Aceh peace deal enters the delicate phase of implementation

In the forests and hills of tsunami-ravaged Aceh province, Indonesian soldiers and separatist rebels are preparing to lay down their weapons after 29 years of fighting, in a first step toward putting into practice a peace deal negotiated in faraway Helsinki, Finland.

The Aug. 15 agreement, which includes an amnesty for members of the Free Aceh Rebels, known by the acronym GAM, and a gradual withdrawal of Indonesian troops, offers hope to a province still shattered by the Dec. 26 tsunami that left more than 130,000 dead and 400,000 homeless.

But three previous peace agreements have collapsed before, and analysts warn that despite major breakthroughs, this latest agreement could unravel on issues such as disarmament and land settlements. After a war in which 15,000 people have died, mistrust remains deep.

"The Acehnese people are realistic - that is cautiously optimistic," says Ahmad Humam Hamid of the Aceh Recovery Forum, a nongovernmental organization involved in the recovery process. "But these things that are agreed at the top don't always go smoothly on the ground, either by chance or design."

As the historic peace deal was signed, several thousand Muslims gathered in the foreground of the Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, watching a signing process in faraway Helsinki, Finland, on twinkling televisions. After addresses by the mosque's preachers, or imams, the crowd chanted "peace, peace, peace."

The peace process will now enter a fragile, three-month period that will include withdrawal of Indonesian troops and the surrender of weapons, a phase in which the last peace deal broke down in 2003 amid allegations of cheating.

In the agreement, the Indonesian government said it would cut troops in the region from 35,000 to 14,700, and cut police from 15,000 to 9,100. Around 3,000 former rebel guerrillas are to return from the forests and surrender 840 weapons under a general amnesty program. By April next year they will be allowed to contest local elections. Laws will be amended so that Aceh is allowed to keep 70 percent of its oil and gas wealth. Around 300 monitors from the European Union and Southeast Asia will observe the implementation of the deal.

"It's the best you can get," said Pieter Feith, head of the peace monitoring mission. He adds that the key challenge would be for both sides to deal with dissent in their ranks. Advance teams of monitors are to leave for Aceh this week. These missions will run four district offices where rebels are to give up their weapons over a four-month period, which may be extended to a year.

Sofyan Daud, one of GAM's top spokesmen and a rebel commander, says that the "most important thing is not the signing of the deal, but its implementation." Mr. Daud, speaking by cellphone from the forested hills of Pidie district, a major guerrilla stronghold, says that GAM negotiators kept in contact with the movement's 17 regional commanders during the peace talks, meaning that - at least for the moment - the rebels are speaking with one voice.

The 10-page agreement, signed after five months of negotiations, is still vague on details and concrete steps about how the plan is to be implemented, according to government officials. The financial compensations mentioned in the deal, they say, may prove contentious, particularly the land that is to be given to ex-GAM soldiers in exchange for disarming and to provide for their future livelihoods.

In an October 2004 agreement, land used for such compensation was taken from palm oil and coffee plantations abandoned during the conflict. However, squatters often occupy these lands. And prior land claims could become highly controversial. The tsunami wiped out a lot of the titles and legal records, making it difficult to adjudicate property disputes.

Implementation of the amnesty offer for former rebels may also prove tricky. Under the deal, amnesty will be granted to everyone besides "common criminals." That leaves uncertainty over how crime will be differentiated from political violence.

And while Indonesia's parliament agreed to the peace deal last week, legislators still must amend the law before March to allow GAM to form a political party - something they may refuse to do if the process turns rocky.

Despite these thorny details, the overall framework of this peace deal is much stronger than past agreements. The tsunami and the inflow of $5 billion in potential aid provide an economic incentive for peace in the province. And unlike previous Indonesian presidents, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was personally involved in negotiating the deal in Aceh, as was Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

The two-year military offensive against GAM drastically reduced their numbers from around 10,000 to around 3,000 members. "They're weakened and demoralized," says one European diplomat who just returned from Aceh. "It's not the same GAM that signed previous peace deals."

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