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Difficult Negotiations: Prospects for Peace in Aceh

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
February 20, 2002
Asian Wall Street Journal

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Despite the Indonesian army's preference for a military solution in the restive north Sumatra province of Aceh, there are renewed prospects for a negotiated peace. Earlier this month, government officials and pro-independence leaders restarted negotiations in Geneva after an eight-month hiatus. The talks were mediated by Gen. Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star general, the former Thai foreign minister, Surin Pitsuwan, and Budimir Loncar, Yugoslavia's ex-ambassador to Indonesia.

Adding gravitas to the process, these so-called "Wise Men" secured a pledge from both sides to end violence and discussed a timetable for local elections. Behind closed doors, both sides showed signs of flexibility about ways to achieve meaningful self-government for Aceh. The group also agreed to meet again next month.

At this critical juncture, a package of new ideas is needed to pave the way forward. Progress can be achieved via an incremental process that addresses security concerns, highlights confidence-building measures and allows for meaningful self-government. Immediate measures are needed to calm the region and create an atmosphere for constructive negotiations. To this end, Jakarta should agree to observe civilian safety zones around mosques, schools, hospitals and camps for displaced persons. When the army finally withdraws to its barracks, the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, should reciprocate by ceasing military operations. International observers should be deployed to monitor implementation of security stabilization measures by both sides.

From there, the next step is to build confidence. Some members of the GAM negotiating team were arrested last year and their passports confiscated. They should be unconditionally released and their freedom of movement guaranteed.

Jakarta has pledged to set up a special human-rights court. President Megawati Sukarnoputri Should go further by consolidating civilian control over the military and send a strong message of support for human rights by prosecuting high-profile military and intelligence officers who participated in atrocities during previous regimes. For its part, GAM could demonstrate goodwill by promising to protect the rich oil and natural gas fields in North Aceh. In fact, maintaining a productive energy sector is in the GAM's best interest. Revenues from energy sales would represent a vital income source to support future decentralization and power-sharing arrangements.

To achieve meaningful self-government, future discussions should focus on the establishment of governing institutions responsive to local needs and accountable to the local population. International experts should help prepare the electoral law, mobilize public outreach and monitor the vote to ensure that local elections are free and fair. After the elections, the assembly should select a local executive and define the powers of an independent judiciary conforming to Acehnese culture and tradition. Mechanisms for Achenese participation in public security and policing functions should also be negotiated.

Self-governance also implies local control over natural resources. To support the apparatus of local government, local authorities must have the ability to tax and raise revenues. Other stakeholders, such as the indigenous population, should also share equity and ownership of the resource base. In addition, cultural and symbolic rights are important. The Acehnese should be able to fly their flag, sing their national anthem and observe traditional holidays. Acehnese schools should adopt a culturally appropriate curriculum and religious freedoms should be assured.

Still, as evidenced by the mixed message from this month's talks, the peace process will be long and arduous. The international community can help by supporting the mediators and encouraging the "Wise Men" to stay engaged. Gen. Zinni should visit Jakarta for discussions with cabinet members, including representatives of the Indonesian Army. And more support should be provided to the all-inclusive Acehnese Civil Society Task Force via expanded humanitarian assistance and capacity building for civic organizations.

To be sure, the Free Aceh Movement remains skeptical about any agreement that falls short of state sovereignty. It will not easily surrender its dream of independence. To obviate any implied dishonor by deferring its independence demand, an interim agreement could include a review clause with procedures for evaluating implementation after a specific period of time. In the 21st century, the globalization of economic opportunity will continue to render national borders less important. The goal of independence, so important today, may mean much less in years hence.

Harmonizing competing claims between Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement can be achieved peacefully and through negotiations. To this end, the international mediators must dissuade both sides from pursuing a military solution. The international community will not condone violence as a tool for political expression, nor will it let the war on terror be used to justify abuses or settle scores in Aceh.


David L. Phillips is a senior associate and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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