Mon, 07 Mar 2005

No more govt meddling in post-Helsinki Aceh

Aiyub Syah, Jakarta

When the tsunami hit Aceh on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, some 5,000 members of the Aceh community in Jakarta were attending a gathering. The annual event, held in the Senayan sports stadium, Jakarta, was sponsored by Taman Iskandar Muda (TIM), an organization of the Acehnese in Greater Jakarta, with over 60,000 members.

After its ceremonial opening and a message by Central TIM Chairman Teuku Safli Didoh, the audience in Senayan was taken by surprise when Aceh Deputy Governor Azwar Abubakar said: "My heart is now torn between the desire to speak at this gathering and the urge to immediately see the people back in Aceh. I've just been informed that a huge quake has rocked Banda Aceh this morning."

News was circulating a few weeks after the tsunami that a settlement of the political conflict between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) would be negotiated in Helsinki, Finland. The Acehnese were stunned by this media report, while the atmosphere of panic arising from the quake-generated waves continued to haunt them. And they began to see their hopes rise for a speedy end to the armed violence in Aceh to make life easier.

With two rounds of negotiations already done, another Indonesia-GAM meeting in Helsinki is due start in April. The two meetings indicated a more conciliatory attitude on the part of GAM, which proposed "self-government". That proposal was key because it represents a softening of their stance of "total independence", which remained a major hurdle in previous negotiations arranged by the Henri Dunant Center (HDC) -- and eventually failed in Tokyo in 2003.

There was the perception on the Indonesian side that its special autonomy offer was quite "attractive" in the Helsinki sessions, though GAM refused to accept the term "special autonomy". "GAM prefers the use of 'self-government'," said Bachtiar Abdullah, GAM spokesman in the Helsinki talks.

Facilitated by the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) under former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, the stages of negotiation seem to have made some steps forward and come under the spotlight of the world community. International press attention has even been close to what it showed during the negotiation mediated by the HDC, a Geneva, Switzerland based non- governmental organization. In December 2002, the series of negotiations produced a truce, but were abruptly discontinued in May 2003, when the government launched a military operation.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also reaffirmed his commitment to support the peace effort in Aceh when he visited Aceh in January 2005.

When the tsunami wrecked Aceh, various donors -- countries and institutions -- moved fast to deliver their donations to the ravaged province by air, sea and land. It created a situation where the Indonesian government was obliged to have an open attitude toward humanitarian assistance from international circles.

The process of Aceh's economic recovery should be based on a precondition that priority for business opportunities should be given to local entrepreneurs and Acehnese people are fully involved in the reconstruction process.

Is this process of democratization possible in Aceh? It is not simple to build democracy. This is particularly the case when the military power is not yet willing to give up the political sphere as a civilian domain.

Where is Aceh heading in the post-tsunami and post-Helsinki period? Will it follow any of the models of Northern Ireland, the Philippines, South Africa -- or will it continue to suffer?

In a coffee stall in Ilhe Kareng, I was stunned when I heard an Acehnese song by Rafly at dusk: ...Aceh meutuah, meutuah, bek lhe ro darah... (courteous and noble Aceh, shed no more blood). This song offers a broad humanitarian spectrum, if implemented in the form of cessation of the armed hostilities in Aceh, by both the Indonesian military/police and GAM.

A total cease-fire is a logical offer to be agreed upon in the third round of Helsinki negotiations in April.

Anyway, the existence of international mediators or facilitators should be supported to expedite the process of democratization in Aceh. The system of local elections should be applied, by involving international mediators to conduct strict control.

It is an urgent requirement to allow independent candidates to contest in the elections if local general elections are held in the province. In this way, a democratic election system will be effective. This, in turn, will serve as an entry point to build Aceh's future with honor and peace, shedding no more blood.

A peaceful Aceh will cost the Indonesian government no military expenses, which can be shifted to the development of people's economy.

The core of the issue is that no more top-down methods are applicable in determining the leaders and people's representatives in Aceh. Excessive intervention by the central government elite in the formation of Aceh's leadership and council has proven to be detrimental. Now let democracy make sound progress in Aceh.

The writer is an independent journalist, observer of rights compliance and democracy.