Sat, Jan 21, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Nationalist's ire may undermine Aceh peace deal

Foreign observers are delighted by the province that has suffered decades of violence, but high hopes are now being tempered by rumblings in the capital


With the first phase of Indonesia's peace pact with Aceh rebels smoothly navigated, the next challenge will be countering nationalist sentiment in Jakarta where parliament must pass a contentious autonomy law, analysts say.

Implementation of the historic accord, signed in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami tragedy, which forced both the government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to reassess priorities, has so far surpassed expectations.

Rebels in the staunchly Muslim province at the tip of Sumatra surrendered their arsenal of 840 weapons by the end of last year as they had promised.

In return, the Indonesian military and police withdrew all of their non-local forces.

Attention is now focusing on a draft law completed last week by the home affairs ministry that grants wide-ranging autonomy to resource-rich Aceh and must be passed, according to the pact that was signed in Helsinki, by the end of March.

"What we face in the next few months will not be an easy task because it might involve political and nationalist sentiment in Jakarta," warned Afrizal Tjoetra from the Aceh Society Taskforce, which helped draft the law.

The law will pave the way for local elections to be held immediately.

"If everyone can look at it from the perspective of a peaceful settlement in Aceh, there will be no meaningful problems," Tjoetra said.

"But if political perspective and interests are involved, then everything will be different," he said.

The most likely candidate for scuttling the process appears to be former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the nationalist Indonesian Democracy Party for Struggle, the country's largest opposition party.

Megawati, who was ousted by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in October 2004 elections, has aired resistance to a clause in the pact which would be enshrined in the new law.

"It is difficult for us to accept one of the clauses in the agreement which requires decisions of the government and parliament to get the approval of the Aceh executive and legislature," she said last week, according to reports in local media.

"Even in federal states, things are not like that," she said.

Lawmaker Priyo Budi Santoso from the largest party Golkar said 23 chapters or about one-fifth of the total were where "thorough debates may take place."

These include chapters concerning the creation of local political parties, how to share spoils from Aceh's lucrative gas and oil deposits and the potential for new provinces to split off.

Under the peace deal, which is aimed at ending nearly three decades of conflict, the government conceded that it would allow the establishment of local political parties in Aceh.

Local political parties were previously outlawed in the country.

Determining a revenue-sharing ratio between the central government and Aceh could become a minefield, Santoso cautioned, while the push by several Aceh districts to form their own provinces has not been welcomed by former rebels.

Megawati's party has insufficient numbers to block the law, although it could do so if it convinces minor parties to join its ranks.

Nevertheless, Santoso remains upbeat that the law, which must be passed by a simple majority in the 500-seat legislature, will pass.

"We all have an interest in completing this law," Santoso said.

Political scientist J. Kristiadi, from the private think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the challenges ahead will relate to getting information to lawmakers and hitting on the right terminology in the law so that it does not offend the nationalists.

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