Peace deal raises doubts, hopes in Indonesia's Aceh

By Achmad Sukarsono

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, July 18 (Reuters) - People in Aceh reacted cautiously on Monday to a deal aimed at ending 30 years of civil war in the Indonesian province devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Unlike an agreement reached in late 2002 that had Acehnese crowding newspaper stalls for the details, the new deal failed to distract people from going about business as usual.

The huge black and white mosque that dominates the centre of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, had a routine schedule of prayers, not the special programmes for peace of 2002.

That year's agreement fell apart in a few months with the government and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels blaming each other. Some feared the latest deal, negotiated in Finland, would follow that pattern.

"All this is only promises, just like the promises from previous negotiations," newspaper agent Joni Sukandar told Reuters in Banda Aceh, 1,700 km (about 1,000 miles) northwest of Jakarta on Sumatra's northern tip.

"We are not pro-GAM or pro-RI (Republic of Indonesia). We are only pro-peace. But whenever there is negotiation there is always a clash. They talk up there but they fight down here."

The peace deal was the top story in Aceh's leading newspaper, but its editorial of the day was on bird flu.

The peace talks which began in January in Helsinki failed to stop sporadic battles in Aceh. In 30 years of fighting some 12,000 people, mostly civilians, have died.

"I'm happy to hear the news of peace," said elementary school teacher Rusmini, 35. "But it's a normal thing. I've heard this before, so let's see how it goes," she said at her school in Peukan Bada on the outskirts of Banda Aceh.

Of the school's 300 students, only 60 survived the tsunami, which flattened the school buildings. Rusmini and her students held their Monday lessons in a tent.

The killer waves left about 170,000 dead or missing in Aceh. Many hope a peace deal will smooth the way for a $5 billion rebuilding programme which relies heavily on foreign donors.

"With this peace agreement all of our rehabilitation efforts can be performed more smoothly," Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the Indonesian head of the reconstruction effort, told Reuters.

Early in the talks GAM dropped its demand for independence, and in the fifth session ending on Sunday the government moved to accommodate GAM's request for political participation in Aceh.

Details are still fuzzy on that and some other points ahead of a scheduled signing in Helsinki on Aug. 15. But Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla has indicated that GAM could move to set up an Aceh-based national party within existing laws, and a purely local party for GAM could come later.


The latter would require approval by parliament, where the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Kalla have a majority coalition, albeit a shaky one not prone to easily meeting every government request.

Masduki Baidlowi, a Muslim leader and a deputy in parliament of the Nation Awakening Party, a swing group, said in Jakarta: "What the Indonesian government and GAM have achieved in Helsinki is a big result."

"I am really optimistic that it will work," he told Reuters, adding that GAM should be allowed to organise politically so long as it did not push for the break-up of the Indonesian state.

Members of the leading opposition group, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), wanted to see the deal's details, but were sceptical.

"GAM always violates their promises ... We have to be cautious, and very, very cautious," PDI-P member of parliament Permadi told Reuters in Jakarta.

Aside from the political issue, the Helsinki agreement carries provisions for disarming GAM, withdrawing Indonesian troops and monitoring a ceasefire.

General Endriartono Sutarto, commander of Indonesia's military, told reporters in Jakarta that "if GAM has committed on the handing over their weapons, then we have no reason again to have TNI (the Indonesian military) staying in Aceh."

He said he had heard there was a three-month time frame for GAM to turn in weapons and the military to pull back, but added the precise mechanisms had yet to be discussed.

Arguments over disarmament and alleged failures to follow through were a key reason the 2002 agreement collapsed.

Until the new deal was signed TNI would "try to show GAM our goodwill (and) no longer do any offensive activities. Whether GAM will do the same, we'll just have to see," Sutarto said.

A statement from GAM's military on Monday reported two exchanges of fire on Sunday but no casualties.

Aceh, a resource-rich, devoutly Muslim province of 4 million people, has a long history of revolt against Jakarta and Dutch colonial rule. One issue in the GAM rebellion has been natural gas resources and how much revenue goes to the province.

(With additional reporting by Telly Nathalia, Adriana Nina Kusuma and Ade Rina in Jakarta)


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