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At long last, there is an end in sight to the two decades of deadly conflict in Indonesia’s separatist province of Aceh. The Indonesian government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the Free Aceh Movement, the guerrilla group established in 1976, are expected to sign a peace agreement in Geneva next Monday.

The international community is ready to help. In the runup to the Geneva talks, a donors’ meeting was held in Tokyo earlier this week, with Japan serving as a cochair, to help support the peace process in the staunchly Muslim region at the northern tip of Sumatra.

There are still a number of hurdles to be cleared before a peace pact can be signed. With the warring sides ready to sit down at the peace table, however, the remaining problems do not seem insurmountable. The two parties should not miss this historic opportunity to put an end to a conflict in which thousands of people have been killed.

Aceh has a long history of independence struggles. Established as an independent Islamic kingdom in the 16th century, it fought against Dutch colonial policy in the early 17th century when the Netherlands set up the Dutch East India Company in Batavia (now Jakarta). Aceh played a particularly important role in helping Indonesia free itself from colonial rule. During Indonesia’s war of independence, for instance, its capital was located in what is now Banda Aceh.

But, in an ironic twist of history, relations between Jakarta and Aceh soured after Indonesia became independent. The republic’s central government became wary of Aceh and scrapped its promise to establish an Aceh province. Tensions escalated as the Islamic movement gathered momentum across Indonesia during the Sukarno regime. In Aceh, separatist forces took up arms with the aim of creating an Islamic republic.

The Sukarno government, while using force to suppress the rebels, agreed in 1959 to make Aceh a special province, giving it autonomy in selected areas such as religion and education. During the authoritarian Suharto regime, however, that privileged status was reduced to irrelevance. In revolt against this, in 1976 the Free Aceh Movement, also known as GAM, declared the province’s independence.

That produced a predictable result: a series of armed clashes between Indonesian security forces and GAM. The Indonesian Army in particular escalated its military campaign in Aceh by designating parts of the province as “military operational areas.” The fighting resulted in many civilian casualties as well, drawing repeated criticisms from international human rights groups.

The Aceh conflict brings to mind the independence of East Timor in May of this year. Politically, however, East Timor — which was occupied by Portugal in the 16th century — is entirely different from Aceh. It remained a Portuguese colony until it was forcibly annexed by Indonesia in 1976. Jakarta’s harsh military rule of the territory was internationally criticized, particularly for its oppression of the local populace.

Another difference is that Aceh is richer in oil and gas. Indonesia is Japan’s largest supplier of natural gas, and Aceh is home to major gas plants. To Indonesians, however, the gravest concern is that independence for Aceh could lead to independence for other secessionist provinces, such as Irian Jaya, and eventually to the disintegration of the Indonesian republic.

That is a prospect unacceptable not only to President Megawati, who is committed to keeping the republic intact, but also to the international community, which believes a breakup of the republic would destabilize the entire region of Southeast Asia. Precisely for that reason the Aceh independence movement has not won international support.

Aceh Province occupies a strategic point on shipping lanes that are used to transport Mideast oil to Japan through the Straits of Malacca. Stability in this region, therefore, has a close bearing on Japan’s national interests. It is only natural that the nation should take a positive role in building a permanent peace in the province.

The Tokyo meeting, sponsored by Japan, the United States, the European Union and the World Bank, decided to send a team of aid experts to Aceh, after a peace accord is signed, to find out, among other things, how much money is needed to help recovery efforts in the war-torn province. To make sure that peace takes root, it is important to set in motion without delay a hands-on reconstruction program.

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