Aceh rebels ready to drop independence bid


Aceh rebels ready to drop independence bid
23 February 2005

HELSINKI: Aceh separatists are ready to drop their 30-year struggle for independence from Indonesia in return for some degree of self-rule in what could be a turning point in peace talks.

"The conflict cannot be solved like that and we have to come to terms with that," Free Aceh Movement (GAM) spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah said when asked if the goal of full independence had been abandoned in the interest of achieving greater autonomy.

"That (self government) is the main thing on the table," he said in Helsinki where peace talks with the Jakarta government were in a second day. "Of course in the negotiations we go with the tangible things that are on the table."

Australian academic Damien Kingsbury, who is advising the rebels, said talks covered possible changes in Indonesian electoral law to allow for local parties, withdrawal of military forces and possible outside monitoring.

Given the mass of details still to be covered, he said there could be "a number of rounds" of further talks.

The current round of negotiations will be wrapped up on today.

Indonesia and the exiled GAM leadership are making their second attempt in three weeks to agree on the future of the gas-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra island, where the conflict has cost more than 12,000 lives.

GAM has previously rejected offers of autonomy, insisting on independence, but the sides were brought together by the December 26 tsunami which hit Aceh especially hard. Almost 240,000 people are dead or missing and more than 400,000 were made homeless.

GAM leaders said before the current round of talks they were open to all ideas.

Since declaring independence in 1976, GAM's leaders have lived in Stockholm and some experts question how much influence they have on fighters on the ground halfway around the world.


"It's huge, it's a fundamental shift of position (on independence), and in itself it probably constitutes the single biggest step in the whole process," Kingsbury said.

He said one of the main sticking points in the talks has been the form of autonomy Jakarta is ready to offer the Acehnese, who see "special autonomy" as meaning the status quo and prefer the term "self government".

But in an apparent breakthrough, Kingsbury said the Indonesians had agreed to take the "self government" idea back home for discussion.

"You always have to be aware that (things) can go wrong or off the rails, but this is the most constructive the dialogue has been certainly since May 2003, and arguably ever," he said. "We're really at not just a critical juncture, but a historic juncture."

An Indonesian spokesman was not available for comment.

A change in mood was also alluded to by the mediator of the talks, the Conflict Management Initiative (CMI) group led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who said the dialogue was positive and constructive.

"The atmosphere today creates a good basis for (the sides) to work," CMI's Pauliina Arola said.

Jakarta has previously offered concessions towards self-rule and Islamic law in the devout Muslim province and a bigger slice of economic benefits from the province's energy resources.

The Indonesian military said it would act resolutely against GAM rebels if the peace talks collapsed.

"If peaceful efforts still could not bear results, we advise to not be hesitant in taking firm measures against GAM," the Antara national news agency quoted military chief General Endriartono Sutarto as saying.