July 12, 2006

Acehnese welcome political law and newfound peace

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (Reuters) - Many residents in
Indonesia's Aceh say they are unaware of the specifics of a new
law giving the ravaged province greater autonomy, but don't
want any opposition to it to derail a new-found peace.

The Indonesian parliament passed a bill on Tuesday aimed at
cementing a peace deal signed in Helsinki last August between
Jakarta and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), ending a
conflict that killed around 15,000 people, mostly civilians,
from 1976 to late 2004.

The peace agreement was a result of months of talks spurred
by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that left around 170,000
Acehnese dead or missing.

Acehnese, weary of past failures to end the conflict, want
this pact to last.

"Working people like me have no idea on the shape of the
bill," said 43-year-old Khairuddin, who lives near the
provincial capital Banda Aceh, 1,700 km (1,060 miles) northwest
of Jakarta. "I don't even know the shape of the government we
have now."

"What I want is just a safe Aceh," said the fruit farmer.

The bill covers a range of issues, including rules paving
the way for the first direct election of Aceh's governor and
the chance for ex-rebels to run for that post.

"Hopefully, this bill will improve the lives of the
Acehnese and violence will no longer exist," said Syamsuddin
Nur, who works for a local government agency. "The central
government must obey the rules in that legislation."

"The bill should not disrupt the peace that has been
painstakingly restored," he said, sipping a cup of sweet, black
Acehnese coffee at one of the ubiquitous roadside stalls in
Banda Aceh.

GAM officials say the bill falls short of Jakarta's
promises to give Aceh control of most of its affairs.

But Indonesian lawmakers argue the deliberations conformed
to the Helsinki truce and the end result is that Aceh has more
autonomy than any of Indonesia's 32 other provinces.

Indonesian officials have challenged GAM to spell out which
part of the 273-article bill is in violation of the August 15
peace deal.

After Indonesian and GAM representatives met on Wednesday
with European-led foreign monitors ensuring the implementation
of the truce, the former separatists said they needed time to
read the bill.

"GAM has not looked into, nor thoroughly studied, the
approved bill. We need to study its content first," GAM
spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah said. That would include inviting
the opinions of independent legal experts and the process could
take around a month, he added.

The Helsinki agreement came after GAM dropped its demand
for an independent Aceh state. Jakarta in turn promised to
allow local political parties, including any group set up by
GAM, to operate in Aceh, although that contradicts Indonesian

Existing national laws require parties to have branches in
more than half the country's 33 provinces and individuals to
get party endorsements before they run in elections.

Analysts say GAM could hurt its chances in the coming polls
if their disappointment with the bill goes too far, because
public opinion is largely in favor of the peace process moving