Mon, 12 May 2003

Acehnese don't need war but good governance, justice: ICG

Muninggar Sri Saraswati, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Instead of launching a military operation in Aceh, the government must establish good governance in the strife-torn province to win the hearts of the long-suffering Acehnese people and build lasting peace as well, says an independent report.

According to a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), many Acehnese support independence for the province "out of a strong and genuine belief, not because they are under pressure from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM)."

"The Indonesian government cannot make that sentiment go away simply by declaring it (GAM) illegal or sending more troops to fight GAM soldiers. Unless and until it can win Acehnese loyalty, including by addressing seriously the issues of justice, pro- independence feeling will remain high -- and military operations may only reinforce it," it said.

The bloody conflict in the resource-rich province started in 1976 when GAM began taking up arms to fight against the government which it said had deceived the people and had not brought justice to the province.

"The only way to reduce support for independence is for the government to offer something better. Thus far, it has not. Whatever economic benefits that special autonomy for Aceh was supposed to offer seem to be disappearing into the pockets of unscrupulous officials and contractors," it said.

The government granted Aceh special autonomy in August 2001 through Law No. 18/2001. The autonomy was expected to improve the Acehnese people's welfare.

"Unfortunately, money channeled through the local government seems to disappear into thin air. Autonomy is no incentive to drop support for independence unless it delivers visible benefit", the report asserted.

Recently, a group of local non-governmental organizations in Aceh demanded that the government dismiss Governor Abdullah Puteh, who is widely believed to be corrupt. Puteh has denied the accusation.

"Good governance is not going to matter to the GAM leadership or dampen its political aspirations. But if ordinary Acehnese who now support independence could be convinced that there was hope of a reasonable improvement in their lives under Indonesian sovereignty, they might be interested," said the report.

According to the report the government has another three policy options other than marginalizing GAM. The government may either try to go back to negotiations with GAM, buy off GAM or launch a military operations against GAM.

However, the report said that the prospects for negotiations with GAM were not encouraging because "there is simply no political incentive or imperative at the moment for GAM to disarm without a clear quid pro quo from the Indonesia Military (TNI) and a stake in the future of Aceh."

The Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA), signed on Dec. 9, last year by both the government and GAM, remains the closest both parties have ever come to producing a framework for peace, the report said.

"But it may have to be held in reserve, pending changes in leadership in one or both of the two sides that might increase flexibility or breathe new life into a process now mired in mutual distrust."

The government, ICG said, might also offer an economic compensation package for GAM in a bid to settle the conflict.

"It is difficult to see how a compensation package by itself could settle the conflict. Some GAM leaders may be available for purchase, but most, including the exiled leadership, are not," it said.

The government allegedly offered several GAM leaders a sum of money in a bid to settle the conflict. However, Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono rejected the report, saying that GAM leader from Banda Aceh Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba had asked him for the money. Tiba also rejected the report.

A military operation may also be launched by the government in a bid to destroy GAM, ICG said.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri has instructed security personnel last week to prepare for military operations in Aceh.

The operation will probably start on Monday, if GAM refuses to go back to the negotiating table. The ultimatum was issued after the government angrily pulled out of a planned Joint Council meeting after GAM moved the date back to April 27, instead of April 25 as had previously suggested.

"The majority of Acehnese would prefer a non-military solution. A military approach alone will not solve this conflict, the report said.

The Acehnese have suffered the most since the government imposed a military operation (DOM) status for Aceh in 1989 through 1998. During the operation, many Acehnese men died while the women were raped. The status was officially lifted by the government on Aug. 7 1998.

"The threat posed by GAM needs to be addressed, there is no hiding that fact. But the multifaceted nature of the conflict, and Aceh's past history, suggests that military action should be kept to an absolute minimum. Every effort must be made to make civilian institutions function far better than they do now," the report said.