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From Tsunami's Devastation, Aceh Finds Peace

Out of the ruins of last year's deadly tsunami, the people of Aceh have found one ray of hope - the end of three decades of civil war. After surveying the devastation in Aceh, separatist rebels and the Indonesian government realized that the best way to begin rebuilding was to lay down their arms. Leaders from both sides welcome the peace, and hope that it can last.

The Acehnese capital of Banda Aceh is alive at night now, something unthinkable a year ago, even before last year's tsunami. Then shops once shut down and people hurried home before dark to avoid getting caught up in the conflict between the separatist Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian military.

Under an agreement signed in August between the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, and the Indonesian government, the rebels have handed in all of their declared 840 weapons. In return, the government has released more than a thousand political prisoners, and the military has withdrawn nearly 20,000 troops from the province.

Spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah says GAM is optimistic to see the peace process running so smoothly. "Judging from the development that has been going on on the ground and the cooperation that has been shown, it seems that things are moving in the right direction and I hate to say this word cautiously optimistic but I should say that we are progressively optimistic in the sense that it is going well," said Mr. Abdullah.

Since 1976, more than 10,000 people, most of them civilians, have died in the conflict between GAM and the military. GAM wanted to carve out a separate country, with control over Aceh's rich natural resources. Repeated attempts at peace failed, and the province was dominated by tens of thousands of Indonesian troops.

But then, on December 26, Aceh was hit by the earthquake and tsunami, which left 169,000 people dead or missing, swept away roads and destroyed much of the region's infrastructure.

Faced with the massive task of rebuilding the province on the northern tip of Sumatra island, the rebels and the government realized that first, Aceh needed peace.

GAM and the military went back to the negotiating table, and in August signed a peace accord.

Jakarta granted the province broad autonomy and guaranteed a larger share of the revenue from Aceh's oil and gas resources would stay in Aceh.

"We get together twice a week, all parties, and then any problems, we solve it here, but we try to solve them on the ground as often as possible … all parties are very committed to this process, it looks very good," said Finnish Major General Jaakko Oksamen of the Aceh Monitoring Mission - a group of about 200 peace monitors from the European Union and several Asian countries.

General Bambang Darmono, who up until a year ago was fighting GAM, now serves as an Indonesian military advisor to the peace monitors. He says both sides are adhering to the peace deal, known as the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU. "The peace process is good. I think all the pace of the peace process, for example the decommissioning … has been done in parallel to the MOU," said General Darmano. "That's why I feel the process of peace is going well."

Still, challenges remain. GAM complains that a group of shadowy militias that had terrorized the region is still on the loose, although no violent incidents have taken place since the peace deal was signed.

GAM spokesman Mr. Bakhtiar also says there are still too many Indonesian police in Aceh. Under the peace accord, most of the military and police from outside Aceh will leave and be replaced with local security forces. "The police in Aceh, the total number itself is still very large … and still some 10,000 militias who are not recognized by the Indonesian government as an illegal organization, but so far, we have seen they have also quieted down," said Mr. Bakhtiar.

The next likely test for the peace process will be whether GAM participates in local elections next year.

Under the peace agreement, GAM has the right to take part, although Mr. Bakhtiar says the group's leaders have not yet decided to do so. "We have always said that we want Acehnese to form their own political parties. And as for GAM, we have not had any final decision yet whether to participate or not but I believe if the people want us to, then we would be willing to participate in the political process," he added.

Aid workers and the survivors of last year's tsunami echo the rebels' and government's optimism about the peace process. They say that having peace has made the immense task of rebuilding whole communities easier since they work without fear of attack.