Sat, 22 Feb 2003

Aceh peace agreement is at risk

The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

The two-month-old ceasefire pact between the Indonesian security forces and Aceh's separatist rebels is in danger of collapse. A new round of violence in the 27-year-old conflict is inevitable unless the two sides find the resolve to hold it up. With both parties accusing each other of ceasefire violations and bad faith, this is asking a lot.

Instead of implementing the peace deal they signed in Geneva on Dec. 9, they are showing the mutual distrust and antipathy that have torpedoed previous ceasefire pacts. Old habits die hard. The lack of trust and good faith shows that there has been no real change of heart on either side. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is still fighting for an independent Islamic state in the resource-rich North Sumatra province, while the Indonesian military is doing its damnedest to decimate the separatists.

As long as the rebels do not forswear independence, there will be no peace in Aceh. Indonesian military leaders have warned that they will go back on the offensive if the peace talks are derailed. They are making contingency plans to maintain national unity. Any fresh outbreak in fighting will spell the end of the Dec. 9 accord, which provides a workable basis to bring peace to Aceh. The only way to make this happen is to keep the peace talks going. This demands commitment from both sides. In an insurgency that has left more than 12,000 people -- mostly civilians -- dead since 1976, the daily death toll has fallen to an all-time low since last December.

Clearly, the ceasefire can be turned into a permanent peace if there is enough political will. The Acehnese, above all, must accept that special autonomy for them is the starting point for negotiations. Over the next five months, the rebels should lay down some of their weapons after the demarcation of no-combat zones where rebels and government forces are prohibited from carrying guns. The demilitarization phase is to be supervised by a committee of representatives from the Indonesian government, GAM and foreign monitors from the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre.

Both the military and the rebels have agreed that "no political or clandestine activities will take place within the peace zones" and they will refrain from "provocative acts". During this phase, government troops will move out of the villages and the paramilitary police will give up their offensive role and be reassigned as a defensive force. To be sure, the entire exercise is fraught with difficulties. How the demilitarization will be carried out is not clear yet. Exactly how many weapons the rebels have and what they will set aside are still unanswered questions. The details have yet to be negotiated. The guerrillas said their actions would match the military's withdrawal from combat areas.

Indonesia's military chief Endriartono Sutarto had emphasized that "the basic idea of the peace deal was the acceptance of the special autonomy law as a starting point in the province and not independence". GAM should declare this openly to make good its part of the deal. Jakarta is warning that the Dec. 9 pact is in danger of breaking down because the separatists have been telling the Acehnese people that the peace process would lead to their independence from Indonesia.

Clearly, any campaign for statehood by GAM is intolerable for Jakarta. The conflict can end only when the Acehnese seek redress and reparations for past injustices rather than independence. If the ceasefire collapses, it will give the military a free hand to renew its hardline policy against the separatists.