Thu, 22 May 2003

Stop the bloodshed in Aceh

The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo

Peace talks between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels from Aceh province held in Tokyo broke off Sunday with no agreement. Within hours, Indonesia's President Megawati Soekarnoputri declared effective martial law in Aceh and ordered an army assault on the Free Aceh Movement, the pro-independence rebel group, known locally as GAM. Strife in Aceh, the resource- rich region of northern Sumatra, began a quarter-century ago. More than 10,000 people have died in fierce fighting between GAM, which seeks independence, and Indonesia's army, which intends to suppress the rebellion.

If the military wages a broad new campaign to wipe out the rebels, GAM will surely respond with guerrilla warfare that would drag the region back into brutal violence and bloodshed. This is the unsettling prospect.

The ceasefire collapsed after just five months.

In December, the Indonesian government and GAM agreed to a ceasefire, elections in 2004, and creation of an autonomous government in the region. The Henry Dunant Center, a Swiss peace movement, mediated the treaty. Thailand and the Philippines served as truce observers, and Japan, the United States and the World Bank supported the effort. It was the most comprehensive peace accord ever concluded by the two sides.

The agreement dissolved so easily because both sides had their own interpretations of vague elements, distorting their intended meaning.

The government reneged on its promise to reduce the troop presence in Aceh, giving GAM a reason for refusing to disarm. GAM intensified its campaign for independence, even though it had accepted the proposed autonomous government of the region as part of Indonesia. All these actions are based on deep-seated distrust.

Both sides bear the blame for the failure of the talks. But the government must take more of the responsibility, considering the tragic history of Aceh's people.

Since the end of World War II, successive governments in Indonesia have used force to try to subdue Aceh and plundered its oil and natural gas, even though the region was vital to the battle for independence from the Netherlands. Indonesia's move toward democracy five years ago has brought no significant progress toward healing the wounds of years of bloody clashes.

Indonesia is a multicultural, multiracial nation of many religions and languages. It is not hard to understand why the Megawati government was so quick to crack down on any separatist movement. But history shows this problem cannot be solved solely by military force.

GAM also needs to back away from insisting it will never stop its pursuit for independence, no matter how long it takes. No nation in the world would support a revival of the Aceh Kingdom. Most people in the region prefer a peaceful and quiet life above all.

Japan has a keen interest in achieving peace in Aceh. Most of the natural gas from the region is shipped to Japan. It is also geographically near the primary shipping lanes for oil tankers that ply the route between Japan and the Middle East. Turmoil in Indonesia could present a serious threat to peace and stability in the entire Southeast Asia.

All this has prompted a reluctant Japanese government to be involved in the peace process after years of treating the clash as an Indonesian internal matter and watching quietly from the sidelines.

Although the peace negotiations in Tokyo failed, Japan holds some leverage with Indonesia as its largest aid donor. The government should press Indonesia and other concerned nations to try harder to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table as soon as possible.