Fri, 12 May 2000

Peace effort in Geneva

Today, barring any unforeseen developments, a document will be signed in Geneva that will hopefully end one of the most extended and, in terms of human lives, most devastating conflicts that has plagued Indonesia for almost 25 years.

In a display of realism that is rather untypical of Indonesian regimes so far, the Jakarta administration recently agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Stockholm-based Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to provide a "humanitarian pause" to the fighting that has taken thousands of lives, mostly civilian, since insurgents hoping for an independent Islamic state of Aceh first took up arms against the government in Jakarta in 1976.

Given the lesson of East Timor, where, given the option to choose in a free and democratic referendum, the overwhelming majority of voters opted to sever the territory's 25-year-long ties with Jakarta in favor of setting up an independent state, the fears that exist among quite a number of Indonesians that history might repeat itself in Aceh can easily be understood.

After all, only a few months have passed since crowds of exuberant Acehnese, estimated to have numbered more than a million, converged on the provincial capital of Banda Aceh to demand a similar referendum to opt between regional autonomy or full independence. At present, even though Jakarta -- fearful of starting a torrent of demands for independence similar to that which ended Indonesian rule over East Timor less than a year ago -- has ruled out the option of full independence, such fears remain.

The difficulty is that after more than two decades of trying by the government in Jakarta, using every means and resource it can muster, the problem persists. Indeed, the longer a solution that is acceptable to the majority of people in Aceh is delayed, the more complicated the situation tends to become and the more difficult it becomes to achieve a negotiated settlement.

Hence, by recognizing the realities that exist, the Geneva peace effort is at least a step in the right direction. Fortunately, even though an agreement does not guarantee that peace in the troubled province can be restored any time soon, there are positive signs that the goal of restoring peace in Aceh might well be attained sooner than many Indonesians might expect.

Certainly, doubts exists as to the effectiveness of coming to an agreement with GAM. For one thing, many Acehnese themselves have doubts about who GAM really represent. For another, though there is no doubt that discontent over Jakarta's policies runs deep and wide throughout this gas-rich province, the presence of factions and even criminals trying to cash in on the situation clouds the issue and complicates efforts to come to a generally acceptable solution.

Nevertheless, to quote the chief of the Indonesian Military (TNI), Admiral Widodo Adisutjipto, on the issue, every effort is worth making. That implies that all the parties involved in the conflict must be invited to join the efforts to restore peace in the province, however one might distrust or dislike their motives.

After all, as we understand it, the Geneva peace effort aims merely to establish the kind of situation that is conducive to restoring peace so that development is possible in the province. What steps must be taken afterward to ensure that local sentiments are duly represented in further deliberations is something that must be answered when the time comes.