Tenuous peace deal in Indonesia

Jakarta and Aceh rebels plan to sign a historic agreement, but key issues remain unresolved.

Monday's scheduled peace deal between Indonesia and representatives of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is being touted as the beginning of the end for Asia's oldest conflict.

Yet in the midst of such high hopes, a GAM official said a rebel leader was kidnapped and assassinated by an Indonesian military unit last week, and some commanders have threatened to pull out of the talks. It's a measure of the type of problems likely to persist even after the agreement is signed.

The deal itself - drafted in Geneva - is filled with ambiguities on disarmament and demilitarized zones and holds no political proposals beyond the status quo in Aceh, the resource-rich province at the northern tip of Sumatra. Neither Indonesia nor the rebels have compromised on the core issue of independence, and hard-liners on both sides remain poised to undermine the deal if their personal fiefdoms are threatened.

"We hope this is a major breakthrough, but this has been a long conflict, and peace will probably be a long process,'' says Imam Sudja, the head of Aceh's Council of Religious Scholars and a key peace activist. "We have to guard against euphoria."

Essentially, analysts say, diplomatic pressure combined with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri's expectations are leading to the dressing up of a preliminary agreement as an ultimate solution.

Ms. Megawati, aides say, has set a target for the conflict to be "solved" by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the October terrorist attack in Bali has added new urgency to US interests in Aceh. Foreign donors, led by the US, have begun to shift their funding plans for Aceh away from conflict resolution to reconstruction and development. The US and Japan hosted a meeting in Aceh early last week to craft an aid strategy to support the agreement.

There are reasons to be hopeful. The document on the table calls for the cessation of hostilities, the introduction of unarmed foreign military observers to enforce the cease-fire, and the creation of joint committees to negotiate demilitarization.

But Sidney Jones, director of the Indonesia project of the International Crisis Group, based in Brussels, gives the current deal a 15 percent chance of holding if signed.

The sticking point is likely to be independence. Indonesian military officials have demanded that GAM accept an autonomy package and renounce its designs on independence in the peace deal - or face increased military action.

It's not a point that GAM appears ready to concede. "We hope to convert our struggle into a political struggle, but its goal remains unchanged: independence,'' says Amri Ahmad Marzuki, a GAM spokesman.

There's no doubt that Aceh's people are desperate for peace and are exhibiting some of the signs of war fatigue that were so essential in a breakthrough in Sri Lanka peace talks earlier this year. When asked about the conflict, Acehnese say they'd accept any solution that reduced the military and rebel presence in their lives. GAM's failure to deliver on its promises of fast independence has also sapped its popular support, and Indonesian troops have won the lion's share of recent battles.

In Sri Lanka, public disaffection with the violence between the government and the Tamil Tigers created huge support for peace. The US and other governments subtly warned that the Tigers could be labeled international terrorists if a deal were not reached; the Tigers renounced violence in exchange for a government promise of political autonomy. The two groups completed another round of successful talks last week.

Autonomy is also at the center of Jakarta's offer to GAM, but there's a key difference: Indonesia has given Aceh a number of different autonomy deals in the past 20 years that have all failed. An autonomy package - which includes direct elections of Aceh's governor and a greater share of revenue from the province's oil and gas fields - is currently in force. As a result, GAM gets little extra in exchange for peace. Moreover, GAM leaders say they doubt the terms of autonomy will be fully implemented under Indonesian rule.

Another problem is that for many GAM and Indonesian military commanders, war is profitable. Protection rackets, weapons sales, and road taxes are run by both sides, and ensuring the discipline of rebels and soldiers in an environment where the chain of command frequently breaks down will be difficult.

While Aceh's rebels aren't fighting in the name of religion, the province is devoutly Muslim, and the US has long worried that it could become a terrorist haven. Al Qaeda members visited the province in 2000 to build relationships with rebels, according to Omar al-Faruq, an alleged Al Qaeda operative in US custody. Though that mission failed, it underscored the tendency of terrorist groups to take advantage of chaotic political environments.

Fighting in Aceh has been a constant strain on relations with the West: The war has claimed 1,500 lives this year and about 12,000 since it began in 1976, human rights workers say.

Some Aceh analysts worry the peace talks could backfire. "Dangerously high expectations are being created,'' says a Western aid worker with programs in Aceh. "What happens when they aren't met?"

Last week, Indonesian Defense Minister Matori Abdul Jalil threatened an intensified war against GAM if the deal isn't signed Monday. Indonesian Military Chief Endriartono Sutarto has said that he won't countenance any military withdrawals from Aceh, a key GAM demand. Over the weekend, the military brought 2,900 fresh troops into the province.

But an Indonesian official working on the deal downplayed the bellicose rhetoric. "The goal of this round of negotiations is to take the gun out of Acehnese politics. The military is just trying to create a little more pressure for that to happen."

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