Pro-independence symbolism in Aceh's new flag scares Jakarta
by Mathias Hariyadi
Tensions between central and provincial governments reach high mark after the province proposes a flag that includes elements from the flag of the separatist Free Aceh Movement. Jakarta gives the province two weeks to change it, hints it might suspend the implementation of Sharia. Its behaviour suggests it is afraid that Aceh's pro-independence sentiments might spread to other parts of the archipelago.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - The central government and Aceh authorities are still locked in a power struggle over the flag of Indonesia's westernmost province. According to Jakarta, the proposed flag and coat of arms encourage separatist tendencies in a part of the country affected by a long war between the national army and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM or Gerakan Aceh Merdeka).

After 30 years of fighting and thousands of deaths, the two sides reached a peace agreement in 2005 in Helsinki. Under its terms, the province was granted extensive autonomy. However, Jakarta is still concerned that a shift towards independence in Aceh could spread to other parts of the archipelago, which includes 17,000 islands and hundreds of ethnic groups, a mosaic already under pressures from centrifugal forces fuelled by East Timor independence (occupied in 1975 and independent in 2002) and autonomist stirrings in Papua (in the East) and Sumatra (in the West).

According to the peace deal, the provincial government has the right to adopt its own symbols, flag, coat of arms and anthem. The proposed new flag resembles that of the Free Aceh Movement: a crescent moon and a star on a red background with black and white horizontal stripes. For Jakarta, this is not acceptable; hence, it wants the province to change it in favour of one that is more pro-Indonesian and respectful of national unity.   

In principle, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono could stop the process of power transfer to the province and suspend the application of certain rules that pertain to Islamic law. However, so far nothing has been decided should Aceh fail to respect the central government's wishes. Provincial authorities have two weeks to change their flag and symbols.

Aceh, the westernmost province in the world's most populous Muslim country in the world, is also the only Indonesian territory where Sharia is enforced. This includes a 'morality police' that enforces an Islamic code of conduct.

Life in the province was calm and interfaith relations between majority Muslims and non-Muslim "outsiders" were relatively harmonious under Irwandy Yusuf, a former governor and former pro-independence leader. However, the situation has changed in recent years. Minorities have come under attack as Islamic fundamentalists gained more power to act freely.

Elections in April of last year saw Zaini Abdullah become governor on a pledge to fight corruption and enforce Islamic law. Like his predecessor, he is a former Free Aceh Movement leader and spent the war years in exile in Sweden.

The introduction of Sharia in the province was one of the terms imposed by separatist rebels on Jakarta for ending the war. However, this has encouraged interfaith tensions and led to attacks against Christian communities, including the forced closure of their places of worship.

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