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Aceh on the brink of peace

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  • Ambon
    Japan Times EDITORIAL Aceh on the brink of peace At long last, there is an end in sight to the two decades of deadly conflict in Indonesia s separatist
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2002
      Japan Times

      Aceh on the brink of peace

      At long last, there is an end in sight to the two decades of deadly conflict
      in Indonesia's separatist province of Aceh. The Indonesian government of
      President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the Free Aceh Movement, the guerrilla
      group established in 1976, are expected to sign a peace agreement in Geneva
      next Monday.

      The international community is ready to help. In the runup to the Geneva
      talks, a donors' meeting was held in Tokyo earlier this week, with Japan
      serving as a cochair, to help support the peace process in the staunchly
      Muslim region at the northern tip of Sumatra.

      There are still a number of hurdles to be cleared before a peace pact can be
      signed. With the warring sides ready to sit down at the peace table,
      however, the remaining problems do not seem insurmountable. The two parties
      should not miss this historic opportunity to put an end to a conflict in
      which thousands of people have been killed.

      Aceh has a long history of independence struggles. Established as an
      independent Islamic kingdom in the 16th century, it fought against Dutch
      colonial policy in the early 17th century when the Netherlands set up the
      Dutch East India Company in Batavia (now Jakarta). Aceh played a
      particularly important role in helping Indonesia free itself from colonial
      rule. During Indonesia's war of independence, for instance, its capital was
      located in what is now Banda Aceh.

      But, in an ironic twist of history, relations between Jakarta and Aceh
      soured after Indonesia became independent. The republic's central government
      became wary of Aceh and scrapped its promise to establish an Aceh province.
      Tensions escalated as the Islamic movement gathered momentum across
      Indonesia during the Sukarno regime. In Aceh, separatist forces took up arms
      with the aim of creating an Islamic republic.

      The Sukarno government, while using force to suppress the rebels, agreed in
      1959 to make Aceh a special province, giving it autonomy in selected areas
      such as religion and education. During the authoritarian Suharto regime,
      however, that privileged status was reduced to irrelevance. In revolt
      against this, in 1976 the Free Aceh Movement, also known as GAM, declared
      the province's independence.

      That produced a predictable result: a series of armed clashes between
      Indonesian security forces and GAM. The Indonesian Army in particular
      escalated its military campaign in Aceh by designating parts of the province
      as "military operational areas." The fighting resulted in many civilian
      casualties as well, drawing repeated criticisms from international human
      rights groups.

      The Aceh conflict brings to mind the independence of East Timor in May of
      this year. Politically, however, East Timor -- which was occupied by
      Portugal in the 16th century -- is entirely different from Aceh. It remained
      a Portuguese colony until it was forcibly annexed by Indonesia in 1976.
      Jakarta's harsh military rule of the territory was internationally
      criticized, particularly for its oppression of the local populace.

      Another difference is that Aceh is richer in oil and gas. Indonesia is
      Japan's largest supplier of natural gas, and Aceh is home to major gas
      plants. To Indonesians, however, the gravest concern is that independence
      for Aceh could lead to independence for other secessionist provinces, such
      as Irian Jaya, and eventually to the disintegration of the Indonesian

      That is a prospect unacceptable not only to President Megawati, who is
      committed to keeping the republic intact, but also to the international
      community, which believes a breakup of the republic would destabilize the
      entire region of Southeast Asia. Precisely for that reason the Aceh
      independence movement has not won international support.

      Aceh Province occupies a strategic point on shipping lanes that are used to
      transport Mideast oil to Japan through the Straits of Malacca. Stability in
      this region, therefore, has a close bearing on Japan's national interests.
      It is only natural that the nation should take a positive role in building a
      permanent peace in the province.

      The Tokyo meeting, sponsored by Japan, the United States, the European Union
      and the World Bank, decided to send a team of aid experts to Aceh, after a
      peace accord is signed, to find out, among other things, how much money is
      needed to help recovery efforts in the war-torn province. To make sure that
      peace takes root, it is important to set in motion without delay a hands-on
      reconstruction program.

      The Japan Times: Dec. 6, 2002
      (C) All rights reserved
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