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Aceh Autonomy Talks to Open Thursday Amid High Hopes


Representatives of the Indonesian government and the Aceh rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, will resume negotiations in Helsinki, Finland, Thursday in an attempt to settle the nearly 30-year conflict over the status of the Aceh province. All sides are going into the talks with high hopes for a breakthrough.

The fourth round of talks, as all the previous ones, is sponsored by the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), a non-governmental organization headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. A spokesman for the organization, Meeri Maria Jarva, says the negotiations will touch on all the key issues.

"All of the issues are important, but maybe the political participation, the security arrangement and the monitoring are among the key issues," she said.

Bachtiar Abdullah, the top negotiator for the rebel movement, told VOA security for the province is among the most hotly contested items on the agenda.

"I believe that there is still one hot outstanding issue to be touched in depth and discussed in depth as well, that is, the security arrangement that is very sensitive and a hot core issue," said Mr. Abdullah.

Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic advising the Free Aceh Movement, agrees. He said in an interview securing the implementation of the agreement is a sore point for the Indonesian military, or TNI, which fears losing substantial economic interests in Aceh.

"They [the military] want to maintain their business interests, they want to maintain their political influence, which they continue through military operation like that in Aceh. And they want to continue to assert their authority in the state," said Mr. Kingsbury.

The role of Indonesia's powerful military will be one of the topics of discussion when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono meets President Bush at the White House Wednesday. The United States suspended its military cooperation with Indonesia 13 years ago over human rights abuses by Indonesian army in East Timor and other regions, including Aceh.

Also on the agenda of the Helsinki talks will be the question of Aceh's final status. In 2001, the Indonesian government proposed a special autonomy for the province, allowing its people to run their own government, determine their own judicial and education systems and receive a much greater portion of its oil and gas revenues.

But the separatist rebels rejected the offer, pushing instead for self-government. Negotiator Abdullah would not elaborate on the details of the group's latest proposal, but there are wide speculations the rebels have dropped their demand for Aceh's outright independence from Indonesia.

The Indonesian government has rejected independence for Aceh and would not even negotiate the point.

Minister of Communications and Information Sofyan Djalil, who is a key government negotiator at the Helsinki talks, says the two sides are wide apart on the final status issue, but adds the differences can be ironed out.

"Of course there are some differences, but the talks are being kept going. We try to narrow down differences between the two parties," said Sofyan Djalil.

The Helsinki talks are scheduled to open on Thursday and will last until the end of May.

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