Thursday, August 8, 2013

Indonesia’s Disarmed Aceh Rebels May Wave Different Flag Soon

The Republic of Indonesia and the rebellious Islamist province of Aceh at the westernmost tip of its westernmost island, Sumatra, may be close to reaching an agreement on what remains their most contentious issue after a 2005 peace agreement: their flag.

Aceh, Indonesia’s westernmost province, is shown in purple.
In March, the autonomous government of Aceh unveiled a new provincial flag (see photo at the top of this article), which just happened to the be the old flag of the supposedly-defanged separatist army, the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), known by its initials GAM.  The government in Jakarta banned the flag and, although an Indonesian court supported the Acehnese position, nonetheless an agreement reached in the past week has now resulted in Indonesia’s home minister, Gamawan Fauzi, announcing that a new flag and new coat-of-arms will probably be designed for the province.  The crisis had come to a head when Indonesian troops forcibly took down hundreds of Acehnese flags on August 2nd, which prompted Aceh’s governor, Zaidi Abdullah, to put a moratorium on flying the banner while negotiations went ahead.
Aceh’s GAM rebels were proud of their flag.
Like other vast unitary states with large restive minorities, such as India and the People’s Republic of China, subnational flags are rare in Indonesia.  At the other end of Indonesia, the “Morning Star” flag of the Papuan people on the Indonesian, western half of the island of New Guinea is banned by law.  But Aceh is in a special category.
The rebel “Morning Star” flag of Papua and West Papua is even more strictly banned than the Acehnese flag.
Once a powerful independent sultanate, Aceh agitated to remain part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands when the Dutch granted Indonesia independence in 1945.  They joined the new nation only on condition that their autonomy be respected.  It wasn’t, and Aceh declared an Islamic state independent of the Javanese-dominated dictatorship in a 1953 uprising which was swiftly crushed.  Aceh then, through the 1950s, became a stronghold of the radical Darul Islam movement, which pushed for a more decentralized state.  An ensuing low-level insurgency was cooled in 1959 with the creation of a special autonomous status for Aceh.  Separatism emerged again in the 1970s, in anger over multinational corporations’ plundering of Acehnese natural resources.  An accelerating GAM rebellion, including another unilateral declaration of independence in 1976, eventually led, after decades of bloodshed, to a 2003 agreement giving Aceh enough autonomy to implement shari’a (Islamic law)—the only part of Indonesia where it is in force.  But hardline separatism was not fully set aside until after the devastating “Boxing Day tsunami” of 2004, which killed 170,000 Acehnese and left a half-million homeless.  Many saw the flood as divine punishment for separatist violence, and the relief efforts as an example of how it is occasionally useful to be part of a large, well-organized nation-state.  The GAM disarmed in 2005, with guarantees of a level of autonomy almost unprecedented in Southeast Asia, including far more control over resources.

Aceh after the tsunami in 2004
The Acehnese flag, with its crescent and star, is said to be the nearly-millennium-old symbol of the former sultanate.  It also happens to closely resemble the flag of the Republic of Turkey, with mostly just some stripes added.  Because of this, Acehnese nationalists have at times flown the Turkish flag—the flag of a friendly Muslim ally of Indonesia’s, after all—to get around the rules and make their point.
Aceh’s current coat-of-arms
It is not surprising that the Acehnese hanker for some vexillological spice in their lives.  Indonesia, in addition to having little tolerance for subnational flags, has itself one of the most boring national flags in the world.  Not only is it a mere red-over-white horizontal bicolor, but it is also identical in design, if not its proportions, to the national flag of the Principality of Monaco, to Austria’s two largest cities and one of its states, to one German state (Hesse), to France’s Alsace region, and to the Swiss canton of Solothurn.  Flip it vertically and you get the flag of Poland.  Yawn.

Try as folks might, there is just no way to make a boring flag like Indonesia’s interesting.
So now begins the long process of designing a new flag. A new coat-of-arms will also have to be designed, since that too is GAM insignia. More important than the flag’s design, however, will be the question of whether this or any flag is enough to appease the aspirations of Acehnese nationalists.

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon