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The Aceh Paradigm

By Bertil Lintner/Banda Aceh/Indonesia

Quiet negotiations have brought peace to the Indonesian province of Aceh, previously riven by a 30-year separatist war. Could the August 2005 peace agreement prove to be a model for other insurgencies in the region?

The guns have fallen silent in Aceh. The previously ubiquitous, military-manned roadblocks have been removed, and there are no more ambushes and hold-ups. For the first time in more than two decades, people can now travel safely between the towns and villages in the Indonesian province on the northern tip of Sumatra. Following a peace agreement signed in the Finnish capital Helsinki last August, the separatist Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, has now surrendered all its self-declared 840 weapons. The Indonesian military has already pulled out thousands of its 24,000 troops in the territory, and by year's end, only 14,700 remained.

Following 29 years of war, which has claimed 15,000 lives, the territory will have the first experiment with real, thought-out and peacefully negotiated autonomy in the region. And it should serve as a model for tackling insurgencies such as those in Burma, southern Philippines and southern Thailand.

"It's incredible," says Nani Afrida, a young Acehnese woman. "Before, the sound of gunfire woke me up in the middle of the night. Now, we can visit relatives and friends without fear."

If the peace process in Aceh succeeds--as it has, so far--it could also have a profound impact well beyond Indonesian shores. According to Thang D Nguyen, a Jakarta-based columnist and the author of two books about Indonesia, the Helsinki agreement can be "a shining example of peace-building for other nations, such as Thailand and the Philippines, which face similar challenges." And, perhaps some time in the future, even for military-controlled Burma.

During the Helsinki talks, GAM did not push for independence, and it agreed that the Indonesian government should remain responsible for foreign affairs, defense, monetary and fiscal matters. But Aceh gained the right to "use regional symbols including a flag, a crest and a hymn." It will also get its own legislature and be entitled to retain 70 percent of the revenues from "all current and future hydrocarbon deposits and other natural resources" in the territory, which is rich in oil and gas. Further, Aceh will have the right to "conduct trade and business internally and internationally and to seek foreign direct investment." The Acehnese language will be taught in the schools--along with the national tongue, Bahasa Indonesia--and members of the local police force "will receive special training in Aceh and overseas with emphasis on respect for human rights."

In the immediate future, GAM will also take part in the reconstruction of Aceh, which was closest to the earthquake epicenter, and was devastated by the December 2004 tsunami. And many observers believe that it was the tsunami which forced both sides in the conflict to realize that continued fighting would only bring more suffering to the territory. Instead, the two old foes sat down at the negotiating table in Helsinki, and the peace process began under the auspices of former Finnish president Martii Ahtisaari and his NGO, the Crisis Management Initiative.

After the signing of the agreement on August 15, the next step was its implementation, which required international supervision. A month later, the Aceh Monitoring Mission was established by the EU, Norway, Switzerland, and five Asean countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Singapore. The formation of the AMM was requested by the Indonesian government. The five Asean members are there as individual countries, not representing the grouping--which would compromise the Asean code of non-interference in each other's internal affairs.

But serious problems still remain. Despite all the progress, the Helsinki agreement remains a memorandum of understanding. It will not become a law until ratified by the Indonesian parliament, and many lawmakers in Jakarta have repeatedly warned that allowing such wide-ranging self-rule as the Helsinki agreement lays down could lead to the breakup of the country. On December 12, the Indonesian government also said that it "could not guarantee" that the law would come into force before March 31, the deadline stipulated in the peace deal. GAM spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah, who last November returned to Aceh from 25 years in exile, mostly in Sweden, describes himself as still being "cautiously optimistic," but worried about unexpected maneuvers from elements within the Indonesian establishment. If that happens, the entire peace process may be derailed, says Abdullah.

GAM was formed in 1976 by Hasan di Tiro, a descendant of the old sultans of Aceh, who had given up his career as a businessman in New York and briefly returned to his homeland. He declared independence for the territory from a jungle camp, where the first armed units also were formed. Aceh, he argued, was an independent nation before it was occupied by the Dutch colonial power in the early 1900s. It became part of independent Indonesia when the Dutch withdrew in the late 1940s--but should, according to di Tiro and GAM, have the right to revert to its former status as an independent country.

Others, however, refuse to talk about independence, and following the return of Abdullah last November, AMM head Pieter Feith of the Netherlands urged other GAM leaders to return as well, saying that they could "play an important role" in the peaceful development of the territory. Like Abdullah, most other political leaders of GAM, including founder di Tiro and "prime minister" Malik Mahmood, also live in Sweden. But their return and the transformation of GAM to a political party, which will take part in local elections, remain two of the most controversial aspects of the peace agreement. Currently, every party in Indonesia has to be represented in at least half of the country's 32 provinces, and must be headquartered in Jakarta.

Many politicians view GAM leaders as "traitors" and fear that if the Acehnese are allowed to set up local political parties, other regions will demand the same, and then the disintegration of the sprawling archipelago, with its 212 million population, may be inevitable. The day after the Helsinki agreement was signed, former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid wrote on his website: "Oh God, the country which has been united by our founding fathers will now be divided."

Another former president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, has also criticized the deal. In May 2003, she sent 35,000 troops into Aceh to crush the rebellion--the largest military operation in Indonesia's history since the failed invasion of East Timor in December 1975. But that has not deterred her, or others, from advocating force rather than a political solution.

Many Indonesians have not forgotten that they lost East Timor following a UN-supervised referendum in August 1999, and they fear that now it is Aceh's turn to break away. But the East Timor issue was very different from Aceh and other ethnic trouble spots in Indonesia. According to Indonesia's first constitution, the new country comprised all the territories of the former Dutch East Indies, which did not include East Timor, then a Portuguese colony. For Aceh to go the same way would be much more difficult, and a complete separation of the territory from Indonesia would hardly get support from the international community, without whose backing the UN initiative in East Timor would not have been possible.

This year will be crucial not only for Aceh but also for Indonesia as a whole and even its neighbors. A successful final resolution to the conflict could inspire Thailand to adopt a similar approach to the problems in its ethnic Malay-Muslim-dominated southern provinces, or the Philippines to find a new solution to the age-old southern Mindanao Muslim issue. If it fails, it's back to war--and there will be few advocates for such a soft approach to other ethnic conflicts in the region.

Perhaps it's too far-fetched to expect the Burmese regime to heed the Aceh model in their essentially military approach to the country's ethnic insurgencies. After all, Burma's rulers are generals.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, January 2006

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