Aceh peace deal must be made to work
As the world marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war, an agreement was signed that could bring an end to one of Asia's longest-running conflicts. The truce between the Indonesian government and separatist rebel leaders from the province of Aceh is the best chance yet of ending 29 years of bloodshed that has left at least 15,000 dead.
Previous truces in 2000 and 2002 collapsed amid mutual accusations of violations, and Indonesia imposed martial law. The catalyst for the latest agreement was the December tsunami which devastated the province and claimed more than 130,000 lives there. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has acknowledged that 'real political opportunity came knocking only after the tsunami last December'.
The catastrophe persuaded the Indonesian authorities to open up the oil-and-gas-rich area to an international relief effort. Images of the loss and suffering helped convince rebel leaders in exile to return to the negotiating table.
With both sides brought to their senses, the negotiations in Helsinki established a measure of trust that had been conspicuously missing. The agreement is fragile, but both Dr Susilo and the leadership of Free Aceh Movement (GAM) have huge stakes in a lasting political settlement. The president must show that he can control the Indonesian military, which has corrupt vested interests in the province. GAM must show that it can persuade 3,000 rebel fighters on the ground to lay down their arms.
Dr Susilo was elected on an anti-corruption platform of democracy enforced by the rule of law. The military has business interests in Aceh worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. The province is ripe for destabilisation by the military and the military-backed militia. The Aceh accord - in particular the disarming of the pro-government militias - will be a test of his authority, political skills and reformist credentials.
The rebels have dropped their demands for full independence in favour of achievable progress. They have promised to lay down their arms in return for amnesty for their members and political prisoners. Jakarta has also promised to withdraw troops sent to the province, disarm pro-government militias, permit participation by GAM in local politics and has conceded Aceh a bigger share of revenue from its oil and gas reserves.
Both parties will be relying on effective oversight of the agreement by 200-odd international peace monitors drawn from the European Union and five members of Asean, who will be responsible for ensuring that breaches do not undermine the newfound goodwill. The surrender of weapons, demobilisation of rebels and their reintegration into a society torn by conflict will require sensitive handling.
With the support of the people of Aceh and the international community, the latest agreement appears to have a greater chance of success than previous attempts. It has more substance and the international monitors have more authority than predecessors drawn from non-governmental organisations.
The success of the accord and reconstruction efforts in Aceh is important to Dr Susilo's reforms and Indonesia's prosperity. Lasting peace will smooth the way for the US$5 billion reconstruction programme in Aceh, where half a million survivors were left homeless. It is also critical to the perception of stability needed to lure more foreign investment to the world's fourth most populous country.
If any good came out of the terrible tsunami it was the courage and resourcefulness of the survivors and the humanitarian response of the world. The prediction of a second wave of deaths from disease among huge populations with no clean water or sanitation was not borne out.
It would be a tragedy for the people of Aceh if their hopes for a lasting political settlement and peace were to be dashed again.