Rebels hold key to peace in Aceh province

But a new peace deal may be elusive as GAM is a fragmented outfit with autonomous entities.

The images are glaringly different.

For the last three weeks, Indonesian soldiers in camouflage fatigues have besieged some 200 rebels in the little-known village of Cot Trieng in North Aceh in an attempt to force them into peace talks with Jakarta.

The military claims that the encircled Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels tried several times to breach the blockade and there has been regular exchange of fire with troops over the last few days.

But halfway across the world in Geneva, Switzerland, things are a lot rosier.

After almost two years of talks mediated by the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, the Indonesian government and separatists are close to inking a peace agreement next month.

Against the continued violence and bloodshed in Aceh that has killed thousands over the last 26 years, can this deal be a real turning point for the violence-prone province?

If anything, peace will be just as elusive given the differing perceptions to the problem by both Jakarta and the rebels. On the face of it, Indonesia is keener of the two for an agreement to be sealed.

In fact, Jakarta initially wanted it concluded by Nov 23, only to have it extended by two weeks during the talks.

For Indonesia, the upshot of a peace deal would mean that it would be able to keep the restive province within its fold without a messy and protracted guerilla war with rebels.

GAM, on its part, would have to abandon its long-held dream of independence by armed force and accept whatever terms and conditions offered by Jakarta.

Security czar Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, reflecting a widely held view here, said: ‘If they accept the special autonomy, then it means they are surrendering their fight for freedom.’

On paper, the agreement looks good – for Jakarta and President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Besides greater autonomy – which means a larger slice of the revenue from the rich oil and gas reserves in the province – there will also be elections for a provincial legislature and local administration.

The proposed peace plan includes setting up a joint 150-member committee to monitor security, investigate violations and impose sanctions to restore calm when violations occur.

If only it was so simple. The key really is GAM’s response.

Initially, the exiled leaders of the movement backed the deal.

But yesterday, they appeared to be backtracking, saying in a statement from Sweden signed by chief peace negotiator Zaini Abdullah that it had not agreed to sign the accord yet.

This was contrary to word that was passed to the rebels’ spokesman on Tuesday that an agreement was reached and that the deal would be signed on Dec 9.

A Henry Dunant Centre spokesman told news agencies that it was trying to clarify just what the GAM representative was up to.

Analysts believe that such conflicting signals are due mainly to pressures from hardline factions within GAM who are opposed to any deal with Jakarta.

Getting the full cooperation of the separatists will be a tall order – not just for the Indonesian government, but from the looks of it, also for the moderates within the rebel group.

GAM, after all, is a highly fragmented outfit, with its district-based chapters operating as autonomous entities. The Jakarta-based Control Risks Group noted in a recent report: ‘To expect that all of these factions will comply with a ceasefire is probably unrealistic.

‘What’s more, GAM and the Acehnese in general are probably suspicious of government intentions and are undoubtedly busy caching weapons to fight another day.’

That explains why some of the rebels are uneasy at arrangements under which they would stockpile weapons and at the possible role of the somewhat brutal police paramilitary force in ceasefire areas.

GAM’s less than united reaction to the peace plan is also fodder for the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) to go on the offensive.

The military has never really been supportive of the civilian government’s approach of resolving matters with separatists by peaceful dialogue.

Force was the only option for the TNI.

Even if the peace plan is implemented, there is no guarantee that lower-level commanders will follow it, given that the dynamics on the ground can sometimes take on a life of its own.

The experiences elsewhere in Indonesia in recent years – in Maluku and Poso, for example – are instructive.

Deals were cut, peace agreements between rival sides were signed only to be abandoned weeks later. Aceh may be no different.

Indonesia and GAM have signed agreements on several occasions in the past, including one on a cessation of hostilities, but to little effect given the historical baggage and motivations of its principal actors.

The new deal may not be that different.

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