He has fallen a long way since evolving from an independence fighter into Aceh’s first democratically elected two-term governor, but Irwandi Yusuf’s shock indictment on corruption charges throws light on the ugly political underbelly of a province that once earned sympathy around the world.

The latest in a growing line of Indonesian public officials accused of official malfeasance, Irwandi appeared before the Jakarta Corruption Court in late November on three offenses allegedly committed during his first term as governor in 2007-2012 and following his re-election in early 2017.

The 58-year-old politician is charged with two counts of unlawfully accepting unsolicited gratuities worth 40.7 billion rupiah (US$2.8 million) and also with taking 1.05 billion ($72,400) in bribes for allocating infrastructure projects to favored companies in the central regency of Bener Meriah.

There is no evidence to support claims that the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, Indonesia’s most trusted institution, is taking sides in the struggle within a badly split Aceh leadership. In fact, sources close to the KPK say other Aceh figures are also under investigation for similar offenses.

“Judging from the current behavior of the GAM elites, they are shivering with fright at the prospect of similar corruption charges,” says Otto Syamsuddin Ishak, a sociologist and chairman of the provincial human rights commission who believes Irwandi’s fall was purely of his own making.

ACEH, INDONESIA - JULY 09: Supporters of the Aceh Community Coalition (KMAB) hold a demonstration in front of Baiturrahman Mosque, at Banda Aceh City, Aceh, Indonesia on Monday, July 9, 2018. The group demanded the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to release Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf who was arrested in corruption case, in early July. Khalis Surry / Anadolu Agency
Irwandi Yusuf supporters protest against his arrest earlier this year. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Khalis Surry

The now-suspended governor has been in a long-standing feud with old guard members of the Aceh Party (PA), the political vehicle of the disbanded Free Aceh Movement (GAM), whose 25-year armed struggle against the central government ended with the devastating 2004 tsunami, which claimed 167,000 lives.

“GAM’s old guard will see this as a way of getting him out of politics,” says another Acehnese analyst who requested anonymity, pointing to business interests and lucrative local government contracts as the underlying reason behind an ongoing conflict marked by assassinations and other violence in the only Indonesian province allowed to practice full Sharia law.

The indictments came only days after the graft-fighting commission surprisingly announced that Aceh had received the highest score in its 2017 Integrity Evaluation Index, an annual survey which put the country’s other autonomous region, Papua, in last place.

Aceh was granted eight trillion rupiah (US$551 million) in special autonomy funds from the central government in 2018, bringing to 56 trillion rupiah (US$3.8 billion) the amount of money it has received since Aceh and Papua began receiving the funding in 2008.

The money is meant to be spent on education, health, infrastructure, economic empowerment, poverty reduction and social welfare, but Syiah Kuala University researcher Mirza Ardi claims “predatory elites” have been sucking up the funds through rigged government contracts.

“To make special autonomy more effective, the central government must intervene to monitor the implementation of the funding and to establish the rule of law to combat corruption,” he wrote in an opinion piece last May.

It is a view shared by Indonesian Corruption Watch, an independent nongovernmental organization, which complains there is a lack of internal control in budget planning and that the home affairs ministry needs to improve its overall supervision of the Special Autonomy Fund.

A man walks at the Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on Monday, July 30, 2018.  (Photo by Garry Lotulung/NurPhoto)
A man walks past the Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, July 30, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Garry Lotulung

Born in Biruen, a GAM hotspot on Aceh’s northeast coast, Irwandi was captured by government intelligence agents in Jakarta in 2003, five years after joining the armed struggle, and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment.

He escaped from the shattered Banda Aceh prison in the chaotic aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and fled to Finland, finally hooking up with the exiled GAM leadership in Sweden where he became coordinator of negotiations with the Indonesian government.

Following the landmark 2005 Helsinki peace agreement, the US-trained veterinarian entered politics, winning the 2007 gubernatorial race with 38.2% of the vote and topping the polls in 15 of the war-weary province’s 21 regencies.

Facing off against five other candidates, he was recognized for his integrity and political astuteness. But over the years the split in GAM ranks widened, hastened by the death in 2010 of unifying leader Hasan di Tiro, who had lived for decades in exile in Sweden.

