The government of Indonesia and Acehnese rebels have agreed on a peace plan that could end three decades of fighting that has devastated that province. Signing the accord is only a step forward, however: Previous agreements have come apart under the pressure of mutual suspicion and competition for control of the resource-rich province. The challenge is to ensure that both sides honor the agreement and give the long-suffering Acehnese the peace they deserve.
The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian military have fought since 1976. The rebels want independence for the province and control over the substantial mineral wealth it possesses. The Jakarta government, worried about the potential unraveling of the sprawling island archipelago and the loss of considerable revenues, is adamantly opposed. The result has been sometimes savage fighting that has claimed over 12,000 lives, mostly civilians. Both sides have been accused of human-rights violations and atrocities, although more charges have been leveled against the Indonesian military.
The two sides have twice previously reached peace agreements, but both collapsed after violations by both sides. Indonesians charge that GAM has used ceasefires to rebuild its strength while GAM accuses the military of violating the agreements to ensure its grip on the province. Mutual trust is dangerously low.
Ironically, the devastating Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami laid the foundation for new talks. Aceh was hardest hit by the disaster: An estimated 170,000 people are missing or dead in the province and another 400,000 were left homeless. International relief crews that joined rescue efforts were the first foreigners to enter the sealed-off province in years. Rebuilding programs have been hampered by fears about the security situation. Donors are reluctant to spend money if that labor will only be destroyed by fighting. It has also become apparent to the Acehnese and the Indonesian people that the continuing conflict condemns the province to poverty and instability.
In the aftermath of the quake, a ceasefire was declared and feelers were put out to resume peace talks. Those gestures were reciprocated and negotiations ensued. Five rounds of talks produced a memorandum of understanding that will be signed by the two sides Aug. 15 in Helsinki. There were two key points in the negotiations: GAM’s demand for independence and its demand to form an Acehnese political party. The latter was especially difficult: Indonesia only allows nationally based political groups to prevent the formation of parties with separatist agendas. The rebels dropped the first demand, in exchange for being allowed to form a local political party.
Another issue is demilitarization of the province. There are currently some 50,000 Indonesian troops in the province who are battling some 5,000 guerrillas. The agreement is reported to call for the disarming of the rebels under an amnesty and the withdrawal of more than half the Indonesian troops. European and Southeast Asian observers would monitor the accord.
In many ways, reaching agreement is the easy part. Implementation is always the challenge. This time, however, the deal might stick. First, the tsunami has altered the political and social environment. All sides have acknowledged that the conflict is a bar to the humanitarian work needed to overcome the disaster. Second, there are changes in Indonesia itself. This agreement was negotiated by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who has considerable experience in peace talks and has political support in Jakarta. The fact that the president, Mr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is a former general and has supported the peace process is another critical factor: If anyone can deliver the military’s compliance, he can.
Of course, it is uncertain if anyone can keep the military in line. It is a sprawling organization, in which certain regions and commands are run like fiefdoms. Conflict has given the military considerable independence and power: Providing protection to companies that operate in Aceh has proven quite lucrative. There are also questions about the rebels. As is often the case, it is unclear if GAM’s political representatives exert control over the commanders in the field. At least 10 people have died in armed clashes since the peace deal was announced.
If this is a harbinger of how the deal will be implemented, this accord will suffer the same fate as its predecessors. That must not be allowed to happen. The military must begin to scale down its presence in Aceh and the offensives must stop. GAM must begin to disarm. The political leadership on both sides must ensure that their militaries respect the agreement. The international community must reinforce that message: Reconstruction will only occur when the peace is observed. It is not too much to ask.
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