Acehnese hopeful peace is at hand, but fear and distrust run deep
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Thousands of people huddling around TV sets in a mosque courtyard clapped and cheered Monday while watching leaders halfway around the globe sign an accord to end three decades of war in tsunami-ravaged Aceh province.But the crowd was subdued during most of the ceremony. Although many held hopes that lasting peace is at hand, others warned that fear and distrust run deep after the killings of 15,000 people during one of Southeast Asia’s longest conflicts.Rebel leaders immediately voiced concern about the thousands of government soldiers who will remain in the region while separatist fighters are forced to rapidly disarm under the eye of monitors from other Southeast Asian nations and the European Union.The peace deal, which was propelled by the desire on both sides to smooth the flow of aid to victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami, was signed in Finland by Indonesian Justice and Human Rights Minister Hamid Awaluddin and by Malik Mahmud, an exiled rebel leader who was briefly jailed in Sweden last year after Indonesia accused him of terrorism.Both sides agreed to end hostilities immediately.”We just signed a commitment for peaceful settlement,” Awaluddin said. “We aim to end violence and to begin a new life.”The agreement also provides amnesty for members of the Free Aceh Movement and gives the region limited self-government and control over 70 percent of the revenue from the province’s mineral wealth, including oil and natural gas.Among the 3,000 people who watched the live broadcast at Banda Aceh’s biggest mosque, some expressed relief, but remained wary.”I can’t predict what will happen now,” said Nassruddin, 47, a high school physics teacher who goes by one name.He said he has suffered enough. Like almost everyone, he knows people who were killed, kidnapped or simply disappeared during the war. And, several years ago, rebels targeted teachers, burning down schools.”I only know we want to see an end to the fighting, we want prosperity, and to feel safe,” Nassruddin said.In Jakarta, where the signing also was broadcast live, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other government members welcomed the accord.”Hopefully, with good will, the prolonged conflict that has claimed so many lives will come an end,” he said.The accord became possible after the Free Aceh Movement agreed to renounce its demand for full independence and to disarm.Indonesia’s government agreed to cut the number of soldiers in the region from 35,000 to 14,700 and police from 15,000 to 9,100. In addition, all major troop deployments must be cleared by Pieter Feith, a Dutch diplomat who will head the 250-member international monitoring force.Mahmud, however, said too many Indonesian soldiers and police will remain in Aceh, a region of 4.1 million people at the northern end of Sumatra island.”At the end of the process there will be around twice as many troops to be stationed in Aceh as any other (part) of Indonesia,” he said after signing the pact in Helsinki.Several other peace deals have collapsed, most recently in 2003, when the army kicked out foreign observers, declared martial law and arrested rebel negotiators.Despite the lingering distrust, most people agree this is the best chance for peace that Aceh has had in years.U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said “the people of Aceh deserve a peaceful future” and the United States praised the longtime enemies, saying they showed “vision and courage” in settling the conflict.The need to rebuild after the tsunami, which killed more than 130,000 people in Aceh and left a half million homeless, created a strong impetus for Indonesia’s government and the rebels to resume negotiations.In return for the rebels dropping their secession demands, the government agreed to give them some form of political representation. Members of the Free Aceh Movement will be eligible to run in 2006 elections for a new regional chief and in 2009 polls for a new legislature.Aceh also will be allowed to pass its own laws, collect taxes and have its own symbols, including a flag. Monetary matters, justice and freedom of religion will be controlled by the national government.”Much hard work lies ahead,” said Former Finnish President Ahtisaari, who mediated the seven months of peace talks. “It is of utmost importance that the parties honor the commitments they have made in the agreement.”Many Acehnese were weary of the bloodshed that began in 1976, although there was wide support for independence because of government abuses. Human rights groups accuse Indonesia’s army of executions, disappearances, torture and rapes.Syarwan Madi, a 32-year-old who lost several friends who were rebel sympathizers, said is skeptical the government will keep its promise to loosen control of the resource-rich province.”I don’t think the government is sincere,” he said.—Associated Press writer Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Finland, contributed to this report.Vail, Colorado
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