EDITORIAL: Obstacles to peace remain in Aceh

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A gap remains between the goodwill at the negotiating table and the facts on the ground

The international community has welcomed the progress that the Indonesian government and the rebels in Aceh have made towards resolving their differences, as both sides have shown a willingness to be flexible and make necessary concessions in order to give the ongoing peace talks a real chance of success. Credit should also go to the Finnish mediators for their diplomatic finesse, which has won the trust of both parties, and for their commitment to the resolution of this long-running conflict, which has claimed more than 12,000 lives over the past three decades.

The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has put aside demands for full independence for the province and the Indonesian government has said it would consider allowing a form of direct self-rule for the restive province, which has suffered tremendously as a result of the war of attrition that has been fought there.

Chief among other factors leading to the renewed negotiations between the two sides has surely been the need to respond to the devastation wrought in Aceh by the killer tsunami that on December 26 killed about a quarter of a million of people around the region in a matter of minutes.

Whether the just-ended round of peace talks in Helsinki qualifies as a breakthrough remains to be seen, but both sides of the dispute and the international community must not lose sight of the fact that several hurdles still stand in the way of achieving a lasting peace.

Despite the claims by both sides that progress towards peace has been made, skirmishes between Indonesian soldiers and GAM rebels are continuing on the ground, threatening to derail the progress that has so far been made at the negotiating table.

There has to be a real effort by both sides to ensure that any agreements reached at the peace meetings are respected and implemented on the ground.

Moreover, as former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, the chief negotiator, has pointed out, a cease-fire is only valid if it can be monitored and enforced on the ground.

In the first round of talks, the two sides agreed to “refrain from hostilities” while Aceh struggles to recover from the death and destruction caused by the tsunami. Be that as it may, the Indonesian army has confirmed it has killed more than 200 rebels in the two months that have elapsed since the disaster.

No one has ever suggested that monitoring a cease-fire in this restive province would be an easy task, even at this relatively more friendly point in time. Sporadic fighting continues to trouble the province even as hundreds of thousands of grief-stricken Acehnese, many of them reduced to destitution, continue to rely on large-scale reconstruction efforts sponsored by the international community. Such work will likely remain necessary for months or even years to come.

One potential stumbling block involves the fine print regarding what GAM meant when it said it would be willing to accept direct self-rule instead of full independence from Indonesia.

A preliminary peace agreement reached in 2002 collapsed partly because of the issue of how Jakarta and Aceh were to divide proceeds from the extraction of natural gas, which the strife-torn province possesses in abundance.

Jakarta is said to be sticking to a previous pledge of granting a general amnesty to GAM fighters who agree to lay down their arms, allowing them to return to Aceh. Jakarta maintains that the formation of self-rule mechanisms should be through democratic means.

But issues pertaining to changes in Indonesian electoral laws to permit the participation of local political parties, as well as the redeployment or withdrawal of Indonesian troops and the possibility of international monitoring, could prove to be troublesome, to the point where they could potentially make or break the peace talks.

The next round of negotiations, the third to take place since the tsunami struck, has been set for April.

Yet, the recent announcement by the Indonesian military that one of its soldiers and two civilians had been killed when a group of 30 rebels ambushed troops who were on their way to carry out relief work in western Aceh is testimony that peace will not come easy.

This should serve as a reminder that in any effort to settle a long-standing dispute that has caused much suffering and bitterness on both sides, the first and most vital step is to stop the violence long enough so that the process of confidence-building can proceed uninterrupted and become an accepted behavioural norm.

Now is the time for the two sides to take this step in as definitive a manner as possible.

Published on February 25, 2005

The Nation

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