Wed, 17 May 2000

After Geneva, what next?

It is obvious that many politicians in Jakarta are not content to let the ink dry on the joint understanding which the government signed with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Geneva last week. Although it is not due to come into effect until June 2, the agreement has already been widely denounced by many in Jakarta as a sellout and a major diplomatic blunder on the part of President Abdurrahman Wahid's administration.

Critics, led by People's Consultative Assembly speaker Amien Rais, say the agreement, and the venue chosen for the signing, could pave the way for the internationalization of the Aceh conflict. This, they argue, is an open invitation to foreign intervention into what has essentially been a domestic issue until now.

They also questioned the advisability of allowing an official as senior as the ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva to sign on the government's behalf. The gesture, they contend, has given legitimacy to the armed group which has been fighting for a separate Aceh state for the last 20 years or so.

While there is no doubt that some of the criticism is valid, it is also true that the government's hands were tied. This is an aspect which critics conveniently choose to ignore as they rail against the government. With no signs of the violence ending, the government dealt with few options left to restore peace in Aceh. The joint understanding, with all its political implications, is probably the best course of action under the circumstances.

The military option, the path chosen for the last 25 years, has not only failed but also compounded the conflict. The Indonesian Military (TNI), rather than GAM, has now become public enemy number one in many parts of Aceh. GAM has grown stronger, both politically and militarily, and it is difficult for the government to dismiss it simply as a security disturbance group as was the policy during the past 25 years. GAM is a reality as a force representing the aspirations of the local people. GAM may not speak for all the Acehnese, but it is strong enough that it should be included in any settlement to the problem.

The Geneva agreement is only recognition of GAM's existence, power and influence in Aceh. If peace in Aceh is the ultimate objective of this whole exercise, rather than the pride and self- concern of people in Jakarta, then the agreement is a major breakthrough. Anyone who says that GAM has scored a psychological and diplomatic victory in the Aceh conflict is overlooking that GAM has also won most of the ground battles.

Rather than wasting so much time and energy to put down the Geneva agreement and nurse their wounded egos, Jakarta politicians should give their wholehearted support to the agreement and its implementation. After all, most people in Aceh, even those who do not necessarily share GAM's separatist cause, appear to have endorsed the peace agreement.

The interests of the people of Aceh must come first in any policy or agreement made by Jakarta. The joint understanding meets that criteria, despite the political implications for Jakarta. The "humanitarian pause" called for in the agreement will at least bring a long-overdue respite from the violence which has wreaked havoc in Aceh since the mid-1970s.

The government must now look beyond the joint understanding. A respite, even in the name of a humanitarian cause, cannot be sustained for long unless there is a political solution, or at least the prospect of one in the near future.

Politically, the government and GAM are still a gulf apart, evident in the way each interprets the agreement. GAM is resolute in its demand for a separate state, while the government is equally adamant that the subject is not up for negotiation. If both sides remain stubborn in their positions, the humanitarian pause is unlikely to last long and fighting will soon break out again. This calls for give-and-take from both sides.

One solution that has been proposed by this newspaper is to allow GAM to become a regional political party; the very reason why it took up arms was because it had no legitimate political outlet to channel its aspirations.

In its fixation to maintain national unity, Jakarta has forbidden parties to run along regional lines. The 1999 law on political parties still requires that all political parties must be headquartered in Jakarta.

This comes across as odd for a country which claims to profess democracy. Since 1999, the country has seen political parties formed along sectarian, ethnic and class lines, all of which are equally, if not more, divisive than parties based on regional lines. Yet, national unity seems to have remained intact even as the multitude of new parties -- Islamic parties, Christian parties, Chinese parties, workers parties -- contested the 1999 general election using strikingly divisive platforms.

That experience alone should give Indonesia enough confidence to allow political parties representing regional aspirations. It would once and for all placate the regional discontent that exists not only in Aceh and Irian Jaya, but also in many other provinces, in a democratic and therefore nonviolent fashion.