Mon, 07 Mar 2005

After many talks, peace in Aceh still far away

Abdul Halim Mahally, Islamabad

The Aceh conflict could never be resolved if a lack of sincerity, honesty and trust between the government of Indonesia and the Aceh rebels remains unreciprocated. Beginning from the Sukarno era when Teuku Daud Beureuh waged an Islam-based uprising against Jakarta in 1953, followed by the subsequent emergence of Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in December 1976 where Hasan Tiro resumed the struggle, while Soeharto was in power. It continued up to the era of Megawati Soekarnoputri and is now a problem for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government.

And yet, separatist sentiment in Aceh has not been resolved, despite the fact that the Military Operation Area (DOM) was removed by president B.J. Habibie (1998-1999) and dialogs were pursued by president Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001).

It is nevertheless important to take a close look at the recent talks in Helsinki. The second round of peace talks, which concluded on Feb. 23, 2005 was facilitated by the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), a global mediator headed by former president of Finland, Martti Ahtissari. To a great degree, the CMI has succeeded, just by bringing the parties in dispute to the negotiating table for the first time since Megawati launched a massive military operation in Aceh on May 19, 2003.

The Indonesian delegation, including three ministers, seemed satisfied that the RI-GAM talks have reached a new understanding on issues pending among them. The delegation is still offering "a special autonomy status" while GAM prefers the use of the term "self-rule". They agreed on another round of negotiations, which will take place in Finland next month.

After the failures of so many talks in the past, GAM and the government of Indonesia seem to have fully realized that "the language of the gun" has proved ineffective to settle their conflicts. The tidal waves that hit Aceh on Dec. 26, 2004, claiming more than 230,000 people while leaving about 400.000 others homeless were perhaps another reason why the two sides got closer and agreed to a dialog. Hundreds of GAM members died or went missing when the tsunami swept away Meulaboh and Banda Aceh, while relatives of GAM's Sweden-based high command may have been affected too.

I suddenly remembered while watching local Indonesian TV news, how the government of Megawati, in April 2003, accused GAM of violating the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA). On the other side, GAM denied the allegations and stated through its spokesman in Sweden, Bachtiar Abdullah, that it was still abiding by the COHA, an agreement signed in Geneva on Dec. 9, 2002. It is difficult to judge which side was the first cease-fire violator of the COHA. What was very clear, not only the Indonesians, but also the world, was that the deadlock in the COHA was leading inevitably to the imposition of a military operation in Aceh, which occurred a month later in May 2003.

However, many observers predicted that the Megawati government's bold decision to deploy soldiers to Aceh was because she was so inspired by the success of the US invasion of Iraq.

President George W. Bush launched the attack on Iraq on March 20, 2003 and on April 9, Saddam's regime fell. Megawati's policy- makers seemingly knew very well that military force could solve the Aceh conflict as Washington did in the Iraqi issue. It was probably based on this fact that Jakarta's negotiations with GAM were cut off. As a result of what they saw in Baghdad, the rooting out of separatism in Aceh by military means was considered the best option.

Unfortunately, Megawati along with her government's inner- circle in Jakarta had clearly underestimated GAM. In spite of repeated statements by Army chief Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu, recently replaced, in the first days of military operation in Aceh that all rebels would have been crushed quickly, GAM remains strong even if Jakarta subsequently extended the operation for another six months.

The presence of thousands of TNI troops in Aceh, backed by both air power and naval power has not meant the killing of even half of the Aceh rebels, whom Indonesian Military Headquarters in Cilangkap, East Jakarta estimated at 6,000.

I personally believe in Ryamizard's sincerity, but he might not have come to the full knowledge that keeping a few hundreds separatists alive would likely be in the interests of some top officers within the TNI.

The GAM-RI efforts to end their long-standing disputes, as we have now seen, are showing positive signs. When guns are no longer effective, then dialogs and talks should be again looked at. This progress must be kept intact. Additionally, what Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, formerly Head of RI's Negotiating Team, and Zaini Abdullah of GAM reached in Geneva's agreement in December 2002 should be included in the forthcoming scheduled talks in Finland. That "the government of Indonesia and GAM share the common objective to meet the aspirations of the people of Aceh to live in security with dignity, peace, prosperity and justice". This must become the fundamental commitment of both the government and GAM. Failing to carefully stick to that would only yield to meaningless further peace negotiations.

Whatever the commitments are made in Finland, the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement must honor them. The failure of both President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Muhammad Hasan Tiro to learn from the past mistakes as well as the "Tragedy of the Tsunami" would only worsen the situation of already devastated Aceh. They must also learn from what the Chinese military philosopher, Sun Tzu, once said, "there is no instance of any nation having gained a benefit from prolonged war".

In short, peace can prevail in Serambi Mekah (Veranda of Mecca) if traits such as sincerity, honesty, trust and what Sun Tzu concluded are also deeply embedded in the hearts of both Jakarta and GAM. Good Luck!

The writer recently completed his M.A. in Political Science (International Relations) at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, and is now pursuing a Ph.D at Harvard University. He is the author of Membongkar Ambisi Global AS (A Disclosure of U.S. Global Ambition), 2003.