Jakarta - Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, then a minister in the Megawati Cabinet, had initiated secret talks between the government and members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) way back in 2003. However, due factors such as pre-election malaise and the deep mistrust that existed on both sides, the talks did not make much headway. It took the devastation caused by the Dec 26 tsunami in Aceh to change mindsets and prodded all parties to seriously consider peace.
GAM was the first to react by declaring a unilateral ceasefire. While the government did not respond in kind, newly-elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sent a team of government negotiators for talks with GAM’s exiled leaders in Helsinki. The talks were facilitated by former Finnish president Marti Ahtissari, who is also head of the Crisis Management Initiatives.
After three rounds of talks, both sides were talking about substantive issues. According to Kompas journalist Abun Sanda, GAM was no longer talking about independence and the need for a referendum. The rebels also offered to surrender their weapons and ammunition to the Indonesian military.
"Both sides were determined to work together to develop Aceh," Mr Abun wrote.
By the fourth round of talks in May, the negotiators were discussing the issue of Achenese rights to have its own state symbols, such as a flag and song.
The fifth and final round of the talks – which opened amid cautious optimism on July 12 – were almost derailed after GAM negotiators surprised government delegates with their demand that the rebels be allowed to set up their own political party.
Under the current election law, all parties must be based in Jakarta and have branches in at least half of Indonesia's provinces.
During the deadlock, Mr Jusuf's trusted aide, Dr Farid Hussein, director of medical care at the Health Ministry, broke away from the government team and met a rebel negotiator secretly to get back GAM to the negotiating table.
The deadlock was finally broken after President Yudhoyono decided to make a major concession by agreeing to the rebels’ demand. The government said it would amend the law to allow for the creation of a local political party in Aceh within 18 months from the signing of the peace accord.
Hence, after seven months of negotiations, a peace deal to end 30 years of bloodshed was finally signed on Aug 15.
Amid high hopes that the peace deal is for real this time, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Hamid Awaluddin said on Aug 18 that the government would grant the promised amnesties to GAM members by the end of this month. Mr Hamid said there are 500 GAM prisoners held in jails across Java island.
* The making of a peace pact (The Straits Times, Aug 17)
* Govt to grant amnesty to GAM members by Aug 31 (Antara, Aug 18)