In Post-Tsunami Indonesia, New Hopes for End to Separatist Conflict

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

( - An announcement that the Indonesian government and separatist rebels in Aceh will resume long-frozen peace talks has raised hopes that the recent tsunami disaster will be a catalyst in efforts to end one of the region's longest and bloodiest conflicts.

The Crisis Management Initiative, a non-governmental organization headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, said it would host the talks in Finland later this week.

It declined to comment further, citing the sensitivity of the meeting and the need "to create a conducive atmosphere."

A 29-year-old war between Jakarta and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) worsened in 2003 when talks broke down, a ceasefire collapsed and the military launched a new offensive.

More than 12,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the conflict.

Bakhtiar Abdullah, a spokesman for GAM's exiled leadership based in Sweden, confirmed representatives would attend the talks in Finland.

Indonesian military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto also announced a halt in operations against GAM forces in a bid to give the talks a chance.

Aceh, an oil- and gas-rich province of 4.4 million people on the northeastern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, has a long history of resistance to outside rule, having fought against Dutch colonizers and the Japanese wartime occupation last century.

GAM claims Aceh should never have become part of Indonesia after independence from the Dutch was won following World War II, and has rejected Jakarta's offers of limited autonomy.

Last month's tsunami, which hit Aceh worse than any other area, interrupted but did not end the fighting.

Since the natural disaster, and despite an unofficial ceasefire called by both sides because of the crisis, the military claims to have killed between 120 and 200 rebels in more than 80 clashes.

GAM said most of those killed were civilians. It also accused the military of misusing humanitarian aid, while military officials said some of the rebels killed had been interfering in the relief effort.

Hopes for a positive turn in the conflict rose somewhat after the election last year of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former defense chief who pledged while campaigning to find a solution.

The focus was further sharpened by the tsunami, which devastated the province and cost more than 170,000 Indonesian lives.

Noting that Indonesia's monetary crisis in the 1990s had helped bring about a process of democratization in the country, Indonesian specialist Damien Kingsbury of Australia's Deakin University predicted that the natural disaster could similarly herald political change.

Kingsbury laid out five basic options for settlement of the Aceh crisis, and quickly ruled out the first three - an end to the rebellion and acceptance by GAM of the status quo; the government agreeing to GAM demands for independence; and the military defeat of GAM.

A fourth option was an immediate ceasefire and immediate settling of all outstanding claims, but Kingsbury said there was too little trust between the sides for a quick resolution.

The fifth option, he said, envisaged a ceasefire while full attention and resources were given to the post-tsunami reconstruction effort. "Such a ceasefire should, over time, build a sense of 'normalization' and trust, allowing a meaningful dialogue over Aceh's longer-term future."

Kingsbury said genuine autonomy, within Indonesia, for Aceh would require the province to enjoy self-government in all matters but foreign affairs, aspects of external defense, and elements of taxation.

"But most importantly, genuine autonomy would mean the dissolution of all combatant parties within Aceh. That is, GAM would cease to exist as a military force, militias would be disarmed and disbanded, and the TNI [Indonesian military] would be required to leave."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow