Sat, 18 Mar 2000

Hopes high for Aceh peace after historic meeting

JAKARTA (JP): President Abdurrahman Wahid expressed hope on Friday that the informal meeting between his aide Bondan Gunawan and Aceh rebel leader Tengku Abdullah Syafi'ie would give a boost to the peace process in the restive territory.

Describing the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) activists as his own brothers, Abdurrahman said he had ordered the military, police and civil servants in the province to work together in creating peace there.

"However if there is no progress until a certain deadline, we will take measures, because we can not just let it intensify. This also applies to other places in the country, because we badly need the flow of foreign investment into Indonesia," said Abdurrahman in a dialog after the customary Friday prayer in a mosque near his private residence in Ciganjur, South Jakarta.

Acting State Secretary Bondan Gunawan paid an unprecedented visit to Syafi'ie at a GAM base in Geumpang Tiga district in Pidie, some 100 kilometers east of the provincial capital Banda Aceh on Thursday.

Abdurrahman praised Syafi'ie for his reception of Bondan, who brought messages from the President.

"I hope he can meet my request. But it is just a request, which may be fulfilled or not. What we want is that the problems in Aceh can be well settled," the President said.

Separately, Bondan said on Friday he could understand the Aceh people's frustration at the central government, including the feeling that their land was still occupied by Indonesia.

"Our government system (in Aceh) worked precisely like that in the previous colonial system," Bondan said after meeting with the President at the Bina Graha presidential office.

Bondan said people should not hope for too much from his meeting with the GAM commander saying Aceh's 32-year tragedy could not end just after a 20-minute dialog.

"My capacity was also not as a negotiator there," Bondan said.

House of Representatives Speaker Akbar Tandjung welcomed the historic meeting.

"We appreciate the meeting as helping to find a solution to the Aceh problem," Akbar, who also chairs the Golkar Party, said.

He said that GAM's presence was an undisputable reality in Aceh and that all talks about the territory's future should involve the rebel group.

"But the unitary state of Indonesia cannot be compromised. We can bargain with other demands," Akbar said.

In Banda Aceh, the unprecedented meeting raised hopes among Acehnese leaders that the prolonged conflict might be put to an end.

"We hope the friendly and warm meeting between Bondan Gunawan and Abdullah Syafi'ie will be followed by the troops and personnel at the lower level, so there will be no more fighting between warring camps," said Aceh chief of Muhamaddiyah Tengku Imam Suja.

"The encounter must be ensued with higher level talks between President Abdurrahman Wahid and GAM leader Hasan Tiro if the government intends to speed up the process of restoring peace and order," he said.

Chairman of the Human Rights Care Forum Syaifuddin Bantasyam, however, said that peace efforts entirely depended on both parties.

"It is up to the government and GAM to keep their words," he said.

He added that Thursday's meeting did not surprise him, saying Syafi'ie had previously met another Cabinet member, State Minister of Human Rights Hasballah M. Saad.

After the landmark meeting, security personnel overnight raided four villages searching for rebels. AFP quoted residents as saying that four truckloads of soldiers from the Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) went from village to village in Gleumpang Tiga, assaulting people and rounding up men.

The soldiers first appeared in Pulo Lhungtheuea about 3 a.m. on Thursday, where they beat three people they suspected of being rebels, residents there said. (50/edt/prb/jun)