Don't rush into new round
of political talks

Kirsten E. Schulze, London

For the first time since the collapse of the Aceh peace process in May 2003 the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government formally talked again.

This decision came in the wake of the tsunami's devastation of much of Aceh's coastal areas, leaving some 170,000 Acehnese dead. This humanitarian disaster added urgency to the informalback-channel contacts, which had been going on since November 2004. The need to provide meaning to Aceh's immense tragedy also pushed both the international community and many Indonesians to urge GAM and Indonesia to leave the conflict behind and embark upon the road of reconciliation.

While an end to three decades of conflict is, of course, highly desirable, one should be cautious of rushing into a renewed round of political talks.

What is often overlooked in the pressure to return to the negotiating table is that the price of a failed peace process is a high one indeed.

Failed peace processes diminish the hopes that a conflict can be resolved non-violently. They polarize society, erode the middle ground, and strengthen the hardliners. A failed peace process delegitimises negotiations and relegimitises military solutions. And the last thing the Acehnese need at this point is to have their expectations raised only to be crushed.

The tsunami has not altered the positions of either the Indonesian government or GAM. Indonesia is still not willing to let Aceh secede and GAM is still not willing to give up its goal of independence. Aceh's humanitarian tragedy has not bridged the gap between them. A return to bilateral political negotiations would thus only reproduce the zero-sum dynamics that resulted in the breakdown of the peace process in May 2003.

That is not to say that the renewed dialog between GAM and Indonesia has no merit, especially if it focuses on a possible ceasefire rather than the question of sovereignty. If the new talks can deliver a genuine, credible and lasting cessation of hostilities that would already be a tremendous achievement and one not without difficulties.

Every single ceasefire GAM and Indonesia agreed in the past was violated soon after its conclusion. A renewed ceasefire will face the same obstacles, starting with controlling troops on the ground in the face of real and perceived provocation in an environment of total distrust.

Indonesia will have to decide whether there will be a scaling back in the number of Indonesian troops or a reformulation of their mandate.

Thorny issues such as what constitutes a ceasefire violation also have to be addressed. Apart from the obvious exchange of gunfire GAM and Indonesia need to decide whether violations, for instance, include the raising of GAM flags, recruitment and training of GAM members, the import of weapons, the raising of GAM 'taxes', and GAM political activities. These issues all contributed to the collapse of previous ceasefires.

No less daunting is the question of whether there will be a monitoring mechanism. Who determines when a ceasefire has been broken and what, if any, sanctions will be imposed?

If agreement on a ceasefire could be reached, it could bring immense benefits for Aceh. It would provide a secure environment for humanitarian aid workers to help the Acehnese rebuild their cities and villages and, above all, their lives. It would provide the space for Acehnese wounds to heal - and not just those caused by the tsunami. And if the ceasefire holds for long enough it would help build confidence between GAM and

Indonesia and could form the basis for future political negotiations. A long-term ceasefire would also provide the opportunity for addressing some of the underlying causes of the conflict: broken promises, socio-economic dislocation, political marginalisation, and ultimately the descent into poverty of large parts of the population while the elites enriched themselves.

A 'roadmap' is needed that focuses not just on post-tsunami recovery but also on development across the whole province as well as the full implementation of special autonomy. This includes cleaner, more accountable, more effective and more responsive governance. It also means rebuilding the education and healthcare systems, improving the infrastructure, and addressing rural poverty and unemployment. Focusing on the tsunami-struck areas only could create new social jealousies and feelings of injustice.

A long-term credible ceasefire would create the perfect environment for the reconstruction of Aceh in a broader sense, allowing the Acehnese to recover from both the tsunami and the conflict and to return to some semblance of normality.

A rush into political dialog risks bringing about the opposite. The understandable need to have something positive come out of this horrendous natural disaster should be carefully weighed against the costs of another failed peace process.

The writer is a senior lecturer in International History at the London School of Economics. She is the author of The Free Aceh Movement (GAM): Anatomy of a Separatist Organization (East-West Center, 2004).

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