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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 January, 2005, 15:18 GMT
Will Indonesia seize its chance?
By Sidney Jones
Regional analyst

The tsunami disaster that struck Aceh could change the dynamics of the long-running conflict there between government forces and pro-independence fighters - but only if the relief effort is well handled.

Ikram, a 15-year-old Acehnese boy who lost his mother in the wave, sits in tricycle in Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra
When the wave hit, Aceh was already isolated from the world

If it isn't, resentment of Acehnese toward the central government could increase, and we could all be back to square one.

Aceh has a proud history of resisting outside rule.

It held out longer against the colonial administration than any other part of the old Dutch East Indies.

After enthusiastically joining the war of independence from the Netherlands, it embarked on armed rebellion in the early 1950s because Jakarta failed to deliver on promises to give it special status.

The current phase of the conflict began with the creation of the Free Aceh Movement - Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Gam) - in 1976.

Indonesian troops patrol as they sweep the area after a fire fight with separatist rebels near a river in Lhok Nga district in Aceh Jaya, Indonesia
It will not lead to negotiations with the rebels, because the military is... convinced that talking is a sign of weakness

By May 2003, when negotiations between Gam and the government broke down and the government declared martial law, Gam was thought to have about 5,000 armed fighters.

Damaged but intact

Last September, the Indonesian military claimed that since martial law, it had killed 2,879 Gam members, arrested 1,798 and accepted the surrender of 1,954.

Not all of these would have been armed regulars - indeed, it is likely that many of those killed were not Gam as alleged - but probably should be added to the official tally of some 600 civilians killed.

Few figures on the war are verifiable, and few claims can be taken at face value.

The general sense was that during almost a year and a half of intensive counterinsurgency operations, some 30,000 security forces had pushed Gam back into the hills, dealt a severe blow to the lower ranks of the organization, but left the leadership largely intact.

The tsunami hit only a few months into the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who promised during his campaign to look for non-military solutions to Aceh.

But he put no new ideas on the table and, in November, he extended the state of emergency in Aceh for another six months.

Friction

When the waves struck, Aceh had been closed to most foreign organizations and the international media for 18 months.

The relief and reconstruction efforts now underway will help keep Aceh open, and this in turn will likely lead to pressure for an end to the emergency.

It will not lead to negotiations with the rebels, because the military is dead set against the idea, convinced that talking is a sign of weakness, that it gives Gam legitimacy that it does not deserve, and that it would undo all its efforts to crush the insurgency by force.

Can military operations and a state of emergency co-exist with a huge international relief effort without running into serious friction?

If the Indonesian military continue to work alongside relief agencies and cannot separate its humanitarian and counterinsurgency roles, it could undermine what should be the apolitical nature of humanitarian relief.

Does the same person who helps construct new housing monitor the inhabitants and create new fears?

Taking the chance

There is less of a Gam presence in the Meulaboh area on the west coast than on the east, but Gam is never very far from the main road linking the cities of Banda Aceh and Medan, a vital artery for overland relief deliveries.

The first signs of such friction could produce two very different outcomes: more international pressure on the Indonesian government and Gam for a de facto ceasefire, or more restrictions on the agencies, hampering their efforts.

Aisyah, a 22-year-old survivor of the tsunami, who lost her only child, peers out from a tent at a refugee centre on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, Sumatra island, Indonesia
The relief effort is likely to keep Aceh open for now

The military and other government agencies need also to understand how much depends on smooth aid flows.

In many parts of Aceh, dissatisfaction with the government tends to lead to support for Gam, despite the latter's none-too-stellar record on human rights.

If the government does not get in place a smooth machine for delivering aid, we are going to have anger at Jakarta, and in some areas, a new rationale for recruitment into the insurgency.

The problem is that the same old government institutions, mired in corruption, incompetence and inertia, have been mobilized for a task that is larger than they have ever had to handle before, and it is not clear that they are up to the job.

This disaster has created opportunities for conflict resolution. The question is whether anyone will seize them.

Sidney Jones is South East Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group


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