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Military Rule Ends in Indonesia's Aceh Province - 2004-05-19

Military rule has ended in the restive Indonesian province of Aceh. Some observers say the change to a civilian administration could be a chance to work for a longer-term peace, but they are skeptical about the government's willingness to make the necessary sacrifices.

More than 2,000 people have been killed in Aceh since martial law was imposed exactly a year ago. The Indonesian government says the dead were mostly members of the Acehnese separatist movement known as GAM. Critics say most were civilians.

Martial law has now been downgraded to a state of civil emergency. A civilian administrator will run the mineral-rich province, but 40,000 troops will remain and not all civil liberties will be restored.

Some analysts say the army's campaign has damaged the military power of the separatists, but warn it may also have fed the hatred for Jakarta that fuels the insurrection.

Sidney Jones is the head of the International Crisis Group's Jakarta office. She says the change in administrative status provides a window of opportunity to bring a permanent peace. That could mean reviving legislation from last year that would have given Aceh a greater degree of autonomy.

"I think that if there was a serious effort to rethink the autonomy legislation so that there was actually greater participation of the Acehnese in running Aceh, then I think there might be some opportunity for progress," she said. "I don't think there is a chance of getting back to the negotiating table with GAM but I think there is a lot the government can do short of that."

Few analysts believe the year of military rule has solved the underlying problem in Aceh.

Although the revolt began as a protest for a greater share of Aceh's mineral wealth, the brutality of Jakarta's attempts to suppress it deepened the divide. A cease-fire negotiated 18 months ago broke down amid mutual acrimony.

The government says it dropped martial law because of improved security, but observers say it might have more to do with the coming presidential elections. President Megawati Sukarnoputri is third in the polls, and she might be hoping for a campaign boost if the country thinks efforts to calm Aceh have succeeded.