The Aceh accord

Published : Sep 09, 2005 00:00 IST

Peace may yet have a chance in the troubled Indonesian province as the government and the GAM rebels sign a deal in Helsinki.


AN air of optimism enveloped the corridors of power in Jakarta as the Indonesian government and the guerillas of the "Free Aceh Movement" (GAM) signed an agreement on August 16 in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Seasoned diplomats and analysts in East Asia, however, kept their fingers crossed, waiting to see the emergence of the promised new political dispensation in the troubled Aceh province.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono instantly signalled his readiness for reconciliation with the rebels. Thanking them for making the accord possible, he referred to the truce-signing rebels as "our brothers and sisters who were previously grouped under the GAM". While the statement indicated his mood for reconciliation, his new perception of GAM as an organisation of the past is significant. Yudhoyono seems to believe that he has succeeded where his predecessors failed. Two past Presidents had unsuccessfully tried to work out a peace deal with the GAM. The first accord was signed in May 2000 to begin "a humanitarian pause" in the cycle of violence in Aceh for the explicit purpose of finding a political solution and the second "Cessation of Hostilities Agreement" was signed in December 2002, also as a prelude to renewed efforts for a peaceful settlement of the "separatist crisis".

Seated in the Merdeka [Freedom] Palace, the presidential mansion in Jakarta, Yudhoyono witnessed the signing of the latest deal on television. The signatories were Indonesian Minister for Justice and Human Rights Hamid Awaluddin and the self-styled "Prime Minister of Aceh in exile", Malik Mahmud.

Another reason for Yudhoyono's description of the GAM as a thing of the past is the general assessment, across East Asia, that the tsunami disaster of December 2004, which claimed the lives of over 130,000 Aceh residents, effectively eroded the political base of the "freedom fighters".

Yudhoyono thanked former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, his Crisis Management Initiative and the Finland government for their endeavours. Indonesia is no stranger to such external facilitation of peace efforts concerning its internal politics. The stage for the 2000 deal with the GAM, for example, was set by the Switzerland-based Henry Dunant Centre. For Yudhoyono, the thank-you list covers the European Union (E.U.) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Volunteer-members from these organisations will monitor the accord.

KEY elements of the new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) are (1) an almost-plenary functional autonomy for Aceh on local, as distinct from national, issues; (2) approval for the formation of province-level political parties under a stipulated process, with polls in Aceh set for April 2006; (3) big revenue allocations for Aceh as regards the hydrocarbon reserves there; (4) the constitution of a local human rights court and a truth and reconciliation commission; (5) the unconditional release of GAM prisoners, amnesty for them and steps for their reintegration into civil society; (6) decommissioning of arms and ammunition by GAM rebels; (7) a phased relocation of the Indonesian military and police units in terms of set timelines and in step with the GAM's own demobilisation; and (8) the monitoring of the deal-implementation by volunteer-countries from the ranks of the ASEAN and the E.U.

What aided the accord crucially, according to diplomats in the region, is the move by the GAM to give up its demand for independence. While the tsunami took much wind out of the GAM's political sails, the international community's growing interest in the province became an important factor. This necessitated a greater sense of transparency on the part of the GAM and the Indonesian authorities. And transparency and guerilla warfare do not always go together.

Now, though the mood of the Yudhoyono adminstration and the GAM leadership is one of optimism in the immediate context of the accord some finer points of the MoU may pose political challenges to both sides if they fail to navigate carefully, the diplomats emphasised.

As for the new political rights granted to the province, the Indonesian authorities will allow, under a timeline, "the establishment of Aceh-based political parties that meet national criteria". The pronounced accent on "national criteria" in this regard was not what the GAM really wanted. To meet the GAM's demand in some measure, it has now been agreed that the Central government in Jakarta will create, within 12 to 18 months and "in consultation" with Parliament, the necessary "political and legal conditions for the establishment of local political parties in Aceh". The fine print about legal "conditions" and political "consultation" will call for a tightrope walk by the Yudhoyono administration in a country which is not used to much diversity in politics.

The efficacy of another key provision, too, will hinge on the extent of mutual trust among the players and on the skills of the external monitors, particularly in verifying impartially the relocation of the military and police units in "parallel" with the GAM's decommissioning measures.

In spite of such ifs and buts, an economic "bonus" for Aceh, if not its "right", is the new entitlement to "70 per cent of the revenues from all current and future hydrocarbon deposits and other natural resources" on land and in the territorial waters surrounding the province.

Rizal Sukma, a strategic affairs specialist who studied the "security operations in Aceh" under the auspices of the Washington-based East-West Centre, and other experts have called for "local governance reform" and "non-military measures" to address Aceh's sense of alienation from the rest of Indonesia.

The "irony" is that the GAM, more a champion of Islamic rule than of ethnic rights of Aceh, had, in the first place, raised the banner of revolt against Muslim-majority Indonesia. This aspect will need to be addressed carefully as the new accord is implemented.

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