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Indonesian Peace: Behind the Breakdown in Aceh - 2003-06-05

The historic peace accord signed by the Indonesian government and separatists in Aceh Province was widely hailed as the main chance for both sides to end nearly three decades of fighting. But last month, as peace seemed within reach - the plan collapsed and the Indonesian government imposed martial law on the province.

With the signing of the peace accord, the Indonesian government and Aceh's separatists agreed to a ceasefire, a plan for demilitarizing the province, and for local elections - all the ingredients needed to end 27 years of fighting. But analysts say the plan suffered from one fatal flaw: It failed to resolve the issue that has divided the two sides since 1976 - whether Aceh would ever be free of Indonesian rule.

The government said its plan for greater autonomy in Aceh was a big enough concession for the rebels to drop their demands for independence.

Leaders from the Free Aceh Movement disagreed, saying the deal left the door open for an independence referendum. Independence, the Indonesian government said, it simply would not tolerate.

"The basic agreement is based on the acceptance of autonomy. That is very fundamental," says Sastrohandoyo Wiryono was the government negotiator. "You don't go and accept autonomy and then you ask for a referendum."

Signed on December 9, the accord was brokered by the Henry Dunant Center (HDC), a Swiss organization that focuses on conflict resolution.

Some analysts say the HDC underestimated the distrust between the government and the rebels - called GAM - from nearly three decades of fighting. "It didn't give a realistic time frame for confidence building measures that could then result in turning in weapons and having weapons properly cached and overseen," says Ken Conboy, an analyst with the Jakarta consulting firm Risk Management Advisory. "And the ability to oversee this just wasn't written into the plan. There were just too many vague elements to it."

Of course, both sides - and the HDC - knew the plan's flaws even as they were signing it. While the HDC said it pushed ahead to keep the dialogue moving, analysts say GAM and the government knew they could get something from the plan even if they did not get peace.

Sidney Jones, an analyst with the Brussels think-tank the International Crisis Group, says the military gained valuable insight about the rebel movement. "They also benefited from the cessation of hostilities because GAM came down from the hills and they were exposed for the first time to international publicity, so that now the army has far more intelligence on who's who in GAM than they did before the negotiations began."

And Ms. Jones says the rebels were able to do the same. "For GAM, they got international legitimacy through taking part in negotiations," she says. "This was the only way they were going to get any kind of international… support, because no government supports the breaking away of Aceh from the Indonesian republic."

Australia recently voiced its opposition to an independent Aceh, and the main donors to the region - the United States, Japan, the European Union and the World Bank - say they want to improve the humanitarian situation without breaking up Indonesia.

Jakarta has long been adamant it will not let Aceh go because it fears it would lead to the disintegration of the entire nation.

Indonesia's other breakaway province, East Timor, became an independent nation in 2002 only because of a historic loophole: Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and annexed it a year later - a move never recognized by the international community. With the collapse of the peace accord last month, the Indonesian government imposed martial law on Aceh -sending rebel leaders into hiding.

For the moment, the Henry Dunant Center remains in Aceh. The HDC says it hopes the two sides might restart negotiations, but that appears unlikely to happen anytime soon.