In 2003, when he was sentenced to nine years in prison for his association with the rebel group Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), Irwandi Yusuf could scarcely have imagined that he would one day be running for governor. Then again, there has been very little predictability in Mr Irwandi's life. Aceh's fortunes have changed just as drastically since the 2004 tsunami hit the province's shores, killing 178,000 people. 'I was in prison that day. The walls crumbled around me. I can say that I did not escape, but that I found myself free,' said Mr Irwandi. He acknowledges his surprise at finding himself competing for the job of running the province. 'I have a very open attitude towards life and I always think that nothing is impossible. But not even in my wildest dreams have I ever thought that, one day, I would be running for governor.' Monday's first direct election in the province is part of a comprehensive peace agreement signed by GAM and Jakarta in Helsinki, Finland, in August last year. The agreement led to the disarmament of the rebel group, which dropped the fight for independence in favour of a high degree of autonomy. Mr Irwandi, like other former rebels, was granted amnesty by the government, which also allowed the former rebels to run as independent candidates in the elections, a right that has no precedent in the country's history. Eight candidates are competing, three of whom are independent. Among the latter is Mr Irwandi, a favourite with the former GAM. Mr Irwandi's life could be material for one of those books that become a blockbuster action movie. Born in Bireuen, East Aceh, the 46-year-old says he got the 'independence bug' in primary school, when he read his first book. 'It was a book on the history of Aceh,' he said. 'Through the book, I compared how rich Aceh was as a sultanate and how poor it became under Indonesia. That was enough for me to realise the status quo was not right.' Situated in the westernmost part of the Indonesian archipelago, Aceh has historically been known for its fiercely independent spirit. A prosperous Islamic sultanate for centuries, it was never fully subjugated by the Dutch, who controlled large parts of Indonesia from 1824. It was only with the declaration of independence, in 1945, that the region became an Indonesian province. Today, despite very rich natural resources, the province is the fourth poorest in the country. Mr Irwandi's patriotism did not take him to the jungle where most of GAM's rebels fought the Indonesian armed forces for three decades. His fight was rather different. He was an academic for most of his life. He graduated in veterinary studies at Banda Aceh Syiah Kuala University in 1987 and started teaching at the same faculty a year later. He officially joined GAM when former dictator Suharto launched a massive counter-insurgency campaign in 1990. Three years later, he moved to the US, where he received a scholarship for a master's degree at Oregon State University. 'It was during that period that I illegally went to a Latin American country to gain some military training,' he said. Once he returned to Aceh, in 1998, he entered the GAM military command and contributed to the transformation of the rebel group's military structure from a territorial one - which implied a presence throughout the province - to one based on battalions and platoons. 'It took two years. But the results were good. GAM became leaner and more efficient,' Mr Irwandi said. In 2003 he was arrested, and at the end of 2004, the tsunami freed him. After a few months hiding in Jakarta, he was smuggled out to Malaysia, from where he travelled to Finland, where Jakarta and GAM had started talking peace. He soon joined GAM's panel and, after the peace agreement was signed and the amnesty granted, he became the liaison officer between GAM and the European-led Aceh Monitoring Mission set up to supervise implementation of the pact. He decided to join the political fray after a divergence with GAM's leadership in exile, which appeared to favour for governor and vice-governor the ticket of Humam Hamid and Hasbi Abdullah, a pair backed by a Jakarta-based party. Mr Irwandi formed a ticket with Muhammad Nazar, a pro-GAM local activist. Mr Irwandi says he has no regrets about failing to achieve independence. He thinks politics is the art of compromise and said that, should he be elected, his main mission would be to 'get the best out of the peace agreement'. 'With me at the helm, the peace process will not be screwed up,' Mr Irwandi said. 'This much I can promise.'