Thursday, February 24, 2005

Crisis in Aceh ~ Peace Talks after A Major Progress

The second round of Aceh peace talks ended on Feb. 23, 2005 with hopeful signs of progress towards peaceful resolution. Following are a selection of coverage after second round of peace talks. In chronological order and the highlights are mine.


Indonesia Rules Out UN Peacekeepers In Aceh - Mediator

Helsinki, Feb. 23 (AP) -- Former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who presided over talks between the Indonesian government and Aceh rebels said the use of U.N. peacekeepers in the province has been ruled out.

Though both sides recognized the need for outside forces to monitor any agreement, "there's going to be no U.N. participation in this." The two sides will meet for a third round of talks in April.

Indonesia's government didn't consider the issue to be an international question, Ahtisaari said. Regional forces could be used, however.

Ahtisaari said there wouldn't be a plebiscite on any peace agreement reached by both sides. The rebels had insisted on a U.N.-supervised plebiscite on self-determination in the region, but Jakarta feared a repetition of the 1999 independence referendum in its former territory of East Timor, where 80% of the population opted for independence despite a brutal military campaign to intimidate voters to choose autonomy within Indonesia.

Ahtisaari called on both sides to refrain from fighting and cautioned that "there's an enormous amount of work that must be done" before a complete agreement can be reached.

He said the government and the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, would meet for a third round of talks April 12-17 in the Finnish capital.

There was no immediate comment from either side, but separate news conferences were planned for later in the afternoon.

The chief issues under discussion, Ahtisaari added, included "special autonomy or, as proposed by GAM, self-government; amnesty and other measures to facilitate an agreement; security arrangements; monitoring of the implementation of the commitments; and a timetable."

Tuesday, Aceh rebels dropped their demand for total independence for the separatist province, a move that brought cautious optimism.

The concession was a key step forward for the talks and could pave the way for more negotiations. But it doesn't mean an immediate end to the fighting that has plagued the natural gas-rich province since 1976 and left tens of thousands of people dead in army offensives aimed at crushing the insurrection.

Participants in the negotiations in Finland have said that more talks will be needed to come to a final agreement.


Details may thwart any peace breaktrough in Aceh
By Tomi Soetjipto, Reuters

Jakarta, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Tricky details could trip up an apparent political breakthrough for Indonesia's rebellious Aceh province after rebels agreed to drop a demand for independence for the tsunami-hit region during peace talks in Finland.

Analysts and Indonesian politicians said on Wednesday while the move was a big step forward, hurdles remained, especially defining what the rebels meant by being willing to accept "self-rule" instead of independence.

Separatists of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) made clear their position to Reuters in Helsinki on Tuesday. Indonesia has said its best offer is a special autonomy package for Aceh.

"I wouldn't call it a breakthrough yet. We have to find out what the fine print is," said Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank and an expert on the 30-year Aceh conflict.

"We don't know what the details are and we don't know what other conditions GAM might demand nor do we know how flexible the Indonesian government will be."

Rafendi Djamin of the Human Rights Working Group said GAM's change of heart could lead to a new deal on a ceasefire.

"(Government) negotiators are one step behind in a sense that GAM has shown more willingness to hold a dialogue.... they are willing to give up their firm demand, so a ceasefire can be achieved," Djamin said.

Government officials in Jakarta declined to comment but Indonesia's powerful military welcomed GAM's apparent change.

"If they have softened, which is what we hoped for, this gives a good indication that the conflict in Aceh can soon be resolved," said military chief Endriartono Sutarto, quoted by the official Antara news agency.

This week's negotiations in Helsinki are expected to end on Wednesday, the second round since both sides resumed talks after last December's massive tsunami brought them together.

Both sides expect more talks before any deal is agreed.

A preliminary peace agreement reached in 2002 fell apart partly over the question of autonomy, which the government said could not lead to full independence.

The autonomy deal Jakarta has offered gas-rich Aceh is little different from past positions, which included some concessions towards self-rule, Islamic law, and a bigger slice of the economic rewards from the province's resources.

Theo Sambuaga, head of parliament's commission on security and foreign affairs, said parliament would be willing to discuss more options for an autonomy package if GAM did not push for independence or seek a referendum on Aceh's political future.

Sambuaga said the government should stick to a previous pledge of granting an amnesty to GAM fighters and allowing them to return to Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra island if they gave up their independence bid.

"But in return, GAM must not exist anymore," Sambuaga said, appearing to rule out any political role for the organisation.

Australian academic Damien Kingsbury, who is advising the rebels, said talks on Tuesday covered possible changes in Indonesian electoral laws to allow for local political parties, withdrawal of military forces and possible outside monitoring.

