Accessibility links

Cease-Fire Monitors Help Peace in Indonesia's Troubled Aceh Province - 2003-03-21

Indonesia's restive Aceh Province has enjoyed more than three months of relative stability, due to a peace deal brokered by a Swiss organization, the Henri Dunant Center, which is providing international cease-fire monitors.

The Swiss-based Henri Dunant Center brokered the December peace agreement between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels, a deal that is being hailed as the best chance to end the 26-year-old conflict.

Under the agreement, the HDC formed monitoring teams to observe the cease-fire. Each team - referred to as a Joint Security Committee, or JSC - is made up of at least one international observer from the HDC, and representatives from the government and the Free Aceh Movement, called GAM.

On this particular day, I am visiting an HDC office in Bireun district in East Aceh. The office is at alert Level One on news that a demonstration may take place, possibly targeting monitors.

Staffers are forbidden to leave the grounds for security reasons. Fahmi Yunus is an HDC spokesman in Bireun. "The teams here try to make a good preparation. If something happens, they can evacuate as soon as possible and to make sure that the team here will be safe. That's the important thing," Mr. Yunus said.

Monitors are cautious. Ten days earlier, two HDC staffers in central Aceh were slightly injured when protesters turned violent. The HDC office was ransacked and two cars were set on fire, prompting the monitoring team to withdraw from the town.

The protesters were angry at what they saw as the failure of the HDC to follow up on complaints against members of the rebel Free Aceh Movement.

Human rights officials say the local Aceh population is prone to manipulation from both Indonesian security forces and GAM rebels. In this protest, there are suspicions that the protesters were incited by propaganda that the peace deal will mean that the rebels get their wish for independence. But the peace plan actually provides for greater local autonomy within Indonesia, but not independence.

Political analysts say the plan brokered by the HDC represents the best chance Aceh has had to achieve peace, now that the fighting has mostly stopped. Sidney Jones is one such analyst with the Jakarta office of the International Crisis Group.

"And in this agreement, they have international monitors who have come in from Thailand, the Philippines - most of them soldiers. And, they have a process by which investigations of violations, or reported violations, can take place. It means that, for the first time, there's actually a chance that the findings will be accepted by both parties, instead of each side blaming the other for any incidents of violence that happen," he said.

On the day in Bireun, the demonstration does not materialize and monitors get the go-ahead to go out on a case.

The GAM representative working with the HDC in Bireun received word that other rebels intend to release three bicycle-taxi drivers the rebels had kidnapped four days earlier. The HDC team rushes to the site of the release.

"I am Major Paul, I am the international component of the JSC district team in Bireun. We are happy that we are seeing you today alive and healthy. And I want to tell you that, with the good will of the GAM members here, they will release you back to your families. And I'm thankful for that," a member of the HDC team said.

The monitors record the reasons for the abduction. Seventy-year-old Mohammed Thalib was one of those kidnapped.

Mr. Thalib said he and his friends went to see traditional dancing in a different district, when they were approached by people asking who they were and why they were there. Members of the Free Aceh Movement then took them away. He said he is not sure why it happened, unless the rebels thought they were working as government spies.

In the end, the monitors escorted the three taxi drivers to their homes - and took note of the rebels' allegation that the government might be using old men and boys as spies.

There are 28 JSC monitoring teams now deployed throughout Aceh. They have investigated nearly 100 incidents of alleged cease-fire violations in the three-and-a-half months since the peace accord was signed.

Senior officials from both GAM and the Indonesian government have embraced the idea of the tri-partite monitoring teams, to make sure there is no bias in investigations.

But monitors in Bireun, like Mr. Yunus, are a little concerned that the Acehnese people may be expecting too much too soon from the HDC. "I think the important thing is that people have to be patient about this process, because the peace process not can be done quickly. It needs time, it needs patience. And we hope the peace - the real peace comes to Aceh - forever," Mr. Yunus said.

The next step in the peace process happens next year, when Acehnese get to elect a new local government, which will be able to have more control over the province's rich resources.