Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Indonesia’s northernmost province, Aceh, to support using a separatist flag as their official symbol. The dispute about the flag has raised tensions between Aceh lawmakers who support that change and the central government in Jakarta, which says such symbols remain outlawed.
Aceh has struggled to exert its autonomy in the years since separatist fighters signed a peace treaty with the central government, ending three decades of bloody insurgency.
That treaty granted Aceh special autonomy status and the power to choose its own flag and symbol. Last month, the local government passed a bylaw to allow the flag used by the former separatist Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, to serve as the province’s official banner and its symbol - a lion and a mythical horse with wings - to become the provincial emblem.
Since then, thousands of people have held rallies in the provincial capital to wave the flag and show their support for the bylaw.
Officials say the flag - a red banner with a white star and crescent - is a source of pride and unity for the Achenese people. Aceh watchers say the government is trying to revive it as a way to exert its authority over Jakarta.
“For Achenese people they try to revive this symbol again, as maybe like a hallmark, and they try to exercise this new era of local politics with greater freedom from the central government,” explained Nezar Patria, the managing editor of the online news website Viva News and a researcher on Aceh issues.
However, the central government has not been pleased with Aceh’s decision.
On Wednesday, former vice president Jusuf Kalla, who helped negotiate the peace agreement that brought an end to the conflict, said that, under the terms of the treaty, the GAM flag was prohibited.
President Susilo Bambang Yuodhoyono has also questioned the flag’s use and sent the home affairs minister to Aceh to hold talks with local officials.
Sidney Jones, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, says it is unlikely the government will ever let the bylaw stand since it could have wider implications for separatist movements in other parts of Indonesia, particularly Papua.
“If people in Papua see Acehnese making a big issue over the flag and raising the GAM flag everywhere then we could see similar acts of defiance using the Morning Star flag in Papua," suggested Jones. "And, I think that’s very much on the minds of policy makers in Jakarta.”
The crescent-star flag was used by GAM during the armed conflict and those found in possession of it by Indonesian security forces were frequently beaten or arrested.
Aceh’s local parliament is now controlled by the Aceh Party, which consists almost entirely of former GAM members.
Jones says many of those former rebels may be deliberately trying to challenge Jakarta’s authority by pushing for more of the provisions granted under the peace agreement that have not been carried out or implemented.
Despite being rich in oil and other natural resources, Aceh has some of Indonesia’s highest rates of poverty and unemployment and efforts to address the abuses committed during the separatist insurgency have stalled.