Indonesia, still smarting over the loss of East Timor in 1999, might find such ideas hard to accept, analysts said.

"These are the kind of technical details that could make or break the agreement," said Jones.

In Aceh, where the conflict has killed more than 12,000 people, there was some scepticism that any peace deal would be implemented.

"If the result is supposed to be peace and no war, we will wait and see what happens here," said Budiman Abbas, a refugee in a camp at the devastated town of Calang on Aceh's West Coast.

(With additional reporting by Telly Nathalia in Jakarta and Jerry Norton in Calang)


Associated Press
February 23, 2005

Indonesia Cautious On Aceh Rebels' Shift On Independence

Helsinki (AP) -- Indonesian authorities reacted with cautious optimism Wednesday to the news that rebels have dropped their previous insistence on full independence for the separatist province during peace talks in Finland.

"If they ease their stand...that is a good indication for immediately resolving the Aceh conflict," said Gen. Endriartono Sutarto. "If there is any dissatisfaction with government policies, it is better to solve it through peaceful ways."

Tuesday's concession by the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, is considered a key step forward for the talks and could pave the way for more negotiations. But it doesn't mean an immediate end to the fighting that has plagued the natural gas-rich province since 1976 and left tens of thousands of people dead in army offensives aimed at crushing the insurrection.

Participants in the negotiations in Finland have said that more talks will be needed to come to a final agreement.

"The demand for independence is no longer on the table. They are demanding self-government now and the Indonesians understand this very clearly," said Damien Kingsbury, an Indonesia specialist from Australia's Deakin University who is part of the Acehnese delegation.

"This is a compromise. It is not special autonomy; special autonomy is the status quo."

The office of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who is presiding over the negotiations, confirmed progress had been made Tuesday and that talks would continue Wednesday as planned. Ahtisaari was to hold a news conference after they end.

But the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, remained resolute in its goal to have 50,000 Indonesian soldiers and police removed from Aceh, a demand it had going into the first day of talks this week.

GAM has insisted on a U.N.-supervised plebiscite on self-determination in the region, but Jakarta fears a repetition of the 1999 independence referendum in its former territory of East Timor, where 80% of the population opted for independence despite a brutal military campaign to intimidate voters to choose autonomy within Indonesia.

Kingsbury said the rebels also will demand that GAM, or a separatist party representing GAM, be allowed to take part in future elections for a local legislature. This would require changing Indonesian laws, which currently bar separatist parties.

The two sides, who met face-to-face last month for the first time since a previous peace process collapsed in May 2003, discussed security issues and the Indonesian government's proposal for "self-government" for the oil and gas-rich province of 4.1 million people.

Kingsbury said the parties had agreed on several "issues in principle and are moving forward" to discuss a time frame for implementation of any peace agreement.

The head of the Indonesian delegation, Security Minister Widodo Adi Sucipto, said he hoped both sides could reach an accord to secure "a comprehensive and fair" solution for the region.

Human rights groups have accused government troops of executions, torture and rape of civilians in Aceh. They say most of the 2,500 people killed since a cease-fire collapsed have been unarmed villagers caught up in army operations.


Optimism as final day of Aceh peace talks begin

Helsinki - AFP, Februay 23, 2005 - Negotiators for the Indonesian government and Aceh separatists were optimistic as a third and final day of peace talks began on Wednesday, but the issue of whether the rebels will accept special autonomy for the province hung in the balance.

"Of course I am optimistic... We are moving towards a positive solution," the Free Aceh Movement (GAM)'s Stockholm-based spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah told AFP.

Indonesian Communication Minister and delegation member Sofyan Jalil agreed. "Of course there are difficulties but at least we are here and listening to each other," he said as the second day of talks wrapped up.

Despite the upbeat tone, Abdullah denied reports claiming that his group had decided to give up its nearly 30-year fight for full independence and accept the most controversial issue on the table: Jakarta's offer of limited self-rule for Aceh.

"GAM's struggle for independence still remains on track," he said, adding however that "independence is not on the table. If we talked about independence there would be no talks... We're looking for a way for the (peace) process to continue."

"This doesn't mean that we will accept the (proposed) autonomy," he said, pointing out that he hoped the talks would allow negotiations to continue and help both sides to sell the idea of peace to their constituents on the ground, enabling a lasting ceasefire.


Associated Press
February 23, 2005 8:11 a.m.

3rd Round Of Talks On Indonesia's Aceh In April-Mediator

Helsinki (AP) -- Talks between Indonesia's government and Aceh province rebels'
leadership ended Wednesday as planned, with a third round tentatively set for April.

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who presided over the talks, said Wednesday that the third round of talks would take place April 12-17 in the Finnish capital.


