should be less about punishment and more about improving of people’s lives.


It is to be hoped that Jakarta will uphold peace, autonomy and democracy in Aceh by supporting the people’s choice in the face of Islamist pressure and provocation. There are grounds for concern that should unrest erupt (which is always likely when Islamists are challenged) Jakarta may instead choose military intervention and appeasement of Islamist forces.

Times Online reports that former GAM fighters “accuse the government of bolstering the Islamists and using sharia as a method of weakening their consistent demand for a progressive, democratic Aceh, ruled by its own people. ‘They are exploiting the religious conviction of many Acehnese to manipulate them,’ wrote Aguswandi, a human rights activist, in The Jakarta Post.”