Fri, 25 Apr 2003

Peace in doubt after Aceh talks canceled

Tiarma Siboro, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The long-awaited Joint Council meeting between the government and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was canceled on Thursday after the two parties failed to agree on a date for the meeting, which is intended to discuss violations of the peace pact signed last December.

Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that the government had decided not to send a delegation to Geneva, Switzerland, after GAM insisted on holding the meeting on April 27, instead of April 25 as the movement had earlier requested.

"The government strongly condemns the irresponsible attitude of the GAM leaders, which will only ruin the peace process in Aceh," Susilo said during a press conference announcing the government's decision not to attend the meeting.

The government and GAM were supposed to hold a Joint Council meeting in Geneva on April 25 to evaluate the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) signed in Geneva, Switzerland, last year.

Susilo was scheduled to leave for Geneva on Thursday at 7 p.m. but canceled his trip after the Henry Dunant Centre (HDC), which has been facilitating the peace talks, informed him at 6 p.m. that the non-governmental organization could not present GAM at the meeting.

Other delegation members -- government negotiator Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, former foreign affairs minister Ali Alatas and Indonesian Military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto had already left for Geneva on April 23.

Susilo said the government had instructed the armed forces to maintain security across Aceh to prevent it from worsening by prioritizing the protection of civilians from renewed violence by GAM.

Asked if the government was still willing to negotiate with the rebels, Susilo said: "We will discuss this matter at a Cabinet meeting while awaiting further developments."

"The Indonesian people have their dignity and honor, and will not be humiliated by anyone, including the separatist Free Aceh Movement," said Susilo, who consulted President Megawati Soekarnoputri before calling off the meeting.

"It is almost certain that there will be renewed tension in Aceh. So, we must try to prevent this from happening to protect the people," the minister said.

Susilo, however, gave assurances that the decision did not mean the government side was pulling out of COHA, which was signed on Dec. 9, 2002, and has reduced violence in the province where some 10,000 people, mostly innocent civilians, have been killed.

In a peace agreement brokered by the Switzerland-based non- governmental organization, HDC, the government and GAM agreed to end all hostilities in the province.

Under the deal, GAM rebels, who have been waging an independence war in the resource-rich province since 1976, accepted a special autonomy package for Aceh and agreed to lay down their weapons in stages up to July 9, 2003. The government, for its part, agreed to halt all military operations in the province and reposition military and police personnel from offensive to defensive positions.

Both parties have failed to make good their pledges. Security threats have been on the rise over the past few weeks, prompting HDC to withdraw all the members of the Joint Security Committee (JSC), which is tasked with overseeing the implementation of the peace agreement, from across the province.

Around 50 people have been killed in the past three weeks as the peace pact began to unravel.