In Aceh, trust rebuilds

Ex-rebels registering with officials cite the importance of European monitors.

As a former militant commander for the separatist Free Aceh Movement who says he was tortured and beaten in jail, Marzuki Abdurrahman has few reasons to trust the Indonesian government.

And yet, Mr. Abdurrahman and almost 60 other separatists from GAM, as the group is called, showed up in a small government office. They were there to register their names in a week-long reintegration drive that serves as the next benchmark of the peace process to end nearly 30 years of war.

Abdurrahman says that he and the other separatists in this office have come in because they have nothing to lose. As former prisoners released from jail under an amnesty, they are already known to police and they can be picked up at any time. But more importantly, GAM members feel now is the time to test the peace process, while European observers are still in Aceh to keep an eye on both parties.

"It is very difficult to trust the Indonesian government," says Abdurrahman, who like most of the separatists in this office was released from jail as part of an amnesty on Sept. 1. "We have no faith in the government, we only trust AMM [the European-led Aceh Monitoring Mission].... If they are here, maybe the peace process will continue. If not, then maybe the Indonesians will not keep their promises."

Both the government and the separatists lost hundreds of fighters in the Dec. 26 tsunami, and many Acehnese took the disaster as a sign from God that the war must end. But while the process so far has gone well - with several phases of weapons hand-overs and the withdrawal of thousands of Indonesian troops already completed - the process is not irreversible.

"If one of the parties is not committed" to the peace process, says Zainal Arifin, a government representative to the AMM, "then that is maybe why the process would stop. If the GAM does not give its weapons, it may not stop the process. But perhaps the Indonesian Army will not relocate some of its troops out of Aceh." He smiles. "It's a balance."

To date, both sides have honored their commitments to the memorandum of understanding signed by both parties on Aug. 15. GAM has handed over 693 of the 840 weapons it has promised to decommission by the end of the year. And the Indonesian Army has withdrawn most of the 19,000 non-Acehnese troops and police from the province, leaving behind what it calls an "organic" force of 14,700 local troops and 9,100 police.

Peace dividend: a thriving night life

The signs of the peace process are palpable. Before the tsunami, Indonesian troops would patrol the streets. Few Acehnese dared to travel at night, for fear of being kidnapped or caught in the crossfire between GAM and the government. Now, Banda has a thriving night life, with bustling restaurants and thousands of teenagers cruising the city on motorbikes.

But for GAM leaders, these good times depend on the presence of foreigner observers. Under the current agreement, the AMM's mandate expires Mar. 15, a mere four months away.

"In my opinion, they [AMM] must watch this process until we get success," says Kamaruzzaman, a GAM negotiator. Like many Acehnese, he uses only one name. "This is our decision, to believe the process."

At the office where GAM members are registering, a dignified middle-aged man steps up to a computer and hands over a card. He answers a few questions about his job skills - a civil engineer and former district governor in the GAM's parallel government. The man, Armada Saleh, says he is taking his life into his hands by coming out into the open like this. "If the government changes its mind, then maybe there is a risk for us. It has happened before ... and it led to fighting again."

Kamaruzzaman, the GAM negotiator, says the overall goals of GAM - freedom, justice, and dignity - are more important than personal feelings of trust.

"We fought for independence for 30 years, but independence is just a bridge to justice, to freedom, to freedom from fear, to life with dignity," says Kamaruzzaman. "Maybe there is another bridge, and the memorandum of understanding [with the government] will help us achieve that goal."

Key worry: pro-government militias

Plenty of issues could still stop the peace process. Most worrisome are pro-government militias in the central highlands of Aceh, which have neither disarmed nor joined the peace process. GAM members worry that militia members could still kidnap or kill those supporters who come out of hiding and disarm.

But perhaps the first hurdle will come in January, when the decommissioning of GAM weapons has been completed. Government spokesman Arifin says that the government has plans to begin sweeps for further GAM weapons, something that GAM members say would destroy any confidence built over the past four months.

"We have laws that people can't have weapons. We trust the leaders, but if they lie in the peace process, then it will reduce the trust," says Arifin.

Juri Laas, spokesman for the AMM, admits that there is still much to be done. "It's quite natural for there to be some mistrust," he says. "This conflict has been going on for 30 years, and the peace process has been going for three months. It's in the initial stages."

After the disarmament and withdrawal phase, the focus will shift to local elections in which GAM members will be allowed to run, assuming the Indonesian parliament passes a law allowing local parties to form. Elections are scheduled for April. Some demobilized GAM fighters say there's still no program to give them land or jobs as promised in the peace plan.

AMM observers see the value of staying on, Mr. Laas adds, but to do that, the government of Indonesia and the GAM must ask for it. "Our mandate is to the 15th of March. If there is a request from the government or the GAM leadership to stay, it's hard to see how we could refuse that."

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