After the wave, peace

August 17, 2005

AN OIL-RICH jungle on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, the Indonesian province of Aceh was the closest land mass to the epicenter of last December's Indian Ocean earthquake, and thus was the area hardest hit by the tsunami that quickly followed. An estimated 130,000 Acehnese were killed that day and at least another 400,000 left homeless. Even with international aid, the monumental task of reconstruction has been slow; some 150,000 Acehnese reportedly are still living in temporary camps and perhaps just as many simply remain homeless.

But the devastating wave also created the political will for another effort at achieving a lasting peace between separatist rebels in the fiercely independent province and Indonesia. Negotiators for Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) - whose armed struggle goes back to the mid-1970s - signed a peace accord Monday in Helsinki, the second truce between the two sides since 2002.

The first accord quickly collapsed when neither side disarmed. But there is some basis for hope that this time is different.

Even before the tsunami, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the country's first directly elected president, had declared interest in ending the Aceh conflict. This truce will be monitored by 300 unarmed observers from the European Union and five Southeast Asian nations. Post-tsunami reconstruction aid provides funds to make the accord work. Critically, the agreement requires GAM to disarm and the Indonesia army to reduce the number of troops in the province. And it gives the provincial government substantial political autonomy and 70 percent of the revenues from its abundant natural resources - revenues that have been at the heart of the conflict all along.

Plenty could go wrong - for example, from anti-GAM, government-backed militias that Jakarta has never acknowledged. Even former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who served as the accord's chief mediator (and who was instrumental in working out a peace agreement in Kosovo in 1999), termed the deal "a leap of faith." But if enduring peace can be set in motion in Aceh - after 30 years of war and thousands of deaths - then that perhaps provides a useful example for resolving similarly long-running conflicts between rebel movements and central governments elsewhere in Southeast Asia - in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand. And that, indeed, would be an aftershock of immense proportions.

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