July 10, 2005

Aceh peace process heads for critical point

By Achmad Sukarsono

JAKARTA (Reuters) - The fate of one of the world's
longest-running conflicts may be decided in a few days when
negotiators representing the Indonesian government and rebels
in Aceh province meet in Finland this week.

It will be the fifth round of talks since peace
negotiations resumed between the two warring sides under
Finnish mediation in the wake of the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster
that flattened Aceh and left nearly 170,000 people dead or
missing. It looks to be the most crucial.

Earlier rounds have produced agreement in principle between
the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) on many
contentious issues, but the meeting expected to start on
Tuesday is the one where delegates have to put pen to paper and
agree on a draft document spelling out the specifics.

"If there is no agreement, that can mean all-out war
again," Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla has said.

The Aceh conflict that has flared and sputtered over three
decades has already killed more than 12,000 people, mostly

Kalla is the mastermind behind the talks that have been
criticized by some generals, nationalist members of the
parliament and even a government thinktank.

The critics fear the deal will make major concessions to
the rebels that will encourage separatists in other parts of
the sprawling archipelago of multi-ethnic Indonesia, the
world's fourth most populous nation.

"We have asked the talks to stop but the government wants
to walk alone. So, any outcome will be the responsibility of
the government, especially Kalla," Permadi, an outspoken MP
from the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle, told

If the July talks can end with an agreed draft, the two
sides will formally sign a truce in August, government
officials say.

GAM guerrillas refused to say whether a deal could be
struck next week. "The Helsinki talks are not over yet. So, we
are not interested in making assumptions," said Sofyan Dawood,
spokesman of GAM's military wing.

Their struggle has its roots in a long history of the
fiercely proud and devoutly Islamic Acehnese fighting against
outsiders, including the Dutch in colonial times, and more
recently in complaints over how much of Aceh's revenue from
natural gas and other resources was going to the central


There are still some sticking points.

The early talks suggested the rebels were willing to
abandon their demand for complete independence for Aceh, but in
exchange wanted to be able to operate as a political party in

Jakarta, however, has said that would mean revising the
country's national electoral laws and would provide an
incentive for groups elsewhere in the nation with unique
ethnic, religious or cultural concerns to ask for similar

Under existing law all parties in Indonesia must have a
headquarters in Jakarta and branches in more than half of the
country's 33 provinces.

One route it appears Jakarta may push is for existing
parties to let the rebels into their ranks.

A government official close to the talks has told Reuters
Kalla had called leaders of other parties and told them to
recruit former GAM members and allow ex-separatists to run for
political positions on their tickets.

Despite vocal criticism from many in parliament, the
Indonesian public believes the government's dovish approach may
succeed in securing a workable deal, according to a recent

But the opposition is up for a fight. "We can't let this
process keep on going. My understanding is GAM is closer to
creating a new state," Sidharto Danusubroto, deputy of the
parliament's defense commission, told Reuters.

"If there is any agreement that threatens the existence of
the unitary state of Indonesia, the parliament will reject it."

(Additional reporting by Ade Rina)