Sat, 12 Apr 2003

Manila recalls peace monitors to Banda Aceh

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The lack of a security guarantee has prompted the Philippines to consider temporarily to recall its peace monitors from field operations in the strife-torn Indonesian province of Aceh.

Filipino Foreign Secretary Blas Ople said their diplomats were working with the Indonesian government and the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre (HDC) to ensure the safety of the eight Filipino monitors.

"Until we are sure that they can safely conduct their peace monitoring activities, our peace monitors will be withdrawn from the field and will be momentarily staying in Bandar Aceh, the capital city, where they will be safe," he said in a statement as quoted by DPA.

The Filipino team is part of the Joint Security Committee (JSC) assigned to oversee the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) signed last year between Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebel group to end the 26-year conflict. JSC comprises international monitors and representatives of both the Indonesian government and GAM.

The peace deal calls for a ceasefire and for GAM to lay down their arms, while the Indonesian military and the police are to reposition themselves in a strictly defensive role.

Ople condemned the recent outbreak of violent demonstrations.

"The Philippines strongly deplores these acts of lawless violence," he said. "They perpetuate the divisions and hatreds that have caused the deaths of thousands in Aceh."

Ople stressed, however, that the Philippines remains "committed to the peace process and will continue to play our role as long as we can do so safely".

The removal of the Filipino monitors capped a week of events that have placed additional strain on the already fragile peace process.

Following the second attack this month on a JSC office on Sunday and a rally against the monitoring team on Monday, violence has escalated in the resource-rich province with the killing of nine GAM members on Tuesday. As a result, all 100 JSC international members were recalled from their offices in remote areas of the province to Banda Aceh for security reasons.

The Indonesian government, which has repeatedly accused GAM of breaching the agreement, called for a Joint Council meeting to salvage the peace accord, which GAM quickly rejected.

GAM's refusal prompted the government to announce a possible military operation to restore peace and order in Aceh.

While confirming its recognition of the national integrity of Indonesia, the United States reiterated on Friday its call for both parties to give peace a chance.

Speaking at a media press conference at the U.S. Embassy, Ambassador Ralph L. Boyce said he did not believe the ongoing peace process would lead to independence for Aceh, considering that special autonomy was the best option for the Acehnese.

"A military operation is a decision for the government. (But) The best way is for the special autonomy law to be applied as soon as possible and for GAM to comply to the provisions of the COHA and for the government also, both sides," Boyce said.

The U.S., along with Japan, the European Union and the World Bank, are co-chairs of the Tokyo Preparatory Conference on Peace and Reconstruction in Aceh.

Critics also demanded that both Indonesia and GAM empower the JSC, saying that their different points of view should be discussed among the team, instead of used to provoke the public.

"The JSC is comprised of representatives from the Indonesian government, GAM and the HDC. All parties have to respect the forum and delegate all problems into a clear mechanism.

"But nowadays, all parties have opted to share the difficulties they are facing with the public, which I call provocation. I don't see them honoring the JSC and sharing all things in regard with the peace agreement," sociologist Otto Iskandar Ishak told the Post.

He branded the violence against peace monitors as "efforts to destroy the peace process".

Meanwhile, Munir of the military watchdog Impartial said it was too early for the government to call for a Joint Council meeting or to launch a military operation in Aceh, saying that the problems that had arisen recently had developed from technical matters, not substantial issues.