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Sunday, 8 December, 2002, 19:27 GMT
Analysis: Will Aceh's deal work?
Aceh's Gam fighters
Rebel fighters say they have huge support

The Indonesian Government has signed an agreement with rebels of the Free Aceh Movement that could bring to an end a 26-year war. But can the deal be made to work on the ground?

Two years of often tortuous peace talks, mediated with considerable skill by the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre, appear to have finally paid off.

It's vital that Aceh's citizens see that their lives are demonstrably improved

Andrew Steer, World Bank director for Indonesia
The Indonesian Government and rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, better known by its Indonesian acronym, Gam, have put their signatures on a deal aimed at ending one of South East Asia's longest running civil conflicts.

On paper at least, the two sides are committed to peace.

But how deep does that commitment run?

Human rights abuses

Decades of conflict have engendered deep mistrust on both sides.

Map of Indonesia showing Aceh and Jakarta

Human rights organisations have documented a catalogue of abuses - torture, rape and summary executions - most, though by no means all, committed by Indonesian security forces.

The majority of the more than 10,000 victims of the fighting have been civilians.

Many long-term observers of the conflict believe there can never be a lasting peace in Aceh unless human rights abuses are fully investigated.

But investigating the past will have to wait. For now the focus is on the immediate future.

Rebels suspicious

The agreement signed in Geneva is in effect a ceasefire with a peace process to follow.

Assuming the initial phases go smoothly, the plan is to hold free elections in 2004 to establish an autonomous government in the resource-rich province.

The first step is an immediate end of hostilities, with Indonesian security forces and Gam rebel fighters withdrawing to agreed positions, under the supervision of up to 150 international monitors.

When and if the ceasefire is deemed to be working effectively, the rebels are supposed to disarm, placing their weapons in designated sites.

This has been a major sticking point in negotiations and may yet prove to be a problem in the implementation of the deal.

The rebels are deeply suspicious that as soon as they hand over their weapons, the Indonesian military will strike.

Equally there are questions over who will designate the sites for the weapons dumps, and who will have access to them.

Boost for president?

And there are vested interests on the ground that will be hard to uproot.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri
Megawati is a profound believer in Indonesia's unity

Both Gam rebels and Indonesian security officers are involved in a number of lucrative schemes, from protection rackets to exploiting Aceh's timber reserves to controlling the province's trade in marijuana.

But despite the difficulties, there are real incentives for both sides to make this deal work.

Since she came to power last year, President Megawati Sukarnoputri has made finding a solution to the Aceh problem one of her government's top priorities.

A staunch nationalist, President Megawati is a profound believer in the unity of the Republic of Indonesia.

There was no way she was ever going to agree to full independence for the province.

But she has made significant compromises.

The autonomy package allows a future provincial government to introduce Sharia or Islamic law, and to keep up to 70% of its revenues from oil and gas production.

If she can make the deal stick, it will be a considerable achievement for the president and could well boost her chances of re-election in two years time.

Trade-off for rebels

For Gam, the deal also represents a compromise.

Rebels stand at attention as the banned Crescent Star flag
International support for rebels' cause is wearing thin

It is not the independence that rebels have been fighting for, but it's the best offer ever made by the Indonesian authorities.

And the rebels know that international support for their cause is wearing thin.

In the current political climate, separatist rebel groups fighting to create an independent Islamic state are viewed with a good deal of suspicion.

And given that Aceh sits in a strategically important position at the mouth of the Malacca straits, one of the world's busiest waterways and a vital route for oil to the West, there are obvious international interests in establishing peace in the province.

But there is a trade-off.

After years of conflict Aceh will need significant financial support for reconstruction.

In recognition of that fact, potential international donors gathered in Japan on 3 December to start the planning process.

As one delegate to the conference, the World Bank's director for Indonesia, Andrew Steer, put it - if the peace is to work "it's vital that Aceh's citizens see that their lives are demonstrably improved".

Aceh's citizens have been at the centre of the conflict, and now it seems there is a general recognition that if the agreement is to work, they must be at the centre of plans for Aceh's future.

After more than two decades of conflict, Aceh's civilian population is profoundly war-weary.

Both the Indonesian Government and the rebels will have to show genuine commitment to make it work.

But whatever its flaws, the deal signed in Geneva offers the best chance yet for a peaceful future for Aceh.

See also:

04 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
20 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
22 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
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