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Inauguration crowd besieges Aceh TNI compound after flag seizures

Jakarta Globe - December 16, 2013

An ongoing dispute over Aceh's star and crescent flag came to a head on Monday as thousands of local residents surrounded an Indonesian Military (TNI) compound after soldiers confiscated dozens of the flags during an inaugural celebration for the autonomous region's newly elected Wali Nanggroe, or guardian of the state.

The crowd was traveling in convoy from the offices of the Aceh Legislative Council (DPRA) to the Aceh Raya Mosque in Banda Aceh when the seizures occurred, upon which the festivities ceased and the crowd changed course for the Kodim 0101 compound in Aceh Besar, the region just outside the provincial capital, Indonesian news portal liputan6.com reported.

The Aceh provincial legislature on March 25 adopted a regulation that made the banner of the disbanded separatist Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), or the Free Aceh Movement, the province's official flag, putting Partai Aceh – the political party set up by the former rebels which now dominates the political landscape in Aceh – at direct odds with the central government and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's administration.

Malik Mahmud Al-Haytar, the Wali Nanggroe as of today, will oversee a new bureaucracy set up to safeguard Acehnese culture and values, although some critics have said his authority in the province will approach that of a monarch.

Outside the military compound, the crowd threw stones and briefly held a passing police officer captive, undeterred by warning shots. The soldiers decided to return the flags, but some members of the crowd remained. At the time of writing, the siege continues.

Additional security personnel, both military and police, have been dispatched to the location to keep the peace. At minimum, a streetlight and a glass ATM box in the compound have been damaged.

The DPRA, many of which are former GAM rebels, has held firm on its decision to make the star and crescent banner Aceh's official flag, but the central government has insisted that the flag violates a law banning separatist symbols.

"This dispute is about much more than whether the flag constitutes a separatist symbol. It is about where Aceh is headed and what its relations with Jakarta will be," Sidney Jones, an International Crisis Group senior Asia advisor, said in a statement in May. "It is also about what the implications are for other areas, such as Papua, where rising a pro-independence flag has been the iconic act of political resistance."

The installment of the Wali Nanggroe itself is a subject of controversy because he is expected to act as a supreme leader of sorts, whose authority in the region may surpass that of the governor of Aceh and may equal that of the Indonesian president. Malik, the Wali Nanggroe, is reportedly a former leader of GAM.