Sunday, August 20, 2006

One year anniversary of Aceh peace deal

A transcript from a recent Australian radio show, also available here: AM on ABC Local radio

HAMISH ROBERTSON: Last week, Indonesia celebrated its 61st year of Independence.

But the week also marked another milestone for the country - a full year of peace in Aceh after three decades of conflict.

It took a devastating tsunami to clear the way for a peace deal, the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement. And 12 months on, that agreement does seem to be holding.

But tens of thousands of Acehnese have used the anniversary of the accord to protest that Jakarta is not fully committed to implementing the Helsinki deal.

From Jakarta, our Indonesia Correspondent Geoff Thompson reports.

(sound of people singing)

GEOFF THOMPSON: Even within the walls of Indonesia's prisons, ceremonies were held this week to mark the archipelago republic's anniversary of freedom.

But this week also saw the honouring of another freedom of sorts - a whole year of peace in Aceh, where people have been killing each other for 29 years, almost half of the history of independent Indonesia.

(sound of people singing)

The key to the Memorandum of Understanding signed in Helsinki last year was the giving up by GAM, or the Free Aceh Movement, of its demand for independence from Indonesia.

The tsunami forced the momentum towards peace.

But it was Indonesia's President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who sincerely and enthusiastically embraced that opportunity, in a way which has impressed the world ever since.

When the head of the Aceh International Monitoring Mission, Peter Faith, travelled to Indonesia, he arrived burdened by international scepticism, of the Republic's sincerity, given the many failed peace processes of the past.

PETER FAITH: I thought that the best way to a certain political will, if a political will existed, was to speak to the key actors, and first of all, of course with the President himself, I had an opportunity to meet with him and that on his side there was no doubt as to his strong commitment to the peace process. And I was struck, and I hope you share my feelings, by his very personal testimony to what he saw as this important priority for the Republic of Indonesia.

GEOFF THOMPSON: At least 15,000 people were killed in the Aceh conflict, and some assessments suggest the death toll was much higher.

Trust between GAM and Indonesia was almost non-existent.

But President Yudhoyono's assumption to office brought a new maturity to Indonesia's democracy, and a genuine will to secure peace, as the President recalled this week.

SUSILO BAMBANG YUDHOYONO: After suffering the tsunami and endless bloodshed, you could see the Acehnese believing once again that life is beautiful. You could see the Acehnese starting to hope again. And that is why we are here today to pay tribute to their hope, to remember what the Acehnese had been through and to honour the peace.

GEOFF THOMPSON: And honour the peace the Acehnese did when tens of thousands of them, some say hundreds of thousands, gathered on Tuesday in Banda Aceh, around the world famous mosque which the tsunami left standing.

The crowd was thankful, but also sceptical, accusing the Government of failing to honour the letter of the Helsinki Accord. Under that deal, GAM agreed to accept wide-ranging autonomy instead of independence. But some sticking points remain, such as whether Indonesia's Aceh-related decisions must be approved by Aceh's government, or only done in consultation with local authorities, as Indonesia wants.

Such hurdles threaten the long-term peace in Aceh, with some leaders waning of a new generation of separatists.

This week GAM's Prime Minister, Malik Mahmud, called the peace process irreversible, but sounded this warning:

MALIK MAHMUD: Peace in Aceh can only be preserved if there is justice for everyone. The Acehnese struggle, as I have repeatedly stated, has been to achieve justice for the people of Aceh.

There was no peace in Aceh, because there was no justice.

GEOFF THOMPSON: The justice question will take years to answer. East Timor's independence turned on itself because of a lethal mix of disgruntled former combatants and disenchanted youth.

Similar challenges face the new Aceh.

Paddy Barron is the coordinator of the World Bank's Post-Aceh Conflict Program.

PADDY BARRON: I'm implying that Aceh's running at 40 per cent at the moment.

We conducted a needs assessment of GAM back in March and found unemployment levels of 75 per cent of former combatants, and not a lot has changed since then.

So really a lot needs to be done to try and create sustainable and attractive livelihoods for former combatants, and also for young people who may be swept up into something if it started. That's one of the key challenges.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: Paddy Barron, a spokesman for the World Bank's Post-Aceh Conflict Program. That report compiled by Geoff Thompson.

I hope this truce holds, and that the European Union's Aceh Moniotoring Mission is invited to stay on through the elections.


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