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Indonesian Peace Agreement Over Aceh Province Deemed Fragile - 2002-12-12

A new peace agreement was signed Monday between anti-government rebels in the Indonesian province of Aceh and the Indonesian government. However, the pact is a fragile one.

The agreement was reached in part because the rebels of the "Free Aceh Movement" and the Indonesian government agreed to disagree.

The rebel group, known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM, temporarily shelved its demand for independence. As Charmain Mohamad, a researcher on Indonesia for Human Rights Watch, points out, that allowed the two sides to take the first tentative steps towards peace.

"The sticking point was really that GAM had never before been willing to step down on their call for independence as part of any negotiation. But it seems that with this one, they have agreed not to have it implicitly stated in the agreement," he said. "And this agreement is really about cessation of hostilities and a cease-fire, which it looks like will be the starting point for further negotiations for a final settlement of the conflict."

GAM has been fighting for independence in Aceh, located on the island of Sumatra. More than 10,000 people have died since 1976. Analysts believe a combination of international pressure, coupled with the desire of a weary Acehnese population for peace, provided impetus for the pact.

The deal provides for a ceasefire, troop withdrawals, rebel disarmament, regional elections for local government, and additional revenues from the provinces rich oil and natural gas reserves. Some 150 international monitors from the Henry Dunant Center, the Swiss group that brokered the deal, will be deployed in Aceh.

But a real, durable peace is still to be achieved. Sidney Jones, Indonesian project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, points out that GAM has not given up its demand for independence.

"There's the issue of what happens politically, and what accommodation can be made, because I don't think that GAM has given up on independence, nor do I think that the Acehnese people, a large proportion of them, have given up on the idea of independence," she said. "So how those views will be accommodated is one the issues that's been put on hold, and we could see that coming back to haunt the agreement."

As Ms. Mohamad points out, Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri is dead set against Acehnese independence.

Ms. Jones adds that there are vested economic interests that would like to keep the war going, including members of GAM as well as TNI, the Indonesian military.

"There's a lot of money to be made in Aceh from things like illegal logging, where it's easier to get that profit in a situation of war rather than a situation of peace," he said. "It's also possible, for example, to get cuts on contracts when you put a gun at someone's head. And that gun can be held by GAM or it can be held by the TNI. And that's been happening a lot in Aceh," he said.

Analysts also agree that problems can be expected to crop up over any attempts at accountability for the human rights abuses in the province, which could also derail the quest for peace in Aceh.