Aceh on the brink of peace
- 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
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
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
The Japan Times: Dec. 6, 2002
(C) All rights reserved