Supreme Ruler for Aceh?

Dec 31, 2011

The former rebels show an autocratic streak in their attempt to enthrone an absolute ruler.

1193 Hasan Tiro returns to Aceh prior to his death. Malik Mahmud is directly behind. Photo: Gunnar StangeThe peace process in Aceh has been hailed as a great success internationally. Yet, in the years since the agreement was signed in Helsinki in 2005, a number of issues have arisen that could undermine peace. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is a controversy surrounding a pending local government law (qanun) on Aceh’s symbolic ‘head of state’ (Wali Nanggroe). The most hotly debated questions in this debate are whether the position should be a political or mostly symbolic one, and about what responsibilities should go with the office.

The debate reflects the strong desire of many Acehnese for symbols that reflect their unique cultural and religious heritage and their long-held desire for self-determination. But it also reveals deep insecurities regarding the question of what Acehnese identity is actually about. These insecurities became evident in late 2010 when there was public outrage about an attempt to enthrone Malik Mahmud, the former ‘Prime minister’ of GAM, the Free Aceh Movement, as the new Wali Nanggroe. The Aceh Party (Partai Aceh), the successor to GAM, was behind the attempt, and proposed providing the Wali Nanggroe with far-reaching quasi-authoritarian powers. This proposal, and the debate surrounding it, shows that GAM has a long way to go in transforming itself from a highly autocratic armed independence movement into a democratic player.

The Wali Nanggroe

Wali Nanggroe means simply ‘guardian of the state’. The term derives from the Arabic wali (protector) and Acehnese nanggroe (land). However, the origin of the institution of the Wali Nanggroe in Aceh is far from clear. It was a key position in the structure of GAM, but its deeper roots are questionable.

Colonial scholars and travellers who visited Aceh before the twentieth century reported nothing about the office of the Wali Nanggroe or its representatives. Until the occupation of Kuta Raja (today’s Banda Aceh) and the official annexation by the Dutch in 1874, Aceh had been an independent sultanate. However, the sultan’s authority was rather limited because the main power was in the hands of the local feudal land-owners and traders (uleebalang). While fighting against the Dutch invaders for more than 30 years, Islamic scholars (ulama) gradually obtained more authority in Aceh. The sultanate eventually ceased to exist in 1903 when the Dutch forced Aceh’s last ruler Sultan Mahmud Shah to abdicate and sent him into exile.

However, when the sultan abdicated he had already handed all his powers – symbolised by the royal seal – over to the famous ulama Teungku Cik di Tiro Saman back in 1880, empowering him as commander in chief for the duration of the war against the Dutch. Teungku Cik di Tiro happened to be the maternal grandfather of Hasan Tiro, the founder of GAM, who claimed the title of guardian of the state for himself when he founded the independence movement in 1976.

In Hasan Tiro’s view, the institution of the Wali Neugara (neugara is Acehnese for state) had passed to the Tiro clan for good, because the sultanate had become extinct. Even so, before Hasan Tiro took the title, another twentieth century Acehnese leader had already acted as the wali. This was Daud Beureueh, the leader of Acehnese rebels during the Darul Islam movement in the 1950s. This movement was a protest against Aceh’s incorporation into the province of North Sumatra, though its leaders also favoured an Indonesian state based on Islamic principles.

While some contemporary witnesses claim that Daud Beureueh passed the title of wali on to his student Hasan Tiro, Tiro himself does not report anything about this in his famous diary The Price of Freedom. Rather he says that his followers referred to him as wali upon his return to Aceh from his US exile in 1976. However, Tiro used the term Wali Neugara, not Wali Nanggroe.

This difference between ‘guardian of the state’, and ‘guardian of the land’, is small but important. It marks influence of the Indonesian government under President Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001), who tried to end the conflict in Aceh by offering the province special autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia. The 2001 Special Autonomy Law ‘re-invented’ the office of wali, promising to establish a Wali Nanggroe – but only as a symbolic not a political post. The Wali Nanggroe, the law said, would be responsible for revitalising and preserving Acehnese traditions. This reform was meant to offer Hasan Tiro a dignified way to come back to Aceh in the event of peace.

Hasan Tiro finally returned to Aceh from exile in Sweden in late 2008 in order to spend his twilight years in his homeland. This was after the war had ended, and he now played an unimportant role, mostly because of his poor health. Almost everybody in Aceh, however, considered him automatically entitled to the position of Wali Nanggroe, even though the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) of 2005 stated merely that ‘the office of Wali Nanggroe with all its ceremonial attributes and entitlements will be established’. The subsequent Law on Governing Aceh (LoGA) from 2006 that was supposed to implement the MoU, maintained that the office was meant to be neither a political nor an administrative office, but only a symbolic leadership position. However, the LoGA also maintained that the rights and responsibilities of the office would be defined by a qanun – a regulation passed by the Aceh parliament.

Symbolic figure or regional monarch?

A first version of the qanun was passed in 2009 by the outgoing Aceh parliament of that time. This qanun said the office of the wali would be part of an independent secretariat, equipped with its own budget and staff. It also said the wali would be elected every five years by a wide-ranging committee representing various government bodies and also political and civil society groups. It gave the wali mostly representative, rather than political, functions. However, that parliament suffered from poor legitimacy – it was elected back in 2004 when the armed conflict was intense, and before former separatists had been able to stand for elections. Governor Irwandi thus did not sign off on this regulation and it was not enacted.

One year later a new group of parliamentarians started to draft a new qanun. This group was now led by the Aceh Party, the party of the former GAM rebels, which had become the dominant force in Aceh’s parliament in the 2009 legislative elections. They made their draft public in December 2010, and it was dramatically different from the previous version.