Associated Press
February 23, 2005

Indonesia Aceh Talks
Make Some Headway

Helsinki, Finland -- Indonesia's government and Aceh rebels made headway Wednesday in talks aimed at ending nearly 30 years of fighting in the oil and gas-rich separatist province with both sides agreeing to outside involvement and the insurgents scrapping, at least publicly, a desire for independence.

The Finnish mediator who oversaw the three days of negotiations set a four-month deadline for a pact.

In a second round of negotiations since they first met in southern Finland last month, the two parties discussed security issues and "self-government" for the region of 4.1 million people where tens of thousands of people have died in army offensives aimed at crushing the insurrection.

The two sides first met in Finland Jan. 27-29 to discuss international aid and reconstruction in Aceh, which was hit hard by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari said Wednesday he was "very pleased," and expected a third round of talks to resume April 12-17 in Helsinki.

"We have started a serious process, and that is a breakthrough. We are addressing the issues that need to be addressed and are exchanging views," Mr. Ahtisaari said, but cautioned that "there's an enormous amount of work that must be done."

Mr. Ahtisaari said both parties recognized the need for outside forces to monitor adherence to any agreement, but ruled out the use of United Nations peacekeepers.

"There's going to be no U.N. participation in this," Mr. Ahtisaari said. "There's no desire on the government side internationalize the issue. But there is a possibility, nevertheless, to turn to regional organizations like ASEAN and the European Union."

Mr. Ahtisaari said it was "extremely important to put some sort of deadline for this process," adding that he expects them to come up with an agreement by July.

Bakhtiar Abdullah, spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, confirmed the group would return to Finland in April, and the Indonesian communications minister, Sofyan Djalil, told the Associated Press that "most likely the meeting will take place."

The talks were given new life on Tuesday when GAM dropped its demands to make the province independent. Malik Mahmud, member of the GAM delegation, said after the talks that they had not given up "the struggle for independence," but conceded that it was no longer an issue in the talks.

"We are discussing other options, looking for possibilities at self-government and considering the various possibilities," Mr. Mahmud said, declining to elaborate.

The head of the government delegation, Widodo adi Sutjipto, said progress had been made. "During the last two days, we have not heard mention of demands for independence in the negotiations. That's the reality," he said.

Mr. Ahtisaari said there would be no regional vote on any peace pact agreed by the two sides.

The rebels had insisted on a U.N.-supervised plebiscite on self-determination in the region, but Jakarta feared a repetition of the 1999 independence referendum in its former territory of East Timor, where 80% of the population opted for independence despite a brutal military campaign to intimidate voters to choose autonomy within Indonesia.

The war in Aceh, one of the world's longest-running conflicts, has its roots in the occupation of the independent Aceh sultanate by Dutch colonialists in 1870.


Sydney Morning Herald
Thursday, February 24, 2005

Hardliners on Both Sides Threaten Aceh Settlement

The tsunami has helped create an opportunity for peace, but there are plenty of dangers ahead, writes Edward Aspinall.

The international community needs to be cautious in welcoming signs of an apparent breakthrough in the recent Aceh peace talks in Finland. Some of the signs are very positive, but the devil will be in the detail.

There has been great international interest in the talks between the Indonesian Government and the Free Aceh Movement. Foreign governments, including Australia's, have provided massive funds for post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh. A ceasefire that holds, let alone a lasting settlement, would greatly assist the reconstruction effort.

But there wasn't much optimism leading into these talks. The last round of negotiations broke down in May 2003 when both sides refused to budge on their aims. The movement wanted independence, while Indonesia insisted any settlement must be based on a "special autonomy" law it passed for the province in 2001.

Now it seems there has been a genuine breakthrough. Reports suggest the movement has "dropped" its demand for independence, replacing it with a call for "self-government". An Australian academic who took part in the talks, Damien Kingsbury, said "the demand for independence is no longer on the table", although it is not clear whether this accurately represents the movement's position.

If accurate, this is a dramatic shift. Since the movement was founded in 1976, it has been adamant it would accept nothing less than complete independence.

What might account for its apparent change of heart? One explanation is battle fatigue of some of its commanders. The movement has taken serious hits over the past 18 months of intensified military operations, and there are suggestions of morale problems among its fighters.

Equally important was a feeling by the movement's leaders that they needed to capitalise on the influx of foreigners into the territory after the tsunami and respond quickly to renewed international interest in a peace settlement. Without a dramatic shift on their part, negotiations would remain at a stalemate.

