Aceh Rebels Demand Political Role

Thursday 14 July 2005, by Slobodan LEKIC

Acehnese seperatists stepped up their demands for a political role in the tsunami-ravaged region as part of any peace deal, as negotiations with the Indonesian government entered a crucial stage Wednesday.

"The government of Indonesia must show that it sincerely wants peace by accepting self-government for Aceh based on elections contested by local political parties," said Baktiar Abdullah, a spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement.

"If Indonesia wants to be considered a democratic country it must accept internationally recognized standards of democracy," he said.

The issue of political representation for the guerrillas in the local government is seen as the main unresolved issue in the talks that opened Tuesday in a secluded manor near the Finnish capital. They are expected to continue until Sunday.

The other main hurdle, the demilitarization of the province, has been largely overcome after tentative agreement was reached to sharply reduce the massive Indonesian contingent there in exchange for the disarmament of the guerrilla forces.

The demilitarization process will be overseen by several hundred observers from the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In Jakarta, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said the government had asked Thailand, Brunei and Philippines to provide an unspecified number of monitors.

Jakarta has vowed never to permit Aceh to secede. But it has said the province will be allowed a greater say in running its affairs through a "special autonomy" deal that would grant Aceh’s 4.1 million the right to choose their own legislature and government. It would also give the resource-rich region a greater share of the earnings from its natural gas exports, almost all of which have gone to the central government in the past.

The rebels have publicly dropped their independence demand, and now want the right to form their own regional political party to take part in elections for the provincial government.

This is difficult for Jakarta to accept because it is generally expected that the separatists would overwhelmingly win any free vote. The government fears that this would give legitimacy to the separatist cause because it would be regarded as an informal independence referendum akin to the one that ended Indonesian rule in east Timor in 1999.

It was not immediately clear how the issue -which is seen as critical for the success of the peace process- will be resolved. Still, both sides have repeatedly said they are confident of settling the issue in this round of negotiations.

The latest phase of the Aceh conflict -which has its roots in the occupation of the previously independent sultanate by Dutch troops in 1873 -began in 1976. At least 15,000 people have perished in the fighting.

Peace efforts began soon after the overthrow of Indonesia’s longtime dictator Suharto in 1998.

A peace deal reached in 2002 collapsed about six months later when the Indonesian army jailed rebel negotiators, kicked out foreign observers and restarted combat operations.

The process was revived after the December 26 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 130,000 dead in the province. Since the disaster, the two sides have met five times in Helsinki under the auspices of the Crisis Management Initiative, a conflict-prevention group headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.

Indonesia maintains about 50,000 troops in Aceh, comprising about 35,000 soldiers and 15,000 paramilitary policemen. In addition, there are about 5,000 local police who have taken little part in the fighting.

Human rights groups accuse the army of executions, disappearances, torture, rape and collective punishment of civilians.

Under the draft deal, the security forces would be pared down to "a few thousand" soldiers who would be responsible only for external defense, an official close to the talks said. The local police force would be retrained by international instructors and would answer to the local government in Aceh rather than to Jakarta.

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