Mon, 14 Aug 2000

Aceh: Toward new political arena?

By Aboeprijadi Santoso

GENEVA (JP): There was an air of growing optimism after the talks on Aceh in Switzerland last week. Aceh seems to be moving toward a new game and leaving the military battle. Is the momentum of violence now passed?

The fifth talks between the Indonesian government and representatives of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) on Aug. 5 and 6 -- the second since the signing of the May 12 Humanitarian Pause accord -- was held at Bavois castle, 70 kilometers from Geneva.

The talks, facilitated by the Swiss-based Henry Dunant Center, included four members of the joint committees on Aceh.

After a truce period of two months and three days starting June 2, significant improvements seemed to be lacking. Yet in Bavois there was some optimism. First, the two sides agreed that efforts must be taken to return the Acehnese refugees safely.

Second, as outlined in the joint statement, they were "strongly inclined" to extend the truce and will decide on this before the end of the month. The ground rules, which had been too hastily prepared in June, were improved. Third, they remain committed to enter the political phase to discuss the future status of Aceh.

Violent incidents and the victims of these incidents have been reduced, but the flow of refugees has significantly increased, which means, more than anything else, that a greater portion of the people in some districts in North and East Aceh do not trust the truce. While many of them were true refugees, some might have become political pawns. But the total number is considerable, reaching 25,000 to 35,000 people.

Yet both sides seemed hopeful. "Thousands of refugees in Tapaktuan, for example, had been returned home safely," said the RI chief delegate, Hassan Wirajuda. The Aceh-based joint committees are now directed to proactively engage in the resolution of the problem.

The GAM delegation led by M. Hasan di Tiro, also expressed relief. "Yes, we are optimistic," said its negotiator Zaini Abdullah, "because what we have agreed includes attempts to reduce the domestic refugees. There is a guarantee that the Acehnese nation will no longer be threatened or suffer under the criminal acts of the Indonesian Army. You know, people ran away as soon as they saw military uniforms!"

The refugee problem in Aceh has worsened over the last two years as fear of the Army's repression has become widespread resulting in greater popular sympathy for GAM. As a result, this phenomenon has become a sensitive issue with both RI and GAM interested in extending the truce. "We very much wanted it, as did the Indonesians," Zaini said.

As pressure mounted from various sectors of Acehnese society -- local civil servants, intellectuals, nongovernmental organizations and Muslim clerics -- the truce extension seems imperative as well as inevitable.

In the next phase of talks on the future of Aceh, Wirajuda was even more upbeat. "The discussion on substantive political issues can be conducted even before January. I'm optimistic the other side will respond that way too".

Indeed GAM's Zaini Abdullah seemed ready, stating that "despite everything, we had taken initiatives and made approaches in order to achieve a solution."

So, the two sides will meet again soon to formally extend the truce. If the talks proceed before the end of the year, no doubt conditions in Aceh should be significantly improved based on the high expectations of the parties involved. Consequently, the next truce period will be crucial.

Even now, however, conditions since the truce have led to sharp debates in Bavois. "Most crucial were elements that were not covered by the (accord), but actually happened like flag raising on the part of GAM in July, extorting money as well as the pressures directed to our local governments. These matters are very political in nature and not governed by the (accord), but could lead to tensions," Wirajuda explained.

Most regretted was the increasing number and suffering of the refugees, which reflects what is at stake. "We had a debate (because) we wondered whether it was a response to the local situation (of insecurity), or a part of the game to provoke people to move to other villages. Indeed, there were attempts to prevent the refugees from returning home," said the chief delegate for Indonesia.

It is this ongoing refugee problem that may be crucially linked to problems of military repression. It may affect the political interests of the parties and could threaten the truce. While both sides are concerned about tensions created by moving armed units, the accord only bans military attacks and limits activities beyond policing duties.

Law enforcement should be the key, Wirajuda insisted. Therefore, the accord does not mention anything about limiting the deployment of such units at any time and place.

While this poses some difficulties for GAM, for the government side it is a basic condition for the truce. Since this was the premise of the accord, "we cannot accept (GAM's) proposal to reduce our troops. And the police should function normally, so round-ups, road blocks and sweeps to catch criminals are allowed. But certainly not military offensives against the other side," Wirajuda said.

GAM's concerns are focused on the presence and actions of the Indonesian Military and police. Asked why he was hopeful about the return of the refugees, Zaini told Radio Nederland: "They (the TNI) continue to add troops from outside (non-organic units), which has reached more than 30.000, including 600 marines. But nonetheless, they have promised not to repeat the crimes in the past. At least they are now prepared to reduce the violence." GAM also raised the issue of TNI presence at vital sites like the Exxon oil refineries, but this too is not ruled out by the accord.

Zaini was aware, though, that a number of armed units were not sanctioned by the accord. So GAM has to take the chance. "If they attack us, we, the Acehnese nation and GAM, will have to defend ourselves. They (the TNI) realize how much they have suffered. So they will think twice. That's why they now come to negotiate."

Zaini -- a former physician in Medan who was persecuted by the TNI in the late-1970s -- concluded that both sides have come to realize the human cost of the conflict. But he insisted, GAM continues to strive for the independence of Aceh. "In 1945, the Dutch left the sovereignty over Aceh -- of which they never had anything legal on paper -- to Indonesia."

So, he thinks, GAM has a case for the United Nations. "Like East Timor, that's the middle way to resolve (Aceh)". Asked if GAM has worldwide support, like the East Timorese proindependence front CNRT, Zaini did not sound convincing. "Sure, we have them, but we cannot mention it now because they have embassies (in Jakarta). Besides, if their interests (in Aceh) cannot be protected, they will turn on us someday."

When pressed a little further, Zaini failed to mention even one state that recognizes GAM. "Sorry, it's a secret".

In contrast, an Asian diplomat in Geneva pointed out that under President Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia has received strong support for its territorial integrity.

Recently in Bangkok, he said, "there was first a reconfirmation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), then from ASEAN+3 (Japan, China, South Korea) and finally from the ASEAN Regional Forum, which includes the United States, European Union, Russia and Mongolia, Australia and New Zealand. That includes all five permanent members of the UN Security Council."

With the truce to be extended, "the conflict has now shifted from a military to a political/diplomatic theater," Wirajuda concluded.

Incidentally, but significantly, GAM's guerrilla commander, Abdullah Syafeii, also claimed that "now Aceh's struggle for independence no longer depends on guns or wars, but more on diplomatic and political efforts. With the pause, we are half way to Aceh's freedom."

While GAM have put their cards on the victims and the suffering under TNI repression, including the plight of the refugees, the Indonesian side has only just started efforts to regain local confidence, while maintaining the TNI's presence.

The political battle is now expected to focus on the refugees and the local civil society. The truce will increasingly depend on the conditions, not in Bangkok or Bavois, but in Aceh.

The writer is a journalist based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.