After nearly a quarter of a century of fighting, the Indonesian government and rebels in the province of Aceh have taken a first, albeit shaky, step toward a peaceful solution to their conflict. Earlier this month, the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement that opens the way for dialogue and negotiations that could resolve a dispute that has claimed 5,000 lives in the past decade alone. It is a big “if”: There is precious little common ground between the two sides.

Officials from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government last week signed a three-month ceasefire that goes into effect June 2. The difficulties that lie ahead were immediately evident. Mr. Hasan Tiro, the rebel leader, refused to sign the deal agreement because Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid would not be a signatory. Instead, Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab signed for the government and a lesser rebel official signed for GAM. Then the fiercely nationalistic GAM rejected use of Bahasa Indonesian, the nation’s official language; instead the document was written in English.

Trust is in short supply. As a result, negotiations seem to be a zero-sum contest. The rebels are demanding that the army withdraw from Aceh, a province located on the northern tip of Sumatra. Neither the army nor the government has shown any inclination toward complying. Worse, soldiers and rebels clashed a day after the signing ceremony. The ceasefire does not go into effect for another 10 days, but it is clear that the peace will be extremely fragile.

Mr. Wahid has pledged to work for reconciliation with the island nation’s aggrieved provinces. That is a break with the former regime’s policy of confrontation and repression. But the Indonesian government has also made it clear that it will only offer decentralization of power and more local autonomy. Fearful that going further would result in the disintegration of his country, Mr. Wahid has repeated that independence is not an option.

That is unlikely to satisfy the rebels. The GAM has been demanding complete independence so that it can establish an Islamic state. About 98 percent of the population of Aceh are Muslims; in Indonesia as a whole, 88 percent of the people are Muslims. But Indonesia’s Islam is tolerant, liberal and a far cry from the fundamentalism that GAM would like to embrace. Nevertheless. Mr. Wahid is prepared to give ground on this demand, providing Aceh remains within the Indonesian nation.

Aceh has other grievances. The province is rich in resources, including timber, rubber, gold and silver. Its liquefied natural gas reserves account for one-third of Indonesia’s LNG exports. Yet the central government has used this for its own purposes, forcing the people of Aceh to continue to live in poverty. Mr. Wahid has indicated Jakarta’s willingness to allocate more of the profits from resources to Aceh.

There have also been gross violations of human rights in the province. Last week, in the nation’s first human-rights trial, a court convicted 24 soldiers and one civilian for murdering 56 students and a teacher in Aceh last year. In the past, such a trial — much less a verdict — would have been unthinkable. But there is criticism that the sentences were too light: Instead of the death penalty, the convicted soldiers received sentences of no more than 10 years in prison.

Nonetheless, the trial is remarkable. Soldiers now know they can be held responsible for their crimes. But real justice will require that the officers that ordered the actions be held similarly accountable. When that occurs, Indonesia will have entered a new era. But it is still uncertain whether Mr. Wahid has the power to win such a confrontation with the military.

East Timor’s referendum on independence from Indonesia raised the hopes of rebels in Aceh. But East Timor was an exceptional situation. The Indonesian government at that time enjoyed little legitimacy and then-President B.J. Habibie was somewhat impulsive — as evidenced by his snap decision to hold the referendum. The annexation of the province had been condemned by the international community. There is no such support for Aceh’s independence — and the prospect of an Islamic government in the region disturbs many of Indonesia’s neighbors.

President Wahid has set the right course for the central government in dealing with Aceh problem. But the ceasefire is only a truce in a civil war. It is a welcome break with the past, but it will only prove fleeting if both sides do not use this interval to build a sturdier foundation for peace.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.