Truce for now, but Aceh rebels won’t give up armed struggle

TSUNAMI AFTERMATH

They pledge temporary ceasefire but insist on carrying on their fight for independence.

ACEH’S exiled leadership in Sweden declared yesterday that they would continue their armed struggle for independence in the tsunami-hit province as reports of fresh fighting between separatists and Indonesian soldiers began to emerge.

The rebels’ foreign minister, Mr Zaini Abdullah, told The Straits Times that the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) had pledged a temporary unilateral ceasefire following the Dec 26 disaster.

But the long-term goal for a separate state remained very much on the cards, he said.

‘We will not give up our struggle,’ he said in a telephone interview from Stockholm.

‘Of course, we want to resolve this problem peacefully. But reconciliation means different things for both parties.

‘For the political elite in Jakarta, peace means Aceh being part of Indonesia.

‘For us, there will be peace only if we break away from Indonesia. There will never be a meeting of minds.’

His comments took place against a backdrop of simmering tensions between GAM and Indonesian security forces over the past week.

Indonesia’s national police chief Da’i Bachtiar revealed on Saturday that separatists were beginning to ambush aid convoys.

He said they were also attacking government troops, killing a policeman in a firefight on Friday.

There were unconfirmed reports of skirmishes in Lhokseumawe and Pidie.

However, Mr Zaini brushed aside the accusations as ‘another burst of Indonesian propaganda’, making clear that GAM did not have a history of targeting foreigners.

But political observers believe that following the disaster, the military command structure of the separatist movement is in danger of ‘breaking down’ into autonomous units, although rebel leaders insist that their field commander Muzakkir Maruf is still in charge.

GAM, despite its geographical isolation in the rugged mountains and jungles of Aceh, has been hard-hit by the crisis.

Their logistic support bases, mainly villages and hamlets along the coastlines, have been decimated by the tsunami, leaving their troops without immediate supplies of food, weapons and money.

Numbers are not yet available, but many captured GAM field commanders in prisons along the coast have also perished.

A prison in the outskirts of Meulaboh was destroyed by the tsunami, leaving all its inmates dead.

The earthquake also damaged GAM’s field communications.

Intelligence officials disclosed that although some separatists use battery-operated satellite phones, such tools are expensive and most end up using simple mobile phones.

But for the past two weeks, mobile phones had been inoperable, especially in Banda Aceh.

A more immediate challenge for GAM is maintaining its relevance in the face of the crisis.

So far, the group has been able to do little, being overshadowed by the Indonesian military (TNI).

The TNI, with some 30,000 soldiers in the field, has been coordinating relief efforts, gaining favourable local and international media coverage.

Despite Mr Zaini’s confidence of winning over 80 per cent of the Acehnese electorate if there was a vote for independence, the tsunami disaster could turn the tide in favour of the Jakarta government.

The crisis is likely to dampen demands for separation in the short term and create a major opportunity for the TNI to build goodwill.

Like the Irish Republican Army in Ireland, GAM has alienated much of the local population through extortion, forced cooperation and violence.

A senior Indonesian intelligence official told The Straits Times: ‘GAM has squandered a lot of goodwill that its exiled government won over after Suharto’s fall.

‘This is a golden opportunity for us to cover ground.’

The key now will be whether the TNI bungles this chance.

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