Flagging the way in Aceh

Flagging the way in Aceh

18 Acehnese

People get absurdly excited by flags. They wave their national banner at every opportunity and often use the design for home accoutrements and clothing, even their underwear.

At sporting events, they wave their nation’s bandana in fits of wild animation as if they are doing something constructively patriotic rather than behaving like vain, attention-grabbing adolescents.

Such nonsense is especially pronounced in the United States, where people fly the Stars and Stripes from poles on their front lawns and work in offices with the flag draped from their windows.

This faux patriotic affectation has been copied by some countries in this region, particularly Singapore and Brunei, and is a measure of a nation that lacks a solid harmonious cohesion among its people.

It is one reason why the regional government of Aceh, in the north of Indonesia’s island of Sumatra, is seeking to change its flag to that

of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM).

The move by the Islamist Partai Aceh is irresponsible and needlessly provocative at a time when democracy is still seeking to consolidate its roots in the region’s biggest nation.

Indeed, the proposal is like a splinter in the heel of the central government in Jakarta, which is trying to contain another breakaway movement in Papua, whose advocates relish flying their own separatist flag.

So why is Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former GAM fighters, doing this now?

Well, there is a canny logic to the way they have handed this knotty dish to Jakarta just as the country is gearing up for contentious presidential elections next year.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, popularly known as SBY, is wrapping up his second two-year term and cannot stand again.

But he, as well as the contenders to replace him in 2014, must now take a stand on this tricky matter before the elections – or else look weak and wishy-washy. So the cunning Acehnese have put all the Jakarta decision-makers in a difficult position.

If they act forcefully and reject the flag change, it will only embolden Partai Aceh to proceed with its new “separatist” banner, because defying the central government is always a vote-winner in the independence-minded province.

Whereas if Jakarta compromises and allows the flag change, then Partai Aceh wins – and it will be able to use the emotive power of the new flag to galvanise voters in next year’s elections.

Either way, Partai Aceh wins.

So it’s a tough decision for Jakarta and one which cannot be dodged and which must be taken in a sophisticated and calm way – or else there will be fears of violence in next year’s polls.

Now, the central government’s view is that the new flag violates a law banning separatist symbols and so cannot be permitted.

However, Partai Aceh argues that the flag cannot be separatist since it signed a peace agreement with Jakarta eight years ago that acknowledged Indonesian sovereignty.

But if Jakarta buys this line and accepts the new flag, Partai Aceh will know that playing tough pays off and its leaders may well press for even more authority – and eventually for full independence.

Already, Partai Aceh is exploiting the weakness of SBY’s lame-duck administration to continue entrenching its own control over the province, while reducing the scope for any democratic opposition challengers.

It already controls the executive and legislative branches in the provincial government and is exerting influence over the civil service and local election commission.

Indeed, instead of Partai Aceh improving the welfare of its relatively poor rural people, many of whom still bear the scars of the 2004 tsunami, it is cementing the hold on power of its own fundamentalist clique.

So this is no small matter. And it is fair to say that as things are going, Aceh is beginning to look more and more like a one-party state.

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