Breakaway bids test Aceh's post-tsunami peace deal

Distrust of the provincial government runs deep in certain regions.

Indonesia's Aceh Province – still recovering from a separatist conflict as well as the 2004 tsunami – is confronting a political challenge from within.

The government recently contained a violent incident in its central highlands that threatened to reopen the decades-old armed conflict. But a political movement to form new provinces in the central region and the south could fracture Aceh anew.

No evidence has yet tied the March 1 killing of five former rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to the breakaway efforts. But in Aceh's central highlands, many residents deeply distrust former members of GAM, which negotiated a peace deal after the tsunami and won the provincial governorship in 2006 elections.

The breakaway efforts poses a serious challenge to Gov. Irwandi Yusuf, himself a former GAM rebel who once agitated for Aceh's independence from Indonesia and whose movement broadened autonomy for Aceh in the peace deal. It would test his government's authority and disperse Aceh's rich resources of timber, minerals, oil, gas, and arable volcanic soils.

Analysts say the movements, which date back to 2002, are fueled by the self-interest of local politicians who could increase their budgets as each province qualifies for central government funds. "It's about resources," says Sidney Jones, of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta. "People who want new provinces stand to get that money."

The lack of tsunami-related aid directed toward their area has been a particular point of contention for central highlanders. During the long separatist conflict, locals there formed militias loyal to the Indonesian military and clashed with GAM rebels. Leaders behind the breakaway movements have capitalized on perceptions that the Aceh government has let central and southern roads crumble and economic development languish even as billions of dollars have poured into provincial coffers and coastal communities as part of the 2005 peace deal and tsunami aid.

In recent weeks, the movements have staged mass rallies. Addressing one crowd in the Central Aceh capital of Takengon, leader Iwan Gayo had followers sign a petition in blood. Residents have also displayed pro-secession banners reading "No compromise" outside their homes. "There's been discrimination for a long time in these areas, and people are impassioned," says Humam Hamid, chairman of the Aceh Recovery Forum in Banda Aceh.

Meanwhile, national legislators in Jakarta recently approved the two provincial proposals, which would carve from Aceh the forested and coffee-growing central highlands and much of the southwest coast, including Simeuleu Island, home of a recent large fossil fuel discovery.

Against this backdrop, a dispute over control of the Takengon bus terminal between former GAM rebels and the transport workers union – many of them former members of pro-Jakarta militias – boiled into the violence that killed five former GAM members.

A spokesman for the former rebels, Ibrahim Syamsuddin, characterized the incident as bait to undermine the government. "People are fishing for new conflict," he said. Leaders of the movements condemned the violence. But Monday, when Governor Irwandi went to install two district leaders in southwestern Aceh, he met pro-secession banners.

Mr. Hamid, who ran for governor in the last election, says the movements capture legitimate popular concerns. "These are our people, we need to ... convince them that we would be better together and ... respond with some policies."

Irwandi has the final say under current law. And the peace agreement stipulates that Aceh's boundaries can't change. "I don't think they can [split Aceh] with all the investment of the international community in the treaty," says Anthony Reid, director of the Asia Research Institute in Singapore.

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