Aceh peace deal crumbles as Jakarta launches its ‘operation freedom’

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Barely four months after the second ceasefire was signed between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the deal has crumbled yet again, though no one is surprised. War has resumed unofficially, at least 13 people killed during the first week of May.

As Crescent goes to press, peace-monitors are being evacuated, some relocating to the capital as hopes of saving the peace-deal fade; thousands of villagers have sought refuge in “safe havens” such as mosques and schools. President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has allowed most of the talking to be done by her cabinet members, has ordered preparations for a military showdown in Aceh, impatient of even Jakarta’s own deadline of May 12 for GAM to “return to negotiating table”. GAM for its part has warned American oil-company ExxonMobil, which is the largest oil operator in the region, to shut down if it wants to ensure its employees’ safety.

In the last two months alone, more than fifty people have been killed, prompting even Jakarta’s friends who have been mediating in the peace-talks to warn Jakarta to avoid hostilities. The so-called “donor group”, consisting of the World Bank, Japan and the EU, have in the past put most of the blame for breaking the ceasefire on GAM. But they have come to realise Jakarta’s impatience for “peace” first, so that a “final solution” can be planned later.

Jakarta has accused these countries of not respecting its sovereignty, and accused Sweden, which has given political refuge to several GAM leaders, of not taking action against them despite the fact that “its citizens have committed something that poses a serious threat to Indonesia’s domestic security”. Indonesian foreign minister Hasan Wirayuda confirmed this on May 6, saying that he would contact the Swedish government to ask it to curb activities of GAM leader-in-exile Teuku Hasan di Tiro, who has lived there with several prominent Acehnese dissidents since 1979.

Since the beginning of the year, Jakarta has been blaming its enemies Algeria-style, accusing GAM of wanton killings and armed robberies, even when eyewitnesses are unable to confirm that the culprits were members of GAM.

Jakarta has been insisting that GAM surrender its weapons and accept without condition the special autonomy arrangements for Aceh, despite not meeting its own responsibility to disarm or at least ease the military’s offensive position against Acehnese fighters. More than 1,300 marine troops and 6,000 Mobile Brigade members are on standby for military operations in Aceh. As if not satisfied with this, 1,000 more troops arrived in the first week of May; 6,000 more were on the way to complement the more than 30,000 policemen and soldiers already in Aceh.

All this is happening despite the peace agreement signed in December last year requiring both sides to lay down their arms. Neither has been able to trust the other enough to do so. Instead, TNI’s presence is being reinforced continuously. This was even the case in the few days preceding the so-called Cessation of Hostilities Ag

At the end of April, even talks planned in Geneva to save the deal did not materialise, as Indonesia continued to lay claim to its ‘sovereignty’ and reinforce its military strength, while GAM delayed the meeting in a tit-for-tat response to “give the Indonesian government a lesson not to issue ultimatums.”

“Dialogue should not involve ultimatums. They are only used in war. We call on Indonesia not to make any ultimatum,” said GAM official Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba on May 2. Jakarta has given GAM a two-week deadline which ends on May 12 “to return to the negotiating table” or face its wrath. When the two sides could not even agree on a venue for talks (GAM proposed Geneva while Jakarta wanted it held in Tokyo), any positive outcome is extremely unlikely.

The military prepared to defy the ceasefire pact when, early last month, TNI for the first time held a conference, attended by its most senior officials, in Aceh. This was done despite their knowing that the move would provoke suspicion and mistrust in Aceh, which has seen TNI’s brutality at its peak during the Suharto era and continued unabated since then. During the conference, the army staged a ‘demonstration’ by about 500 masked people (who claimed to be ‘locals’) demanding TNI’s presence and the dissolution of the Joint Security Committee (JSC), in order to “protect villagers from extortion acts by GAM.” This gag was repeated on May 1, when a crowd converged on the Aceh state legislature, demanding a military operation “for the sake of national integrity”. That way, the notorious TNI can come back to “save Acehnese lives”, not unlike the US’s “operation Iraqi freedom”.

That the current moves come shortly before Indonesia’s first presidential election, due next year, is not coincidental, as TNI’s actions at this time may not be condemned by politicians in Jakarta or by presidential hopefuls, out of fear that they might be branded unpatriotic. Many politicians have already blamed past leaders for the loss of East Timor, and more recently of two tiny islands whose sovereignty was awarded to Malaysia by the international court of justice last year. This was confirmed by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s security minister, who said that leaders of the People’s Consultative Assembly, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Advisory Council were united behind the government’s plan to take “firm action against the rebels.”

The Indonesian army’s organisation of pro-Indonesia protests and mob-attacks on peace observers and civilians in Aceh have been documented by human-rights observers, who say that Jakarta has been training East Timor-style militias since 2001 in order to destroy the peace agreement in Aceh.

“In central Aceh they attacked the international peace monitoring team, they burned the offices in East Aceh,” a spokesman of human-rights organisation Kontras told the BBC (East Asia) Today programme on May 7. “All this is committed by the militias. We are now facing the same situation that happened in East Timor.”

Even retired major-general Samsuddin, an Indonesian former Special Forces officer, urged Jakarta to learn from its experience during the 1990s. “We have seen that despite terror and torture against the Acehnese people during the 10-year operation in the province, the secessionist movement there remains strong and Jakarta has failed to win their hearts because human rights violations were not properly solved,” he said.

Many have also condemned Megawati’s government for the use of force, coming as it does at a time when the country is already burdened with the region’s weakest economy. Such moves are also welcomed by the military in its attempt to make a political comeback, despite what reformasi worked so hard to achieve.

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