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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March 2005, 13:13 GMT
Aceh looks for new political future
By Rachel Harvey
BBC News, Aceh

By the end of this month, the Indonesian government is expected to have made public its plans for the reconstruction of Aceh.

It will herald the start of a new phase in the province's slow recovery, after the devastation wrought by last December's earthquake and tsunami.

Hasyim, an Acehnese fisherman, cleans his boat in Meuloboh, Indonesia, Friday, March 18, 2005.
Aceh is trying to rebuild not just physically, but politically
And in recent weeks, hopes have been raised that alongside the physical rebuilding, there is now also a chance to construct a new political future for the province.

For the past three decades, Aceh has been wracked by a brutal conflict between Indonesian security forces and separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym, Gam.

In the past 22 months, according to the military, more than 2,000 suspected rebels have been killed, although human rights organisations say many of the victims were civilians. Both sides stand accused of serious abuses including torture, intimidation, extortion and rape.

But then nature intervened.

More than 220,000 people are feared dead in Aceh as a result of the tsunami disaster. Among the victims were hundreds of military personnel, whose barracks were washed away.

Members of Gam hold a short presser after ending the second negotiations with President Ahtisaari's office CMI and the representatives of Indonesian government in Helsinki, Finland 23 February 2005
Gam wants to be able to campaign in elections
The rebels, hiding in the hills, were largely spared, but almost all lost family members.

An informal truce was declared, with both sides saying they would cease offensive operations to allow relief workers to do their job.

Aceh, which had previously been effectively closed to international aid workers and journalists, was suddenly open again.

In the midst of the tragedy, the Indonesian government and the political leadership of the rebel movement, in exile in Sweden, saw an opportunity to try to bring the conflict to an end.

Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic who has been acting as an advisor to the rebels, said the international attention had made a big difference.

"There was a recognition from international governments that the Republic of Indonesia and Gam needed to stop this [conflict] from being an impediment to the reconstruction project. And the pressure is on both sides," he said.

In February, informal talks, negotiated by the former Finnish President, Marti Ahtisaari, were held in Helsinki. Another round followed in March which produced some tentative signs of progress.

Gam, for the first time, said it was willing to put its demand for independence to one side. But the rebels repeated their rejection of the Indonesian government's offer of special autonomy.

[Local people] want peace. They want to be able to go to the market without having to worry. They don't want to be scared when they are in their paddy fields
Fakhrurradzie, Aceh magazine editor
Instead, Gam proposed what it called self government. Until now it has not been clear exactly what that means.

But Mr Kingsbury, who was in Helsinki for both rounds of discussions, said one key element would be a future political role for Gam.

"There would have to be changes to the election law whereby local political parties could stand for election," he said.

"Gam would then reconstitute itself as a purely political party and it would contest those elections. If it won, it would have the right to form the local government and pass its own laws. If it didn't win it would have to respect the outcome," he said.

Before elections could be held there would have to be a formal ceasefire on the ground, monitored by international troops.

A third round of discussions, aimed at thrashing out the broad outlines of an agreement, is scheduled for mid April.

Clashes

But while the talks appear, for now at least, to be progressing, on the ground there are signs that the informal truce is fraying.

Over the past few weeks there has been a noticeable increase in the number of clashes between Gam and Indonesian security forces.

Fakhrurradzie, editor of the monthly magazine Aceh Kita, said he was getting regular reports from the field, but it was almost impossible to pin down the details.

Indonesian soldiers patrol the road from Banda Aceh to points on Aceh's west coast, 21/02/2005
There is still substantial distrust between the military and the rebels
"Is it both sides fighting each other or just one side attacking? I'm not sure. If we ask Gam, they say they are still observing their ceasefire. If we ask the TNI [Indonesian military] they say they didn't start it," he said.

Rebel commanders say the Indonesian military has resumed its "sweepings" of local villages, and is intimidating the local population.

The Indonesian military commander in Aceh, Major General Endang Suwarya, recently accused Gam of bad faith.

"Gam have bad intentions" he said "They are attacking the military, civilians and humanitarian workers. Gam are liars."

After nearly 30 years of conflict, such levels of animosity and mistrust are perhaps not surprising. But they will have to be overcome if there is to be any realistic chance of peace.

And then there are the long suffering Acehnese civilians.

No agreement will work without the support of local people. But only a few activists and intellectuals in Aceh seem to be following the details of what is being discussed in Helsinki.

There are more pressing concerns in these post-tsunami days, like how to rebuild shattered homes and livelihoods.

But, said Fakhrurradzie of Aceh Kita, people are clear about the kind of future they would like.

"They want peace. They want to be able to go to the market without having to worry. They don't want to be scared when they are in their paddy fields. No more gun fights," he said.

Whatever the obstacles to a lasting agreement - and they are substantial - the talks in far off Finland offer the best hope yet of a peaceful future for Aceh.


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