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Last Updated: Monday, 19 May, 2003, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Aceh: Why it all went wrong
By Kate McGeown
BBC News Online

Last December, it appeared that the long-running conflict in the Indonesian province of Aceh was finally coming to an end.

The government in Jakarta and the separatist rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) agreed to a peace deal that many greeted as a breakthrough capable of ending 26 years of violence.

But over the last few months, that peace deal has been looking increasingly fragile - and the resumption of military action may have finally sounded its death knell.

Indonesian marines on an amphibious armoured vehicle arrive at Samalanga in Aceh province

Sidney Jones, head of the International Crisis Group in Indonesia, said the deal was doomed from the start.

"Negotiations broke down because the agreement reached in December papered over huge differences between the two sides," she told BBC News Online.

Gam's main goal is Acehnese independence, a request that Jakarta is extremely unlikely to grant - a fact which was never fully addressed in the peace deal.

Under the December agreement, Jakarta said Aceh could have an autonomous government by 2004, which would keep 70% of the revenue generated from the province's rich oil reserves.

In return, the rebels agreed to abandon their claims for complete independence, and hand in their weapons.

Located on the northern tip of Sumatra island
Population of 4.3m people
Rich fuel resources, including oil and natural gas
Home to many conservative Islamists - last year, Sharia law was introduced
Gam rebels are fighting for an independent state

While the agreement initially seemed to work - with a noticeable reduction in violence on both sides - problems soon occurred when it came to demilitarisation.

From the beginning of February, the rebels were supposed to give up their weapons, while the Indonesian military withdrew to defensive positions. But neither Jakarta nor Gam fulfilled their side of the bargain.

John Sidel, a lecturer in South East Asian studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said he was not surprised the deal broke down during the disarmament phase.

"When it came down to the really crucial moves, neither side was willing to give in," Dr Sidel said.

He also said that the timing of Jakarta's military offensive was significant.

The government, he said, was capitalising on American goodwill after its crackdown on terror organisations in the aftermath of 11 September, and its progress in tracking down suspects in connection with last October's Bali bomb attacks.

In the current climate, Jakarta's insistence that a crackdown on Aceh would improve domestic stability was unlikely to gain much resistance from abroad, Dr Sidel said.

Separatist struggles

Analysts have compared the situation in Aceh to that of East Timor, where local separatists also fought a long battle against the Indonesian Government.

The people of Aceh are very frightened, and they have every reason to be
John Sidel

East Timor was finally granted independence from Jakarta on 20 May 2002.

Despite the obvious comparisons, Sidney Jones said that Gam had neither the legal basis nor the international support of the Timorese separatists.

Aceh was made part of the newly independent country of Indonesia when the Dutch colonialists left in 1945.

But East Timor was never part of that initial Indonesian archipelago, being independent at the time the Jakarta army invaded in 1975.

Sidney Jones says that one result of the battle for East Timor is that Indonesia is far more reluctant to let other renegade provinces - such as Aceh and Papua - break away from Jakarta.

"It's a matter of national pride to not let what happened in East Timor happen again," added Lesley McCullough, a Scottish academic imprisoned in Aceh in 2002 by the Indonesian Government.

'Shock therapy'

To the Acehnese people, the government's current military offensive is all too familiar.

Free Aceh Movement fighters
Gam rebels have been fighting a 26-year war for independence
There was a similar period of what Mr Sidel termed "shock therapy" in the early 1990s, during which thousands of Indonesian troops poured into the province to crack down on the rebels.

The lesson from that period, Dr Sidel said, was that military action only bred further resentment against the Jakarta Government.

Lesley McCullough also said the current military offensive would not work, saying the army was "fighting a guerrilla war it does not understand", and which it could never completely win.

But Indonesian military chief General Endriartono Sutarto insisted that the army could "suppress the power of Gam to a minimum" within six months.

In the meantime, the Acehnese people are once again facing an uncertain future.

"The people of Aceh are very frightened," said Dr Sidel, "and they have every reason to be."

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09 Dec 02 |  Asia-Pacific


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