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.

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.

Over the past weekend, Sri Lanka suffered a major setback in its own peace process when the nation's foreign minister was assassinated. The government in Colombo declared a state of emergency as security forces scoured the city, eventually arresting 12 ethnic Tamils. The rebel Tamil Tigers have denied involvement in the killing, which threatens to shatter an already fragile three-year-old cease-fire.

Indonesia, however, has made more of its post-tsunami opportunity to make peace. The tragedy has created a space for political dialogue and has mobilized billions of dollars in long-term reconstruction funds. Analysts say the lucrative aid operation is part and parcel of the drive to bring Aceh into the Indonesian fold by peaceful means.

"This means that funding is available for the peace process and there's an enormous amount of creativity and 'by the seat of their pants' thinking within the government about how to make this agreement works," says Sidney Jones, head of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta.

Even before the tsunami struck, Indonesian government officials had begun exploratory talks with GAM's exiled leaders in Europe. Indonesia also put out feelers to field commanders in Aceh, says Ms. Jones, mindful of the potential disconnect between the exiled elite and those they claim to represent. A military crackdown since 2003 has depleted rebel ranks, though observers say the flow of weapons and money into the province has continued.

Whether the two military forces involved adhere to the unfolding political process remains a wild card. Indonesian Army chiefs have pledged their support, while giving warnings of the risk of pulling out troops too quickly.

Under the peace deal, army units based outside the province are required to withdraw as GAM begins to disarm. But analysts say this may prove too much for Indonesia's top brass to swallow.

"GAM has agreed on a tactical basis before to a number of pauses [in fighting]. But they never gave up their weapons - they just take the opportunity to regroup," warns Ken Conboy, a military historian and security consultant in Jakarta.

But Yudhoyono - a retired general - might enjoy more success than his predecessors in the task of keeping Indonesia's powerful military in line.

Since defeating Megawati Sukarnoputri in a run-off election last September, Yudhoyono has improved the conditions in Jakarta for a peaceful solution to the Aceh conflict by taking a more conciliatory tack.

Vice President Yusuf Kalla, who has brokered peace deals in sectarian conflicts in Indonesia's troubled eastern islands, has also brought a pragmatic approach to the GAM negotiations drawing on his experiences elsewhere. Mr. Kalla also has the support of Golkar, the largest party in parliament.

At the same time, both leaders have faced repeated cries of sellout from politicians who fear a repeat of East Timor's breakaway from Indonesia in 1999 and giving succor to other separatist movements. Observers say the administration's willingness to upset allies has been key to their success so far.

"We shouldn't underestimate the difficulties they [Yudhoyono and Kalla] have gone through. They were committed even before the tsunami. There's a political will to carrying this through," says a Western diplomat in Jakarta.

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