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Carter Center Long-Term Observers Reflect on Their Experiences in Aceh, Indonesia

Long-term election observers Whitney Haring-Smith and Eunsook Jung have been deployed in Aceh since March 2009 as part of the Carter Center's mission to observe Indonesia's April 9, 2009 parliamentary elections. Aceh, an Indonesian territory on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, has a history of political independence and strong resistance to outside control. Aceh was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, which killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The tsunami's destruction moved the separatist rebels and Indonesian government to resume talks and a peace agreement was reached between them in August 2005. The April 9 elections were Aceh's first time voting in national legislative elections since the peace agreement.

Whitney Haring Smith
Whitney Haring-Smith

Eunsook Jung
Eunsook Jung

Whitney Haring-Smith:

For Aceh, there was the world before the tsunami and the world after it – the tsunami stands as a marker in time for almost everyone. While it brought death and destruction at a massive scale, it also ushered in the first era of sustained peace in three decades.

Evidence of the tsunami is throughout Aceh but not always as washed out roads or quick-build "tsunami houses." One of the best views of the city of Banda Aceh is from the top of an electricity generation ship more than 100 feet long and about four stories tall that was washed a mile inland by the wave and now rests among recently constructed houses, serving as a local tourist attraction.

But while coastal areas were hit hard by the tsunami, areas in the highlands were left relatively untouched. As tsunami aid flowed to coastal areas, those who had only been affected by the conflict but not the tsunami were left out. Similarly, after the 2005 peace agreement, demobilization and reintegration aid for ex-combatants flowed most immediately to Acehnese rebels concentrated along the coast rather than to the other highlands ethnic groups, some of whom violently opposed the rebels. These developments furthered a divide that already existed based on history, ethnic differences, resource challenges, and many other issues. This election has helped these groups resolve some of their issues through the ballot box, rather than the barrel of a gun, but much work will remain for the candidates
who are seated.

One of the struggles for the Carter Center observer teams in Aceh has been establishing ourselves as a neutral force in a region where neutrality is rare and hard-earned. Each day, our schedule is carefully balanced between meetings with competing sides, and we know
that as tensions rise, our words are measured carefully by everyone in earshot.

Despite daily challenges, being in Aceh has helped me gain a renewed appreciation for how the even hard-fought democratic gains—Indonesia held its first democratic election in 1999—still take energy and commitment to maintain.

In some areas, we met candidates who claimed that their supporters had been intimidated, their posters torn down, and - in the worst cases - members of their campaign team or fellow candidates killed, but they kept running hard for seats representing their constituents. Even a short visit by a small team of international observers can have a big impact - using our access to political and government leaders to simply ask questions that may help to move the process forward. For example, asking them 'Why do you only have four of the five election commissioners you need? What is your plan for securing the ballots after the election? How will you handle cases of disputed election results?' We have seen instances of tangible progress because of our presence.

Eunsook Jung:

I wanted to be an election observer to learn how democracy works and is maintained from the polling station to the national level. Being from a once-undemocratic country, South Korea, I always have wanted to contribute to democracy-building in other countries. I believe that being an election observer and doing my job with enthusiasm and devotion is one of the best ways to do so.

It has been a great opportunity to observe in Aceh. For this troubled area, democracy does not come easy. The post-election period is critical to see if electoral disputes are solved peacefully and if all political parties accept results. We still need to observe more - Aceh requires time and more effort to undo the harm from the conflict and to move toward democracy.

People here are hopeful, as many homes and roads have been restored and rebuilt after the 2004 tsunami. Still, people have to live with their memories. Even our driver lost his two sons from the tsunami, and we often hear about very sad experiences from people we meet. Despite all this, people are hopeful and very excited about the recent election. They want peace and democracy in Aceh.

There are many bumps along that road though. In Aceh, there have been widespread reports of intimidation toward voters, political parties, and legislative candidates. We have heard about the Aceh Party supporters and party agents intimidating other parties and about the Aceh Party receiving intimidation from the Indonesian military. It seems that maybe no one is free from intimidation. It has been difficult for us to find out what exactly happened because people are afraid to report incidents to the police or to an election oversight body. Only a small number of minor cases were made to the election oversight body.

When we asked people we met with about what could possibly prevent these kinds of incidents, they strongly suggested that Aceh needs international observers and that our presence can reduce violence, intimidations, and electoral manipulations.

A campaign rally of PRA in Pidie Jaya district. Carter Center photos

A campaign rally of PRA in Pidie Jaya district. The PRA is established by young activists in Aceh.

Women in Idi Tunong village, East Aceh, attend a meeting organized by the Aceh Party.

Women in Idi Tunong village, East Aceh, attend a meeting organized by the Aceh Party. East Aceh is a stronghold of the Aceh Party.

A worker at the KIP (Independent Election Commission) in Langsa, Aceh, where they stored ballot papers and boxes, delivered from Jakarta, until they were delivered to sub-district offices a couple of days before the election.


Carter Center long-term observer Whitney Haring-Smith at the polls in Aceh on Indonesia's election day, April 9.


Signs for political party candidates line an Aceh street.

Read more about the Carter Center's Democracy Program

April 12, 2009: Carter Center Congratulates Indonesia on Generally Peaceful Elections

March 25, 2009: Carter Center Launches Limited Election Observation Mission to Indonesia

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