In Aceh highlands, a crucial test of peace

The recent deal between the Indonesian military and separatists is raising tensions over the spoils of peace.

In the highlands of central Aceh, tensions are surfacing over the rapid rollout of a landmark peace accord signed Aug. 15 with separatist rebels aimed at halting decades of war. How the tensions are handled in the coming months is likely to be key to making this peace deal stick where others have failed.

Both sides have praised the steps taken so far in putting the accord to work. The rebels, known as GAM, have handed over the first cache of weapons, and Indonesia has responded by freeing prisoners, granting amnesties to GAM members and drawing down troops.

But despite this positive start, rebel leaders, international monitors, and analysts warn that some battlefronts in Aceh will prove much harder to defuse than others - especially the ethnically divided central highlands where anti-GAM militia have a history of violence.

"If [the peace process] can work in Takengon, it will work anywhere. The grievances are just so high there," says Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta.

In the coffee-growing hills that surround the lakeside town of Takengon, community leaders are upset at the promises of land, compensation, and jobs offered under the deal for compliant rebels whom they accuse of terrorizing locals. Conceding too much ground to GAM is particularly unpopular among non-Acehnese groups who have been the target of violence, extortion, and intimidation by armed rebels.

Tens of thousands of Javanese migrants and their descendants work the land here alongside the indigenous Gayo highlanders.

In the past, these communities have fought fire with fire, forming local anti-GAM militias that numbered several thousand men, armed with crude guns and machetes.

During the last truce in 2002-03, an angry mob torched the Takengon office of an international monitoring team that it accused of ignoring violence by GAM against non-Acehnese. The attack, organized by a Gayo coffee exporter and militia leader, helped sink the truce.

Despite their unease with the carrots offered to disarming rebels, local leaders say that communal violence is unlikely this time. Villagers living in militia strongholds say their groups are purely self-defense units. But veiled warnings of what could happen if GAM oversteps the mark linger in the air.

"I'm worried that GAM is taking advantage of the peace accord and getting stronger now," says Marsito, a local councilman and Javanese community elder. "GAM has guns and we don't. So some Javanese may think they need guns too." But, he adds, "there are no militia here, only self-defense groups."

Under the peace accord, Indonesia is in charge of security in Aceh and foreign monitors are tasked with decommissioning only GAM's stated arsenal of 840 guns. Indonesian officials dispute the existence of armed militias in Aceh, while conceding that anti-GAM feelings run high here.

These denials ring hollow to GAM leaders. They are asking why they are surrendering their weapons while the militia hold onto theirs and say the Indonesian government should disarm all civilian groups in order to keep the peace process on track.

In a village at the end of a bumpy road, GAM district commander Fauzan Azima shows off several assault rifles that he says he plans to surrender. He echoes the claims of rebel officials that Indonesian military hardliners - outsiders - are behind the militia, citing his informers inside anti-GAM groups.

"The army can't attack us now, but they use the militia as proxy forces.... We know they are connected to TNI and that's where they get their weapons and bullets," he says.

Although such talk has troubling echoes of East Timor's descent into chaos in 1999 at the hands of pro-Indonesian militias, observers say the comparison may be wrong. Most of the Acehnese militia are lightly armed, if at all, and poorly trained, and have been used mainly by Indonesian forces as informers, not auxiliaries.

Still, given the opposition to the last peace deal, foreign monitors say they are watching closely. "There might be some of these armed groups ... and we must monitor them and the government of Indonesia must do something," says Lt. Gen. Nipat Thonglek, deputy director of the Aceh Monitoring Mission.

Détente may come in the form of local mediation. GAM commander Azima, who was born in a mixed highland village, says he is working personal contacts in the Javanese community to urge calm on both sides of the ethnic and political divide. By building trust and keeping his demobilized forces on a tight leash, Azima believes he can avoid communal violence in the run-up to disarmament.

"Since I became commander [in 2003], no Javanese have been attacked or had their houses burned. I've met with their community leaders to avoid problems," he says.

Peace monitors, foreign donors, and Indonesian officials also have a big part to play in soothing fears among highland villagers, say analysts.

"If there's a sense that GAM is being rewarded while those who defended the country are being left behind, there's going to be problems," says Ms. Jones. "But I think there's a deliberate effort to make sure that communities are compensated, not only GAM members."

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