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Aceh rebels lose the plot, and the war JAKARTA - The news that the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) will soon sign a peace agreement with the Indonesian government came as a pleasant surprise to Indonesians who had long wanted to see the bloody conflict there to come to an end. Nevertheless, it also invites curiosity as to why the rebels suddenly agreed to enter into a peace agreement with the government. The secessionist movement, which has been fighting for independence since 1976, had always refused to settle for anything less than a nation separated from the Republic of Indonesia. Over 10,000 people, mostly innocent civilians, have been killed in the conflict.
A source familiar with the rebel group said the GAM leadership overseas was now fragmented, while field commanders in Aceh suffered a severe lack of "independence ideology". Rebel leaders in Switzerland and Malaysia, according to the source, are divided as to whether they should pursue independence or accept the special autonomy status introduced by the central government on January 1, 2001. Under the special autonomy status, Aceh would be allowed to implement Islamic laws, or syariah, and organize direct elections for heads of provincial and regency administrations. The rebels would be allowed to field their own candidates.
Most GAM leaders overseas support the special autonomy status because they see it as minimizing the number of victims among innocent civilians. GAM first hinted at accepting the special autonomy scheme during peace talks in Geneva in May when it agreed to use the special status as the sole basis for future peace talks.
Commanders of the rebels' armed wing in Aceh do not see eye to eye with the overseas leadership. The reason is that many of them entered the movement for the wrong reason. According to the source, many GAM fighters holding key positions in Aceh were wanted criminals who joined the movement between1988 and 1998 when the province was put under a military operation status, just to avoid prosecution.
These "wayward" GAM leaders now often go around terrorizing local people to extort money, particularly after the death of respected GAM commander Tengku Syafi'ie Abdullah, who was killed in a shootout with a joint military-police operation team early this year.
The attitude of these rogue fighters is proving very costly to the movement. Local Acehnese people, and especially local religious leaders who were previously sympathetic to the movement, are growing antipathetic toward the rebels, whom they see as no better than government troops. Local people have also been giving information to security personnel about the whereabouts of rebels - something that never happened in the early 1990s.
Still, no potential commanders are emerging from the rebels' rank and file, which means there is no end in sight for the current political disorientation among GAM fighters. When six religious leaders and public figures from the troubled province were invited by the Switzerland-based Henry Dunant Center to meet with GAM heavyweights in late October, they prodded the GAM leaders to sign without delay a government-authored peace accord, despite strong oppositions from the rebels on two issues of the draft. GAM leaders are reportedly reluctant to accept the demand by the Indonesian government that they hand over their weapons, and the unclear definition of the role of Mobile Brigade police in Aceh.
If the Indonesian government is now literally dictating to GAM on the peace accord, it is because the government knows very well that GAM is at its weakest point. Indeed, the movement had unilaterally decided to delay the signing of a peace agreement until after the Muslim post-fasting Idul Fitri celebrations that fall on December 6 and 7. But judging by the reaction of Acehnese people, the GAM decision is seen as merely designed to create the impression that they are still calling the shots.
On Thursday, religious leaders, youth organizations, students, and business people in Aceh urged the rebels to sign the government-prepared peace deal. The government has set a new date, November 23, for GAM to sign. Clearly, the government does not want to give the rebels time to consolidate. From the government side, it is now or never. If GAM refuses to sign the deal, government troops will go all out to finish off the rebels. That explains why the military continues besieging a suspected rebel headquarters in a swampy area in Cot Trieng village in Nisam district, north Aceh. Military leaders have openly said that the siege is aimed at forcing GAM to sign the peace accord.
A GAM spokesman in Banda Aceh said last week that the siege might force the rebels to reconsider signing the peace agreement. "If they keep up this siege, it will be hard for us to sign a peace agreement," GAM spokesman Tengku Kamaruzzaman said on Saturday. So far there has been no official communication from GAM leaders in Switzerland. Support for GAM from the international community seems to have also weakened. Most foreign governments, including the United States and European countries, have pledged to help Indonesia maintain its territorial integrity. This is clearly the outcome of numerous whirlwind foreign trips by incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her predecessor Abdurrahman Wahid.
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have also tightened their borders and sea security to prevent arms smuggling to Acehnese rebels. GAM's weapons were previously believed to have arrived from southern Thailand and Mindanao in the Philippines. Clearly, the rebels have lost both the battle and war in Aceh. The options left for them now are ending the war with dignity by signing a peace agreement with the government, or with crashing humiliation by refusing to ink the accord.

Posted in Aceh conflict @ 19 November 2002 00:01 CET by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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