Aceh: A Struggle Commences Over Sharia

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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. (Link 1)

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)". ICG's
detailed examination of the implementation and expansion of Sharia in Aceh,
and the repression and division it causes, can be found at link 2.

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. (Link 4)

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

"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. (Link 5)


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." (Link 6)

Elizabeth Kendal
[email protected]


1) Indonesia's Aceh as a model for Thailand's south?
WEA Religious Liberty News & Analysis, 13 Nov 2006
WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal


Islamic Law and Criminal Justice in Aceh
(Asia Report No 117 - 31 July 2006)
Morality police rule Aceh. By Cindy Wockner, 9 Dec 2006
Aceh wary over new Sharia police. By Lucy Williamson, 8 Dec 2006


Hope for moderate in Aceh
Stephen Fitzpatrick, Jakarta correspondent. 9 Dec 2006
Democracy calling.
Mark Forbes, Banda Aceh, 11 Dec 2006
INTERVIEW-Ex-rebel confident of winning Aceh vote
11 Dec 2006, Reuters
I need time: Aceh leader
Stephen Fitzpatrick, Jakarta correspondent, 13 Dec 2006

4) Draft law calls for amputation of thieves' hands in Indonesia's Aceh
The Associated Press, 12 Dec 2006

5) Aceh 'will not have sharia law'
Banda Aceh (dpa) 17 Dec 2006

6) Tsunami survivors given the lash
Michael Sheridan and Dewi Loveard, Banda Aceh. 17 Dec 2006
Disaster donations help Islamic vigilante force impose punishments on women

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