Since 2005, Indonesians have been allowed to directly vote for their regional governor after the parliament reformed the 2004 regulation on regional elections. This change coincided with the peace agreement between the Indonesian government and Aceh Free Movement (GAM), in which both agreed on the ability for Aceh to have local parties as a medium for former combatants to run in political contests. Three elections (2006, 2012, 2017) have been successfully organized in Aceh since then, and none of the elected governors (Irwandi Yusuf—who won twice—and Zaini Abdullah) comes from a non-separatist background, so the upcoming election will involve some former separatists in candidacy.
The key issues raised among candidates in those three elections center around the welfare of Acehnese without heavy dependence on the Indonesian central government, besides the classic narration that “only Acehnese can rule Aceh.” Indeed, in the 2017 election, some candidates began to highlight strategies to implement social welfare for Acehnese, such as free healthcare or non-working stipends for every family, and this political campaign worked to gain popular vote as the public moved on from ideological preference to “what that candidate can offer for us.” It means that the public’s concern over their wellbeing makes it more critical for candidates to pay attention.
Speaking of public opinion, as reported in the recent week, there is a growing hostility among Acehnese people towards Rohingya refugees. The recent rejection of Rohingya refugees by local Acehnese is a long-term accumulative action following the behavior of the earlier refugees from 2016 to 2020. It must be noted that the refugees did not disturb the economic and social structure of the locals, as Acehnese would welcome them for assisting the workforce they needed for their business. Thus, saying that Acehnese build up fears of economic takeover from the refugees is an unwise statement, although that fear’s existence is undeniable.
Actually, having refugee status implies that the refugees must comply with local regulations, either constitutional or customary. Otherwise, notoriety could potentially emerge from the Acehnese side, which would affect further Acehnese perception of any refugee who arrived due to generalization. Theoretically, co-existence requires mutual respect from all sides and compliance with existing norms, something that apparently fails to happen. in the Rohingya refugee case in Aceh.
If such a condition does not progress in a better way, that is, the incoming and settled refugees refine their behavior, it is very possible that Acehnese will deem migrants or asylum seekers as threats, which then leads to the abolishment of the existing norm of pemulia jamee (warmly welcoming any guests). While this abolishment is very unlikely to occur, at least Acehnese will take an ultra-selective attitude toward accepting further incoming people.
To make this thing clearer, let us make a comparison with the European case and the refugee issue. Indeed, the situation is not very similar but highly comparable. The massive refugee wave in the last decade brought a new perception of immigration for Europeans. The rapid growth of alt-right politicians and sentiment may be boosted by the perception change due to the arrival of refugees. Indeed, the conservative people still accept immigrants’ presence, but under the condition of their embracement and observance of existing norms. However, it has never been the case, as the migrants carry their own norms and values that sometimes contradict the local ones. This raised a concern among conservatives about reconsidering their acceptance due to this issue. As a disclaimer, the presented explanation seems to express an anti-immigration tendency, but what I am delivering is an anthropological analysis of how it emerges and why it is imminent.
Unfortunately, the political climate in Aceh has not fully embraced democracy, in the sense that the majority of people have established their own political thought and then vote for a candidate on that basis. Acehnese are still pragmatic in seeing candidates or parties; as mentioned, their preference centers on what benefit they can earn from giving support to a particular candidate. Given the Rohingya case, there is a high probability that migration and refugee status are becoming a selling point that determines Acehnese’s vote. At the moment, right-wing parties only vow to secure the rulership of Aceh for Acehnese; no xenophobic or ethnic supremacy narrative circulates among them. However, the bad handling of refugees could engender a negative attitude and encourage them to refrain from speaking Acehnese, which may activate those narratives in the candidate’s campaign.
The politicians have no other option but to address the issue according to public interest rather than surface their opinion. It must be noted that Acehnese politicians have not reached a level where they ought to satisfy international fame; instead, buying local interest is the priority. If a candidate fails to follow this direction, he sacrifices his chance to win, meaning that all candidates would address something that satisfies most Acehnese interests. I personally forecast that the campaign narrative leans toward a negative perception of refugees, given the rising concern among Acehnese regarding Rohingya. Hence, most candidates (if not all) would try to show how relevant and consistent they are with Acehnese public perception. Even if a candidate finds a way to ensure social welfare for Acehnese in precisely convincing programs, once they fail to address the migration issue properly, a loss could be the eventual outcome.
Some Acehnese politicians (some of whom may run for candidacy) have commented on the Rohingya. Nasir Djamil, a member of the national parliament from Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS), threw responsibility for refugees to the national government, which arguably indicates the reluctance of the Acehnese autonomous government to get involved. He further commented that the initial welcome of the Acehnese has altered to animosity due to the refugee negative conduct. PKS is one of the influential parties in the Acehnese context, despite not being local parties, especially after a long coalition with the most powerful local party, Partai Aceh. Djamil’s voice matters, as he could run for the candidacy as governor, and the PKS has a considerably strong base in Aceh. In early 2023, the regional Acehnese house of representatives, where Irawan Abdullah from PKS and Tezar Azwar from PAN spoke on behalf, showed their support for UNHCR and IOM to handle the incoming refugees, but it may have changed recently after the escalation in Pidie, Sabang, and other areas.
What is concerning is that if negative perception continues to circulate among the public and the politicians notice it as a hot topic, the consequence is the emergence of xenophobic narratives from the politicians. Because it is very likely that some politicians improvise the issue by spreading fears in order to secure their people’s electoral affiliation with them, something that is very common in Indonesia, especially in Acehnese society. The frequency of hoaxes appearances could also increase within the campaign period. But these are extremely bad scenarios that I personally think are quite impossible. The reason for its low probability is the prevailing Acehnese norm: respecting the guest without discrimination cannot be changed just because of one particular case. Hence, it can be expected that Acehnese people would not welcome the anti-immigration narrative well.
Speaking of international impressions, Acehnese still do not take it very seriously due to a lack of necessity to gain a good impression from other countries or entities. There are many reasons to explain this lack of necessity, one of which is the fact that Aceh does not have an international trade connection, so it makes less sense to satisfy other countries, which gives no advantage or disadvantage. The case is different for Aceh in the past—where it served as a connecting bridge of trading for its strategic maritime, historically, the Acehnese Sultanate would seriously consider the dynamic international politics since it could affect their market activity.
The local election in Aceh in 2024 can be considered unprecedented if the migration issue plays a key role in the political campaign. That election will be the first where an international aspect involves the political contestation of Acehnese interests. Also, it uniquely coincides with the 20-year commemoration of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami catastrophe and the 19-year anniversary of the peace agreement between Indonesia and Aceh, both of which had immense international involvement. However, under one specific condition, the migration issue would not be a hot topic in the next governor election: a radical change in how the Indonesian government handles refugees before the candidacy process takes place in mid-2024.
[Header image: Rohingya refugees in Aceh, by VOA, via Wikimedia Commons]
Anggi Azzuhri is a PhD candidate at Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.