Fri, 28 Mar 2003

Don't forget Aceh

The nation's preoccupation with the war in Iraq this past week has diverted our attention away from many equally, if not more pressing, issues that are so much closer to home. One of the casualties of this severe lack of attention toward domestic problems is the peace process in Aceh, now well into its third month, and seemingly in danger of being derailed.

The irony is that while we are all venting our anger at the war in Iraq -- at times very passionately -- very few of us are disturbed by the growing prospect that Aceh could soon revert to another full-blown armed conflict, thanks to our own failure to give it the attention it deserves.

Many who have campaigned and worked for peace in Aceh duly noted that Indonesia would have made significant progress had the nation -- the government, the public and the media -- devoted as much attention to it as it has lavished on the war in Iraq.

Instead, because of this attention-deficit, the agreement on the cessation of hostilities that the Indonesian government signed with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) armed rebel group in Geneva in December is now on the verge of collapsing.

The peace agreement in Aceh has entered a crucial, and probably the most difficult, phase since Feb. 9.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Indonesian Military (TNI) is required to relocate its forces and redefine its mandate from that of a striking force to a defensive one. GAM, for its part, must begin placing its weapons in designated sites.

If the first two months of the agreement were marked by a display of strong goodwill by both the government of Indonesia and GAM, that has been sorely lacking since the phase to demilitarize Aceh began in February.

The goodwill, built through the confidence-building measures since the signing of the agreement, has now given way to mutual distrust and misgiving on both sides. TNI is refusing to relocate, and GAM is simply refusing to lay down its weapons.

Having come this far in implementing the agreement, we are now seeing signs that both camps are not only reluctant to go the distance. There are also indications that both are trying to botch, undermine or even sabotage the peace process.

The killing, torture and kidnapping have resumed. Armed clashes between the two forces have also taken place more frequently. And both camps have been engaging in provocative statements or actions, which are not helpful at all.

The latest act of provocation was the decision by the Army to hold its leadership meeting in the industrial town of Lhokseumawe this week. The Army could have picked any of the other 29 provinces, but its choice of Aceh could only have been politically motivated, designed to provoke GAM.

But then, GAM is also culpable for constantly provoking TNI, by taking advantage of the temporary lull since December to openly campaign for its goal of independence.

Rather than trying to calm the situation, both sides have been guilty of heightening tension in Aceh, contrary to the letter and spirit of the December agreement.

At this rate, unless something is done to reverse the process, the peace agreement could fall apart, and for all we know Aceh will burn once again. If that were to happen, it would probably be a long time before Aceh could see real peace.

For all its shortcomings, the December agreement, brokered by the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre (HDC), remains the best and, probably, only viable road map to peace in Aceh.

The agreement makes no pretension about how peace should be built, for this is ultimately for the Aceh people, through the Aceh all-inclusive dialog, to decide.

The future of Aceh cannot be decided by the Indonesian government and GAM alone, neither of which has any legitimate claim to representing the people in the province. The future of Aceh must be decided by the people of Aceh alone.

But for that to happen, the province must first be demilitarized, which is what this Geneva agreement aims to do.

The December agreement has given us a glimpse of what a peaceful Aceh could look like. The people of Aceh, for example, have now started to enjoy life with less fear. It would be sad indeed if this opportunity for peace were now to be squandered only because some armed men decided it was against their own interests.

The Aceh peace process must be salvaged.

This is one area where public pressure could be effective in making a real difference, certainly much more effective than the protests against the war in Iraq.

We are not suggesting that we should forget Iraq, but let us not forget that we have our own pressing problems at home to tend to. As long as we still consider Aceh to be part of the republic, we have a responsibility to ensure that the people there can live in peace.