In tsunami's spindrift, a calming peace

People who discover a common humanity with one another usually don't wage war. Such a discovery happened a year ago in Indonesia after a tsunami hit Aceh Province, killing at least 156,000. Thursday, Aceh's long war appeared closed with an exit of troops.

Indonesia's government withdrew the last of 24,000 troops from the Sumatran province as promised under a post-tsunami peace accord. The pullout was the best sign yet of a permanent end to a 29-year civil war abruptly halted by the Indian Ocean disaster on Dec. 26, 2004.

The wave's massive destruction created such a shared feeling of instinctive, universal compassion for the people lost, and the nearly 2 million displaced survivors, that peace was the only option in a war that had seen 15,000 people killed, mainly civilians. War simply made no more sense.

The accord, mediated in Finland, led to both the planned pullout of the 24,000 soldiers and the disbanding of 3,000 separatist guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement, who are now returning to civilian life to help rebuild coastal villages. In exchange for the rebels giving up demands for an independent Aceh, the province will be allowed a large degree of autonomy, a strong regional legislature, and a majority share of the area's petroleum wealth.

The former guerrillas are now organizing political groups to run in elections promised for April. Indonesia's legislature must act soon to pass a law, as required under the accord, that will allow the elections to take place.

That next step would be consistent with the goodwill so far shown by Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, after the disaster. He showed effective leadership by opening Aceh to thousands of foreign workers, including the US military. Their presence not only forced both sides to avoid a return to war, but the accord also includes an "Aceh monitoring mission" of foreign observers.

This large humanitarian intervention, both to deal with the tragedy and to stop a war, should be a model for the international community. Swift response by foreign groups to natural disasters in many of the world's troublespots can build on local inclinations to end a conflict. The sharing of a tragedy often opens up people's thinking to basic shared values. It helps them rise above any hatred driven by race, ethnicity, religious differences, historic wrongs, or jealousy that comes from large disparities of wealth.

While Aceh could serve as a model, Sri Lanka may not. There, the tsunami caused less devastation, but it did lead to a temporary reconciliation between an ethnic Singalese-dominated government and ethnic Tamils seeking a homeland. Outbreaks of violence have resumed as the old mistrust sets in with disputes over rebuilding coastal areas. The island nation has not had enough leadership for peace and has had less foreign intervention than in Aceh.

Indonesia's peace and Aceh's new self-rule, too, need constant care so as not to let any violent incidents tap into lingering distrust between the military and the Achenese.

Memories of how the tsunami broke down old barriers, however, will last a long time. Each anniversary of this disaster, like this first anniversary, should be used to keep those memories alive.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.