In the 2012 gubernatorial election, Irwandi ran as an independent and was soundly beaten 55.9% to 29.2% by the movement’s former “foreign minister,” Zaini Abdullah, and his running mate Muzakir Manaf, GAM’s one-time military commander.

But as head of the renamed Nanggroe Aceh Party (PNA) – one of four local parties permitted under the autonomy laws — Irwandi made a comeback five years later, this time with the backing of ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party.

Campaigning on a platform of corruption-free government and easy access to education and health care, he was elected to a second term in February 2017. But he soon found his policies and programs being blocked by the Aceh Party-dominated provincial parliament.

Jono Simbolon (front), an Indonesian Christian, grimaces in pain as he is flogged in front of a crowd outside a mosque in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on January 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin
Jono Simbolon, an Indonesian Christian, grimaces as he is flogged outside a mosque in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, January 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

During his first term, Irwandi had also faced an uphill battle trying to curb the application of full Sharia law, never part of GAM’s independence struggle, but later a tool used by some of its leaders to win the support of influential conservative clerics.

Although Islamic courts have long handled cases of marriage, divorce and inheritance, Sharia has been practiced in the province to a limited degree since 1999, when pluralist president Abdurrahman Wahid offered it as part of an inducement to bring GAM to the negotiating table.

Two years later, special autonomy legislation passed by Indonesia’s Parliament gave the Aceh courts a green light to extend their reach into criminal justice, with subsequent legislation empowering the local government to set policies on religious life, custom and education.

The process of actually transforming the devoutly Muslim province into a slice of the Middle East began shortly after the 2005 peace accord when public canings were introduced for gambling, the sale and consumption of alcohol, and illicit sexual relations.

Since then, the increasingly zealous religious police, which like the rest of the bureaucracy has a vested interest in perpetuating its own power, is also dictating what women wear and encouraging neighbors to report on one another on morality issues.

In 2014, then-governor Abdullah and the new Aceh Party leadership pushed through a provincial regulation that increased the number of offenses punishable by caning and provided penalties for certain transgressions that could be applied to non-Muslims.

He also signed into law another qanun, or statutory regulation, under which no less than 5% of the provincial and district budgets must be allocated to implementing Islamic law in a province where education and health spending is already among the lowest in the country.

An Acehnese girl in traditional outfit walks past an electoral poster of Irwandi Yusuf, the former spokesman of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and a front running Governor candidate, in Banda Aceh, 12 December 2006. Elections in Indonesia's tsunami-devastated Aceh province have swept the former rebel leader Yusuf to victory, unofficial results showed as officials totted up the ballots . The polls, consolidating a peace accord after nearly three decades of war, were hailed by UN chief Kofi Annan as "historic" and by the European Union. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD / AFP)
An electoral poster for Irwandi Yusuf before a previous governorship election. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

Within weeks of assuming office for a second time, Irwandi took the bold step of calling for an end to public canings – usually carried out in front of mosques after Friday prayers — in an effort to improve Aceh’s international image, tarnished further by the recent well-publicized flogging of two gay men.

In the end, the ban never went into force, testimony to the difficulty found elsewhere in Indonesia in rowing back scores of Islamic bylaws that have been passed in seeming defiance of the Constitution and which have contributed to growing religious intolerance across the archipelago.

Ishak paints a grim picture of the political landscape in a province that remains the poorest on the island of Sumatra with 16% of its 5.1 million-strong population still below the poverty line. “Today, all political groups tied to GAM are split,” he says. “In fact, that was the case among the Aceh people themselves after the conflict ended.”

“It has been proven that the GAM elite have all failed as leaders, whether as governor, House speaker or mayor,” he says. “But while that means the former combatants have failed, it does not mean new leaders cannot emerge from the grooming of political cadres in the Aceh Party or from outside the elite.”

In Aceh today, there is only one real question: Will those same leaders who made so many sacrifices in the struggle for independence now be willing to let go? Or will their greed ultimately lead to their own destruction?

With additional reporting by Syamsul Bahri, Banda Aceh