On neutral ground, rebels face Indonesian government

Guerrilla and Jakarta representatives meet in Geneva today to pledge for peace.

Guerrilla rebels in Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh returned to their camps last night, hopeful that today's peace talks in Geneva would offer some respite from a 25-year civil war that has left more than 5,000 dead.

The two sides are to meet in Geneva today to sign a memorandum of understanding that will begin the first formal cease-fire between the rebels and the Indonesian military at the northernmost tip of the archipelago.

But even as Acehnese in schools, homes, and mosques offered prayers for the cease-fire, the rebels' goal remained unwavering.

"We want independence," says Tengku Ismail Syahputra, a spokesman for the Free Aceh movement. "And we may take up arms again in the future."

The accord between separatist rebels and the Indonesian government has not changed the position of either side.

Indonesia's President Abdurrahman Wahid has promised special autonomy and a referendum on Islamic law, but ruled out independence for the province.

The rebels of the Free Aceh Independence Movement say they will still fight for separation from Indonesia - and many for the restoration of a pre-colonial Islamic sultanate.

Yet both sides welcome the opportunity for a cease-fire and the chance to heal wounds inflicted in the bloody conflict. Two rebel factions in Aceh this week have said that they have stopped fighting with the military to support the proposed cease-fire.

Indonesia's foreign minister, Alwi Shihab, said committees would be put in place immediately upon signing of the deal, which would be effective 15 days after signing.

The talks are to involve Hassan Wirayuda, Indonesia's permanent UN representative, and Zaini Abdillah, an official of the rebel movement based in Sweden.

Mr. Wahid has tried to salve resentment in the region by starting a human rights tribunal in Aceh, which is trying Indonesian soldiers on murder charges. This week 13 soldiers made the extraordinary admission of having killed civilians, but claimed they were following orders from commanding officers.

Indonesia is still struggling with the legacy of autocratic President Suharto's 32-year rule, which ended in 1998, and a trail of human rights abuses across the country. The military has long denied violating human rights.

The Wahid government has said that bringing the country's powerful military to book for human rights abuses is essential to restoring public confidence in government and maintaining national unity.

The Army, which once boasted of being the guardian of national stability in a diverse nation of more than 300 ethic groups, has been widely blamed for bringing about separatism in Aceh.

The Acehnese were among the most resilient fighters in Indonesia's 5-year war of independence against Dutch colonial troops that began in 1945.

The brutality of an Indonesian military occupation that intensified a decade ago has led many Acehnese to side with rebel guerrillas calling for independence.

Support for the rebels has been fueled by perceptions that the government in Jakarta has been indifferent to the poverty of Aceh, while siphoning off the oil and gas riches from the province. Aceh is home to the Arun gas field, one of Asia's largest, operated by a local subsidiary of ExxonMobil.

The gas is exported to Korea and Japan, and represents about 15 percent of the country's total gas exports. Yet the government has returned little to the province in the way of spending on roads, schools, or hospitals.

In recent months Mobil's facilities have been attacked by machine guns and grenades. Rebels said the attacks were not directed at Mobil Oil, but rather Indonesian soldiers who guarded the facilities.

Last week Mobil shut down non-essential onshore drilling and exploration because of the violence. The company has had to operate amid intensified fighting.

New Indonesian laws promise to return most of the mineral wealth to their provinces of origin, but that has not been enough for the rebels.

Identifying who the rebels are has often posed a dilemma for both the military and government attempts to begin a peace process. The Free Aceh Movement, headed by Hasan di Tiro, an exile in Sweden, is by far the largest, but at least two other armed factions claim to represent the Acehnese.

The divisions within the movement lead many analysts to doubt the rebel's unity and ability to enforce a peace agreement on the ground.

Human rights lawyers in Banda Aceh, the capital of the province, say that only a referendum on independence will be able to satisfy the demands of the people.

Wahid has repeatedly said that Aceh must remain part of Indonesia. On the heels of East Timor's referendum on independence and violent separation from the country last year, Wahid, like many Indonesian officials, has warned that granting independence to Aceh may lead to the break-up of a country of more than 17,000 islands. On the far eastern end of the archipelago, in West Papua, which until recently was known as Irian Jaya, rebels have agitated for independence since the 1960s.

Maimul Fidar, a human rights lawyer in Aceh, says "this agreement is about stopping the violence with the hope that the people in Aceh can live normally. But we will need more agreements before the conflict can be finished in whole."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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