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Former Separatist Wins Election as Aceh's Governor

A former separatist rebel has been elected governor in Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged province of Aceh, following its first ever direct elections for governor, mayor, and other top posts. The historic December 11 vote cements the peace agreement between the government and the former separatist group the Free Aceh Movement. But as VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins reports, from the regional capital of Banda Aceh, many here say the question now is whether the former rebels can heal the divisions within their ranks and live up to their promise of bringing prosperity to this poverty-stricken region.

Governor elect Irawandi Yusuf, a former member of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, campaigned across Aceh during the run-up to the December 11 elections - promising economic improvements and free education for all of Aceh's children.

Although the offficial election results will not be announced until early January, international observers and a quick count have Irawandi winning by a large margin. Capitalizing on GAM's popularity, Irawandi played to the crowd, using Acehnese music and magic acts to entertain the multitudes as he promised to solve Aceh's problems.

This election would have been unthinkable before the Indian Ocean tsunami roared across Aceh 2 years ago killing more than 160,000 people and destroying most of the infrastructure. But that same disaster paved the way for Jakarta and GAM to sign a peace agreement in August 2005, ending nearly three decades of war that claimed more than 15,000 lives.

While both the government and GAM pledged to help rebuild Aceh, the elections, which are part of the peace agreement, also exposed divisions within the former rebel movement.

Sidney Jones, the Southeast Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta says the split pits those who stayed in Aceh to fight during the war against those who fled to Sweden, where GAM maintained a government in exile. She says it could hurt GAM's political future. "It's less over issues, the split, than it is over perceptions of what Aceh is and should become and perceptions over who did what during the conflict. I think it does have ramifications for the future because I just think it will be all that much harder to organize a political party when you have this infighting."

In keeping with the peace accord, GAM will be forming its own political party soon, with hopes of fielding candidates for the national elections in 2009.

While GAM spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah acknowledges differences of opinion within the organization, he says the movement is still united. "From our point of view, there is no split in GAM," he said. "GAM is still united as a movement, but of course, in all revolutionary movements, due to the transformation process it happens, differences of opinion, but the unity of GAM is still intact, and this will continue to be so in the coming processes and in the coming struggle of GAM in the future."

For the people of Aceh, the elections were a chance, finally, to have a say in their future. All over the province people lined up eagerly, waiting their chance to cast their ballots. Salah says he survived the war and the tsunami and is not worried about a GAM split because in the end, he believes the movement will unite for the good of the Acehnese people. "With a GAM win I am sure there will be change and a better life for the future of the Acehnese people."

And a better future is what people here want. After suffering years of war and the devastating tsunami, the Acehnese people are ready to chart their own future.