After tsunami, a peace deal
Indonesian officials sit down with Aceh rebels to sign a peace accord Monday.
Efforts to end one of Asia's longest-running conflicts will reach an important pass Monday when Indonesia is due to sign a far-reaching peace accord in Helsinki with Acehnese rebel leaders.Skip to next paragraph
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If the peace holds, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono can lay to rest a conflict that has disrupted the northern tip of Sumatra island since 1976, claiming over 12,000 lives and traumatizing an entire generation of men and women. The accord could pave the way for Indonesia to calm other restive areas, most notably Papua, where separatist sentiment runs high. It could also provide pointers for other Asian countries, such as the Philippines, in how to untangle seemingly intractable separatist rebellions over long-standing grievances.
"If we can deal with Aceh, it means that autonomy could work in Indonesia without splitting the country apart. It's an important lesson," says Umar Juoro, a political scientist at the Center for International Development Studies in Jakarta.
To be sure, major hurdles lie ahead, not least the demilitarization of a province awash in illegal arms. The path to peace in Aceh is littered with the wrecks of truces, including two failed efforts in the past five years.
This time, however, optimism is far more palpable among Jakarta's political elite, who have lined up squarely behind the accord. In Aceh, the mood is reportedly more somber, while still hopeful of peace.
In return for surrendering their arms, the fighters in the Free Aceh Movement, whose dwindling forces are put at 3,000, will be offered an amnesty and a chance to run for political office in an autonomous Aceh. In addition, 70 percent of the revenues from Aceh's abundant natural resources, including oil and gas, will go to the provincial government.
Indonesia's parliament last week voted unanimously to back the accord, though nationalist lawmakers remain skeptical over giving ground to the rebels, known by the Indonesian acronym GAM.
A former Islamic sultanate that fiercely resisted Dutch colonization, Aceh has long complained of misrule from Jakarta. Over the past 20 years, the province has been offered varying degrees of autonomy, along with both carrots and sticks in an effort to pry the guns from rebel hands. None has taken hold, and many Acehnese doubt both the government's willingness to share power and GAM's sincerity in talking peace.
Suspicions also run high of Indonesian security forces that underpin Jakarta's rule and profit from the black-market web spun around the fighting.
This poisonous stalemate was broken by a natural disaster: Aceh was the epicenter of the massive Dec. 26 earthquake that triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean. At least 126,000 people died, and many more were left destitute.
As in Sri Lanka, where humanitarian aid crossed battle lines, the devastation cast an international spotlight on the conflict and forced politicians and guerrillas to set new priorities.