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Indonesian Talks to Revive Frayed Aceh Truce Given Little Chance of Success - 2003-05-16

Indonesian government officials and rebels from the province of Aceh are to meet Saturday in a last-ditch effort to salvage a frayed truce. However, the talks are given little chance of success. The Indonesian military is preparing a massive military assault to crush the rebels, and there appears to be no change in either side's position. There is a long history of mutual suspicion and distrust.

A truce is usually seen as a potential stepping stone to a more durable peace. Such was the hope in Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh, where rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, have been waging a 26-year insurgency against the central government. The cease-fire reached in December was hailed as a breakthrough that might finally bring an end to Aceh's suffering.

But initial hopes soon dissolved, as mutual recrimination and accusation left the truce in tatters.

Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, says both sides simply never came to trust each other. "I think the basic problem was that there was a lack of mutual trust from the beginning. The idea of the cease-fire was that both parties would pull back, that confidence-building measures would take place, that military operations would cease. But, fundamentally, both sides are suspicious of each other," he says. "The GAM wants independence, and the Indonesian government wants Aceh to remain an integral part of Indonesia. And so long as there was no shared vision about the future, it was very hard for either side to trust the other."

GAM has refused to renounce its call for an independent Aceh. The Jakarta government, under President Megawati Sukarnoputri, just as resolutely insists that Aceh will remain a part of Indonesia.

Ed McWilliams, who for three years was the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, says East Timor's break away to independence after a government-approved referendum still rankles the powerful Indonesian military establishment. "Inevitably, many of the strong nationalists, particularly in the military, but I think possibly also in the circle around the president, were chagrined at what they would see as the loss of East Timor, and are determined that no other part of Indonesia should break away," he says.

And, Mr. McWilliams says, the president fully shares those views. "Megawati is herself quite a nationalist. So, I don't think she has been dragged to this position. Rather, I think that she finds herself probably fairly sympathetic with the military in its desire to put an end once and for all to the independence movement in Aceh," he says.

Mr. Adams of Human Rights Watch says there are domestic political factors at work as well. With an election coming up next year, he says, Ms. Megawati cannot appear to be "soft" on Aceh, so she is trying to wrap up the problem once and for all. "Now, she's moving into a re-election campaign. And it's not a good position to be in to be running for president next year, when there is a separatist war in Aceh, or she has made an agreement that allows them either independence or a large degree of autonomy, which is not popular in Java for certain, and in many other parts of Indonesia," he says.

But, Mr. Adams says, the death toll and human rights abuses in a renewed Indonesian military offensive in Aceh would in all likelihood be far worse than in the past. "The problem is, the Indonesian military has tried very hard to win this by military means in the past and has failed," he says. "And so, when they talk about sort of a final offensive and solving it, one fears they're going to use very heavy weaponry and very strong tactics to do so, and will probably not succeed, because they haven't been able to succeed before. But if they do succeed, it'll be at a very high cost."

Some 12,000 people have died in the long conflict in Aceh.