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Aceh: A celebration of peace

Updated On: Aug 18, 2006

Malek bin Mahmud, former leader of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) said in a dialogue between Vice President Jusuf Kalla and ulemas and local leaders: "The one-year peace runs well and the conflict is over. It is noted in history. Security has improved down to the remote villages in Aceh…For me, peace is a history of life which is never forgotten. Now I can stand in my own country after leaving it for 30 years."

For his role in the peace process, Malek received an Aceh Cultural Honorary Award and, as a sign of reconciliation, he delivered his message of gratitude for the award in Bahasa Indonesia for the first time. Malek was gracious and publicly praised the Indonesian leaders for the return to peace.  Former Finnish President (currently Crisis Management Initiative, CMI director) Marti Ahtisaari who acted as a negotiator for GAM also received award for his role.

Ironically, it took a huge natural disaster to pull this together. The notorious tsunami in December 2004, which killed close to 200,000 people in Aceh, prompted the rebels to call for a ceasefire. It is now hoped that the reconciliation will bring about peace dividends to repair damage from at least 30 years of fighting.   During the war years, civilians walked the streets in the night at their own peril with a nagging fear of being kidnapped or shot at. There are no official figures on the total number of civilians being killed. But GAM's spokesman now touted Aceh as “one of the safest places in earth. I can drive in the middle of the night without any problem".

While the fighting may be over, there are still lots of work to be done. The biggest challenge for Aceh and Indonesia is integrating the estimated 3,000 ex-rebels back into society and providing them with job security. Former GAM armed forces chief Muzakkir Manaf said some 30,000 of his former military men were waiting for compensation from the government.

"Only 25 to 30 percent of the peace deal has been realized. My men need jobs and plots of land to start over. We realize that it will depend on their skills but we still have not received anything," he said. In addition, Muzakkir said not all of the former GAM guerrillas had received the three-hectare plot of land and financial aid promised by Jakarta. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Aceh is also looking forward to Jakarta aid and assistance for tsunami-damaged and war-ravaged villages, mosques and other public infrastructure.

This is not a walk in the park for the cash-strapped Indonesian government which was only recently faulted by the World Bank for misuse of international funds earmarked for development. Moreover, even the current autonomy laws accused by Acehnese as being water-downed versions has already made Aceh the envy of other provinces due to its new powers. Jakarta has to negotiate a narrow path between unity and autonomy. Jakarta and Aceh also have differences over the future role of the feared armed forces in security in Aceh and the implementation of Syriah laws in the autonomous province.

The main point of contention is economics - the distribution of benefits arising from oil-and-gas-rich Aceh’s natural resources. Even under the peace deal, GAM and most civilian groups say they are unhappy with a newly-passed autonomy law for the province that failed to give Aceh adequate control over government and natural resources. As a warning of this issue’s potential volatility, thousands took to the streets in Aceh's capital Banda Aceh on 14 August 2006 urging the government to abide by the peace deal while celebrating a year of peace.

According to AP, more than 10,000 people gathered outside the main mosque in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, to press the government to change the autonomy law which they claim was watered-down. "I am here to ask the government stick to its promises," said Muhammad Yusuf, one of the protesters. The demonstrators were from a loose coalition of local rights groups, including those connected to former groups.

One protestor interviewed by Deutsche Presse-Agentur said: "We've come here to celebrate and make sure that Aceh will not be fooled again by the central government…some people want the autonomy bill to be revised because of some of its provisions are not in line with the peace agreement." As a sign of defiance, some of these protesters sang traditional Acehnese war songs to warn against any future violations by the still highly distrusted Indonesian military. "We love peace but we're not afraid of war!" roared one speaker at the mosque, which had been heavily damaged during the tsunami.

Other than protestors, powerful individuals with the potential to make or break the peace deal have also spoken out. Former GAM foreign minister Zaini Abdullah said several articles in the autonomy law violated the truce. Agreeing with this, former GAM negotiator Tengku Kamaruzzaman said several articles of the law curtailed privileges that were granted to the Aceh administration in the truce, including the ability to lure direct foreign investment and to manage the province's natural resources.

"We are now discussing with the government possibilities of amending the law ... The most important aspect is how the law is put into regulations that can benefit the Acehnese people. Several previous laws on Aceh were useless because of the absence of regulations to implement them," he told the Indonesian media.

The European Union-led peace monitors are still studying the situation but said they are confident the deal will hold. World leaders seem to agree with them. UN secretary general Kofi Annan along with the prime ministers/presidents of Finland, Australia, Britain, Japan and Singapore sent messages of congratulations. South Africa's Nelson Mandela even sent video messages congratulating the makers of the peace deals. The Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi went one step further and said that Aceh could be promoted as a model for resolving similar conflicts in other countries.

Sources:

Aceh, a year on: One of the safest places on earth (Today, 16 August 2006)

World leaders praise Indonesia, ask for permanent peace in Aceh (Jakarta Post, 16 August 2006)

GAM seeks Aceh law amendments (Jakarta Post, 16 August 2006)

Demonstrations mark one-year anniversary of peace deal in Aceh (Jakarta Post, 16 August 2006)

Aceh celebrates a year of peace (dpa, 16 August 2006)

Aceh celebrates a year of peace (Bangkok Post, 16 August 2006)

Security in Aceh improves: former GAM leader (ANTARA, 15 August 2006)

Aceh peace spreading evenly, says former GAM leader (ANTARA, 15 August 2006)

Permanent peace plans for Aceh (Today/AFP, 15 August 2006)