After 29 years, an Aceh peace pact

Indonesian officials and rebels agreed Sunday to bring peace to the tsunami-ravaged province.

Indonesia and separatist rebels in the province of Aceh agreed Sunday to a tentative agreement it is hoped will end a 29-year conflict in the tsunami- battered region.

The deal, to be signed in Helsinki, Finland, on Aug. 15, is expected to call for some 50,000 Indonesian troops to withdraw from Aceh and for 5,000 guerrillas to lay down their arms under an amnesty. The accord also breaks a political logjam by allowing representatives of the Free Aceh Rebels (GAM) to participate in local elections.

"It is a historic moment," said Indonesian Information Minister Sofyan Djalil in Helsinki. "Society can live peacefully and we can rebuild Aceh after it has been destroyed by the tsunami."

The Dec. 26 tsunami, which left more than 170,000 dead and some 400,000 homeless, prompted the Indonesian government and Acehnese rebels to return to peace talks that had collapsed in 2003.

Both sides came up with a last-minute compromise after Jakarta had initially resisted the GAM's proposal to become a political party. Negotiators said the details of the accord would not be released before the formal signing in August. Mr Djalil called the deal a "middle way."

The second major hurdle in the talks was over a formula for the demilitarization of the province of four million people. Both sides agreed that an international mission, consisting of 200 European observers and 100 monitors from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, could oversee the process.

Many Acehnese say that such a task force would have been unthinkable prior to the arrival of thousands of international observers and aid workers in Aceh to help with tsunami relief. In May 2003, Indonesia had imposed a state of emergency in Aceh, restricting entry of foreigners to the province.

The opportunity for a peace pact emerged earlier this year when the GAM dropped their historic demands for independence. The most thorny issue in the talks, negotiators said, was that of political representation for the separatists. Jakarta had feared that allowing the GAM to run in local elections could lead to a referendum like the one in East Timor in 1999 that ended Indonesian rule.

Indonesian election laws currently only allow for nationally based political groups due to fears that provincial parties could encourage separatism elsewhere in the archipelago nation spread out over 13,500 islands. Every party in Indonesia must now have representation in at least half of Indonesia's 32 provinces and have headquarters in Jakarta.

Jakarta had initially proposed that candidates of the GAM run for office as members of existing Indonesian parties. The GAM rejected the offer, saying they sought a "democratic solution," that would allow all groups in Aceh to form political parties.

"We are going to facilitate former members of the GAM to set up a political party that fits national criteria and is based in Aceh," Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told reporters in Jakarta Sunday, adding that parliament must be consulted before allowing the GAM to launch its own locally based party.

The natural-resource-rich province of Aceh has been wracked by fighting since 1873, when Dutch colonizers invaded the sultanate. The GAM and the Indonesian government have been fighting since 1976.

The peace deal, if successful, is likely to smooth the way for reconstruction efforts in the province. The Indonesian government and international donors are spending more than $5 billion to repair the devastation of coastal Aceh caused by the tsunami. Since December, fighting between the GAM and Indonesian military has both hampered the flow of tsunami aid and held back economic development in the province.

GAM spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah in Helsinki told Reuters that they had taken a chance on the deal with Jakarta "because we want to give the people of Aceh a chance to rebuild after the devastating tsunami and to provide them with the opportunity to determine their own internal affairs."

But, he added, "this leap of faith is not without risks, and we now require the Indonesian government to exercise full authority over the Indonesian military in order to allow this process to succeed."

In Aceh, the response was cautious. "It is too soon to tell," Mawardi, a newspaper seller, told the Associated Press. "I'm afraid that the same thing will happen as in previous agreements. I hope this time is different."

An earlier peace accord in the province unraveled in 2003 amid violations on both sides.

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