Wed, Aug 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Barbs fly as Indonesian officials talk with former Aceh separatists


It was a disturbingly familiar scene: Officials from the Indonesian government and separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in a frank exchange of accusations, barbs and insults as they debated war and peace in the strife-torn region.

But this time the debate wasn't through the media, some nondescript negotiating room in a European hotel or even via satellite phone from an unknown guerrilla base camp. Instead, it was Indonesian Information Minister Sofyan Jalil and MN Djuli, a senior GAM representative, sitting on the same side of a table during a panel discussion last week on Aceh's successful peace process and how to keep it moving.

That two long-time enemies would hold a joint discussion as part of events leading up to yesterday's one-year anniversary of an historic peace agreement was unthinkable just 18 months ago.

But another unthinkable event, the 2004 Asian tsunami, forever changed Aceh's destiny. As devastating and heart-wrenching as the tsunami was, there is no doubting that, with thousands of soldiers, police and guerrilla fighters and their families dead, the disaster by itself pushed the sides together to end a seemingly endless conflict.

"Both sides have had to made concessions and there are more concessions as they move forward," said Paul Dillon, a press officer for the International Organization on Migration (IOM), which is working to reintegrate former GAM political prisoners and fighters back into Acehnese society.

And many believe that the reintegration process, as well as the economic development of small villages to where the ex-guerrillas are returning home, will determine whether the Aug. 15 anniversary will still continue to be celebrated 10 years from now.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had made peace in Aceh a top national priority of his presidency, agreed to third-party facilitation by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari in January last year. And when GAM agreed to give up its demand for independence, the sides incredibly signed a deal in Helsinki, Finland, only seven months later.

The Indonesian parliament last month passed a special autonomy law for Aceh, clearing the way for elections in December.

But keeping the momentum going after yesterday's one-year celebrations in Aceh and the forthcoming elections will come down to whether ex-fighters and residents of strife-torn villages feel they are benefiting from the peace.

"What I feel has not moved vigorously forward is the role of reintegration," Pieter Feith, head of a EU-led peace monitoring mission in Aceh, said last week.

The Jakarta government has promised tens of millions of dollars for job creation, economic development, and rehabilitation for ex-combatants and war-ravaged areas of Aceh.

But the agency tasked with deciding how to spend the money was inundated with nearly 50,000 proposals from Acehnese citizens, all but freezing the release of cash while they figured out how to accommodate so many aspirations.

Now, the Aceh Reintegration Agency is only doing community-level projects to help improve village economies and life in general, ranging from irrigation ditches to farm equipment to new schools.

Relief agencies are warning the government not to just throw money at problems in Aceh, such as massive unemployment, but rather "target directly what people can do," Sandra Hamid of the Asia Foundation said.

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