Sat, 05 Apr 2003

Road to peace in Aceh

President Megawati Soekarnoputri, when she was about to be elected to lead the country, promised that she would not let a single drop of blood fall on Acehnese soil, and that she would not repeat the mistakes of her predecessors -- probably including the faults of her own father, Indonesia's founding President Sukarno -- is scheduled to embark on her fourth visit to the conflict stricken province this week.

In her first major speech after her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), won the 1999 general elections, Megawati avowed that under her leadership Aceh would become a peaceful land for the devout Muslims in that territory.

"The Aceh problem is clear evidence of the failure of the New Order government and its successor to uphold the law and justice," Megawati said.

If she is really willing to acquire honest information from the people, and not just from the local military and government officials, she will find that the blood of the Acehnese people is still soaking their soil. But when the President remains rigid in her obsession that Indonesia should remain a unitary state at any cost, she easily forgets her own promise to end the suffering of the Acehnese.

It seems that it should be truly embarrassing for Megawati that she has only been able to make empty promises to those innocent people, just as her four predecessors did. Her government's historic peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has nearly become nothing more than scratch paper since her Cabinet ministers, and especially the Indonesian military (TNI) top brass, have repeatedly reminded her that they did not see the need to continue the implementation of the five-month old peace accord. To them, GAM is the enemy of the state, and only military methods, not civilian, can silence the rebels even though facts have proved that such an approach has worsened situation in the last 26 years.

Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Gen. (ret.) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who initially showed encouraging seriousness to implement the peace accord, has stepped up his criticism against GAM. The TNI has openly expressed its disagreement with Susilo's policy of rapprochement towards the rebels, and the minister does not want to risk his political career by remaining defiant against military opposition. The President herself has not said anything about the latest developments in the province, but to judge by her ministers' new, tough stance we cannot hope much from her either.

As it has turned out, the Acehnese people have only been able to enjoy a relatively peaceful life for about three months after the signing of the agreement in Geneva in December last year. Currently, thousands of people are fleeing their homes in Pidie and Central Aceh following fresh armed clashes between the TNI and GAM. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of people were killed in the province since 1977, and the number is likely to increase again.

It is truly saddening to read the reports in this newspaper on Thursday that 41 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Aceh have gotten to the point that they are now trying to make a desperate last-ditch plan to salvage the agreement. The point is, why do the NGOs have to take the responsibility for maintaining the peace in Aceh rather than the government? The activists, mostly young people, feel more obliged than the Cabinet to prevent more violence and atrocities in the troubled territory.

On the other hand, we can be proud of those activists and hope that they will be able to unite the people in the province, because now, the last chance to salvage the peace lies with the people, although the road to peace could be very long and tiring.

We know that those NGO activists are endangering their own lives by exposing themselves to all sorts of action by either GAM or the TNI, or both, because as they publicly push for peace they endanger their respective organizations.

We hope that local administrators, from governors and regents to public leaders there, will work together with the people to pressure the central government to save the peace accord. Despite the poor credibility of the local administration in the eyes of the people in Aceh, the NGOs can not just bypass them in their struggle for peace.

Also, without the assistance of the international community it will be very hard, if not impossible, for any grass-roots organizations to work for peace in the province. Strong and effective international pressure on Indonesia will be most helpful in their tough mission to stop the violence there.

The co-hosts of the Tokyo Conference on Aceh, including Japan and the U.S., have urged both the Indonesian government and GAM not to abandon the peace efforts. However, as the U.S. itself is using violence in Iraq, that country is obviously not in a comfortable position to lecture the Indonesian government about the use of peaceful means.

Honestly speaking, we still regard the Henry Dunant Centre- brokered peace accord as the only road map towards peace in Aceh. However, when both warring parties have lost their trust in the agreement, peace can only be a daydream for the people in this country's westernmost territory.

Given the situation, the efforts of the young NGO activists are truly laudable. They are facing a very tough job trying to unite the people. People in Aceh deserve the sincere help of all, both from within Indonesia and from the international community.