Indonesia's northern province of Aceh has been enjoying a period of relative stability and calm since separatist rebels and Indonesian government forces signed a peace deal in December. But the rebels and the government have different interpretations of what the peace plan actually means.It was a largely subdued crowd that turned out for a recent ceremony organized by the Henri Dunant Center (HDC) in Simpang Keramat, a district in East Aceh.
The HDC had named the district a "peace zone" - where both Indonesian troops and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement agreed they would not carry weapons or do anything that could lead to clashes. The HDC, a Swiss peace organization, brokered the ceasefire between the two sides, which went into force last December.Awnings sheltered the hundreds of people who had gathered from the midday sun. The crowd listened politely to the speeches given - including one by the head of the HDC in Aceh, David Gorman. "Simpang Keramat has always been a very troubled place because of the conflict. It is a place that has suffered too much," he said. "The people of Simpang Keramat have suffered too much. The people of Simpang Keramat deserve better." But it was after the speeches were over that the crowd began to express its true feelings. Many gathered around to shake the hand of a commander from the Free Aceh Movement who had attended the ceremony. As their enthusiasm grew - they hoisted Commander Amri bin al-Wahab on their shoulders - shouting "Independence." Excited supporters crowded him like a rock star as he walked the few hundred meters to his car. To Commander al-Wahab, the purpose of the peace plan is simple. "Aceh - independent!," he said. The Indonesian government, however, sees the peace plan as way to prevent Aceh independence. The different interpretations between the two sides may be the most serious problem the HDC has to overcome. Rebels from the Free Aceh Movement have been fighting a low-intensity conflict with Indonesia since 1976 - when they declared the province independent. More than 10,000 people have died since then - many of them at the hands of Indonesian troops. Analysts say those deaths fueled support for the rebels, and perpetuated the conflict with Indonesia. As a condition to signing the December 9, 2002 peace agreement, the Free Aceh Movement agreed to Jakarta's plan to give "special autonomy" to the province. The plan would allow the Acehnese more control over provincial affairs - including the revenue from its oil and natural gas deposits and its forests. A new local legislature will be elected next year. But the rebels say they still want independence - and the peace plan is simply a means to end the fighting.
Supporters of independence are relying on the peace plan's call for an "all-inclusive dialogue." They say that including all Acehnese in the dialogue eventually means having a referendum on independence."In that dialogue, we solve the Aceh problem with involvement of the people of Aceh in a democratic way. So it's up to the people what they want," said Nashiruddin, the senior representative from the Free Aceh Movement to the HDC. But the Indonesian government is staunchly against a vote. It lost resoundingly in a 1999 referendum that led to independence for East Timor. Brigadier General Safzen Noerdin is the Indonesian government representative to the HDC. General Noerdin says he is optimistic the peace process can work. But it depends on the rebels sticking to the agreement. He says the rebels must accept the fact that the agreement is not for independence. They must accept the special autonomy law - that is what has been stipulated. David Gorman from the HDC recognizes the interpretation problem. But the HDC hopes that its efforts to instill dialogue as means of negotiation instead of armed clashes will help both parties resolve their differences. "The point of this agreement like many is that it's a process. It starts first with security and trying to reduce security incidents that are occurring," said Mr. Gorman. "So that then we can create a situation in which both sides feel more comfortable and more able to resolve it peacefully." Many observers agree. Despite the different interpretations of the peace plan, for Aceh this is the best chance it has had in decades to end its conflict peacefully.