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Devolving power to regions as peace building initiative

11 August, 2005

A greater devolution of power to the regions in Indonesia than that accommodated by present autonomy law provisions should be an option in peace building. In order to solve the conflict in Aceh, the road map for peace demands a radical change in the power relationship between the center (Jakarta) and the periphery (Aceh). However, a significant challenge remains. That is, how to redefine the current notion of Indonesian nationalism, as articulated through a centralist nation state.

There will still be difficulties implementing the Aceh peace accord after it is signed on Aug. 15. This will not be because the devolution of power through Acehnese self government discussed between GAM and the Indonesian government is unworkable, but because it is still unimaginable for dogmatic, orthodox nationalist Indonesians.

A dangerous myth about a wider devolution process in Indonesia has been conjured. Dogmatists continue to say that greater power for the regions, like Aceh, is a zero sum game (any gains for the regions must be a loss for the centre). According to them, it will create a weaker state, due to the loss of the central government's control over the regions.

To add potency to the myth, to instill fear, these nationalists are saying that greater devolution may spill over to other regions, that it may put Aceh in a position to follow in the steps of East Timor and may eventually lead to the "balkanization" of Indonesia. According to their logic, we must reject the accord, not because we reject peace, but because we reject the possibility of weakening and breaking up Indonesia.

The rejection of the formation of local political parties needs to be seen within this framework. The dissenters' argument is that establishing local political parties will encourage separatism. Local political parties will inadvertently put the interest of the regions and ethnicity above national interests.

This is a dangerous and unnecessary myth given Jakarta's new-found political will to resolve the Acehnese conflict peacefully and democratically. This myth, however, cannot be further from the truth.

The truth is, it is this centralistic construction of Indonesian nationalism which is the fount of bitterness in the regions. Prolonged, unequal and unjust policies have led to demands to break away from Indonesia. One can argue that it is the current centralist structure, where power is held by only a few in Jakarta that is more likely to lead to the balkanization of Indonesia.

This is certainly the case in Aceh. Pro-independence sentiments emerged as a reaction to the emerging centralistic character of the Indonesian state. In the 1950s, the present leader of GAM, Hasan Di Tiro, wrote a book called Democracy for Indonesia. In his simplistic argument he attacked the still-standing structure of the Indonesian state for oppressing minorities outside Java.

He argued that an Indonesian ethno-federal state within the framework of the unitary state of Indonesia was essential if any power sharing between Jakarta and the regions were to work. Regardless of our view of Di Tiro's argument, it reflected early and ongoing problems with the unequal relationship between Jakarta and the regions that we still see today.

Regarding the centralist argument that local political parties can encourage ethnic conflict, this is a denial of reality. Ethnic conflict and regionalist sentiments are long present in Indonesia, thanks in large part to the neglect of local problems by Jakarta. The establishment of political parties is in fact a better strategy. If local concerns can be institutionalized as part of the political structures and process, ethnic groups and their aspirations take their voice and integrate it into the democratic process, instead of bottling it up, where it becomes just a matter of time before it leads to social conflict and political violence.

The establishment of local political parties and allowing independent candidates to stand can also create healthy competition between nationally and locally based parties. This pushes parties to connect with their constituents. It also opens up opportunities for wider engagement in politics and democracy. We will have more options, instead of the current, limited ones alone. Fierce competition can be a strong incentive, and one that is much needed in Indonesia, for all political actors to prove that they are better, committed and less corrupt than their competitors.

The lengthy conflict in Aceh can be attributed even now to the failure of national political parties and Jakarta's politicians to voice the concerns of the Acehnese. Take the ongoing peace process of Aceh today, only a few members of the legislature have publicly voiced support for the peace process. While many seem to endorse the process, the loudest voices coming from the legislature are attacking it. There is the danger that old-school nationalists in Indonesia will become the enemies of creative peace building.

The writer is a human rights advocate working for TAPOL in London and Kontras in Jakarta.