Friday, June 4, 2010

Hasan di Tiro is Dead: The end of an era in Aceh

Hasan di Tiro is dead. He died due to complications surrounding a respiratory infection at the emergency ward of the Zainal Abidin General Hospital in Banda Aceh, capital Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, at around 12:15 pm on Thursday. He was the founder of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Born as Tengku Hasan Muhammad di Tiro on Aug. 25, 1925, he spent most of his life in exile, mostly in the US and Stockholm, Sweden. Di Tiro began organizing a separatist movement, which he declared GAM on Dec. 4, 1976.

The cause for this action remains unclear. Some claimed that he was disgruntled over his failure to gain a pipeline contract in a new MobilOil gas plant in Aceh, and others said that it was due to the death of his brother, which he considered a result of deliberate neglect by a Javanese doctor.

There are other theories, but the most likely was accumulated dissatisfaction over the central government neglect of development in Aceh. Di Tiro fled to Malaysia in 1977 and from 1980 lived in Stockholm, Sweden, with a Swedish citizenship.
The earthquake and tsunami of 2004 forced the GAM and the Indonesian government to agree to a peace treaty. The GAM was dissolved when the peace treaty was signed in 2005. After 30 years in exile, di Tiro finally returned to Aceh on Oct. 11, 2008, for two weeks before returning to Sweden.

He returned to Aceh for the second time on Oct. 17, 2009 and stayed there ever since. On June 2, 2010, the day before his death, he obtained his Indonesian citizenship back after years of living with a Swedish passport.

So what is the significance of his passing? After a long period of armed conflict, Aceh is one of the most economically backward provinces in Indonesia despite being one of the richest in natural resources. The humanitarian aid effort since 2005 barely made a dent in tackling the various socioeconomic problems of Aceh.

As major aid organizations left the province in 2009, Aceh has been returning to its pre-conflict conditions since then. The only positive change in the long run is that Aceh is once again open to the outside world and its people are now free to conduct economic activities.

However, it’s relationship with other parts of Indonesia will need more time to normalize. As di Tiro focused his movement on Acehnese ethnic-nationalism (some say ethnic-chauvinism) as opposed to Islamism, which was common in rebellious movements in Indonesia, the GAM’s major activities mostly consisted of attacking non-Acehnese in an effort to cleanse Aceh from other ethnic groups, particularly Javanese. The damage to the image of a tolerant and multicultural Acehnese is significant and will require a long time to repair.

As a result domestic and international businesses are still reluctant to invest in Aceh. There were 44 Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) signed by potential investors between 2008 and 2009, but none have been followed-up. Banks are still reluctant to provide loans due to the perceived high risk.

The provincial government’s own loan schemes are practically non-performing. Security remains a major concern as the crime rate remains high in Aceh. Thanks to the peace treaty that imposes a cap on the number of security forces in Aceh, the police-civilian ratio in Aceh is lower than the average in Indonesia.

Is it all doom-and-gloom for Aceh’s future? Not necessarily. The death of di Tiro hopefully will signal to would-be political adventurers in Aceh (and Indonesia in general) that armed separatism achieves nothing. Despite the huge loss of life and property, the armed conflict between the GAM and Indonesia led nowhere. The GAM was dissolved with its goal of independence unrealized. At the end of the day, despite the high price the Acehnese paid, diplomatic niceties aside, the GAM was defeated.

Acehnese have moved on since the peace treaty. They have had two relatively peaceful elections since then, a peaceful transition of power, a gradual normalization of relationship with the central government, an economy increasingly interrelated with the outside world and most importantly, a general distaste for armed conflict (albeit borne out of long, bad experience), which should improve law-and-order in the province.

The recent handling of the terrorist cell in Aceh (March-April 2010) indicates that Acehnese can no longer be easily provoked to resort to armed movements.
Anyone with an aspiration to revive the armed conflict in Aceh will be met with an unenthusiastic mass.

The death of di Tiro is the final nail in the coffin. His son, Karim Tiro, refused to take up his position in the former GAM hierarchy, leaving his former staff and aides in search of alternative political vehicles.

They will most likely be absorbed into the existing political parties, which have far less control than the GAM.

At the moment, there is no other leader in Aceh with enough credibility, charisma and political intent to push forward an armed separatist agenda. It will take years, even decades, for such a person to appear and by that time it will be too late. The context of Aceh will have changed too much (hopefully for the better) for anyone to use the same combination of 20th century politics and 19th century armed guerilla tactics.

The death of di Tiro should both be mourned as well as celebrated as it marks the end of a violent chapter in Aceh’s history. There is no turning back in Aceh. Peace is the only way left to a prosperous future.

Iwan Dzulvan Amir, Banda Aceh | researcher and observer on Aceh.

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