But potential pitfalls are many. Just what is meant by "self-government" is unclear, though it must imply much greater local control than is contemplated under the "special autonomy" formula (which the movement still rejects). Some Indonesian officials may see "self-government" as little more than code for independence, and with good reason. By late yesterday, there were already reports quoting movement leaders denying they had dropped their independence goal.

There are also signs the movement will demand far-reaching concessions which may include withdrawing Indonesian troops from the province, Acehnese control over all aspects of government except defence, and international trials for military officers accused of abusing human rights. None of these is likely to be acceptable to Indonesia.

It is also possible the movement's aim is expanded self-rule, followed by a referendum on independence. Such a plan was central to the recent settlement of the Bougainville conflict in Papua New Guinea, and the possibility has been discussed in recent times. If so, then the movement's shift of position should be viewed as tactical, though still significant. But any settlement involving a future referendum has been ruled out by Indonesia.

Some of Indonesia's political and military elite remain hostile to the idea of a negotiated outcome. Recently, the outgoing army chief of staff, General Ryamizard Ryacudu, said the military would not enter a ceasefire with the movement. He said the only way to peace was for the movement to surrender.

Those in government who favour negotiations see them as a means to persuade the movement to give up its struggle, and aim to sweeten the outcome by promises of economic rewards and unnamed political concessions. The hardline view, represented by Ryamizard, is that such an end should be achieved only in battle and that much progress has been made in this direction over the past 18 months.

There will be suspicion in military and government circles that the latest gambit by the movement does not involve abandoning its goal of independence. Some will argue the government should not squander its military advantage and, above all, why should the government offer dramatic concessions when the movement is on the defensive?

Even if an agreement is signed, as one was in late 2002, spoilers on the ground could again frustrate it. Military commanders have many opportunities to instigate armed clashes and then allege bad faith on the part of the movement. It is also possible that some of the movement's fighters may feel betrayed by their leaders and want to keep up the fight.

The international community should welcome any progress in the talks. The shadow of renewed violence has been hanging over the tsunami relief effort and even a temporary reprieve should be encouraged. But there is a great distance to travel before a permanent settlement is achieved.

Edward Aspinall lectures in South-East Asian studies and history at the University of Sydney.


Agence France Presse
February 24, 2005

Aceh peace talks end, major progress reported on autonomy offer

The Indonesian government and Aceh separatists wrapped up peace talks, setting a date for new talks and reporting major progress, but no breakthrough, on an offer of special autonomy for the tsunami-wrecked province.

A new round of negotiations was set for April, the third since the Indian Ocean tsunamis that devastated Aceh made the need for a settlement more pressing.

Indonesian communications minister and delegation member Sofyan Djalil, speaking after the Helsinki meeting concluded, said the rebels initially had rejected outright a government offer of special autonomy.

But as the talks progressed their position "changed dramatically", he told AFP.

"They started talking of the substance, they started inquiring (about) local autonomy, even though they don't agree with that term," he said. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) prefers the term self-government.

"The meeting this time from our perspective has some progress," Djalil said, adding: "This is the first time GAM didn't mention independence."

Talks had focused on Indonesia's proposals concerning "local authority, special autonomy, amnesty and other arrangements to integrate GAM people into the community," as well as "about security arrangements... and a timetable," he said.

In a subsequent news conference, Malik Mahmud, head of Aceh's self-proclaimed government, said his movement did not reject completely the idea of dropping its independence claims.

"This is something that, yes, we have to consider it," he said.

Both sides had had to make efforts to bridge the gap between Aceh's demand for complete independence and Indonesia's offer of special autonomy, he said.

But at the same time he insisted that "we are not dropping the independence struggle. The meaning of GAM is the Free Aceh Movement".

Djalil said there would be no lasting ceasefire agreement until all issues were agreed.

"Nothing is agreed until all is agreed," he said.

The two sides agreed to meet again in Helsinki for a third round of talks April 12-17, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who mediated the talks, said in a statement.

The Helsinki peace talks are considered a milestone in dealings between the warring sides.

When they met for an initial round at the end of January, it was the first time face-to-face encounter since May 2003, when the government declared martial law and launched a major military offensive in the province.

More than 12,000 people have been killed since Aceh separatists began fighting for independence for the oil-rich province in 1976, claiming Jakarta plunders its resources and the army commits atrocities against its population.

The renewed efforts to reach a peaceful solution were prompted by a need for
international aid to reach Aceh, which bore the brunt of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunamis in December.

Although both parties agreed during the first round of talks to "try to refrain from hostilities" during Aceh's recovery, the army has admitted killing more than 200 rebels since the tsunami struck.

And even as the latest round of talks began on Monday, Indonesia's military announced that one of its soldiers and two civilians had been killed when a group of 30 rebels ambushed troops who were on their way to carry out relief work in western Aceh.

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