In a world that seems collectively to have lost the plot, one small glimmer of hope has appeared in a neck of the woods where violence appeared to be a permanent fixture.
This week sees the first anniversary of the ceasefire which ended the fighting in the Aceh province on the western tip of Sumatra. For the previous 30 years it had been in the grip of a ferocious insurgency which claimed the lives of 15,000 people, mostly civilians, and displaced around half a million more.
Like all conflicts of this kind it proved to be completely intractable and looked as if it would continue until one side had crushed the other. Nobody took any bets on which side would prove victorious, for although the ruling Indonesians possessed superior firepower, the insurgents of GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or the Free Aceh Movement) proved to be doughty guerrilla fighters who gave as good as they got.
The fighting was not heroic. Both sides abused human rights; rape, torture and murder were commonplace and people caught up in the fighting were prey to blackmail and extortion.
Mostly, though, the atrocities were carried out by government forces, and their systematic brutality only hardened attitudes and made the support for GAM more solid. It seemed not to occur to the Indonesians that they could not defeat GAM by conventional means and that the more they struck at them, the greater the feeling of solidarity that grew up among the Acehnese. (If that interpretation has a familiar ring this weekend, it’s a reminder that counter-insurgency wars of this kind are never won by the mailed fist.)
Then came the tsunami at the end of 2004, smashing towns and villages, devastating swathes of Aceh province and leaving half a million people homeless. It was a defining moment, and it brought people to their senses.
A year earlier, a truce – followed by peace talks in Tokyo – had broken down and the Indonesians had mounted a major military operation to smash GAM once and for all, an action that was widely condemned by the world community. But after the tidal waves that had produced such a huge death toll in December 2004 receded, the people of Aceh and Indonesia suddenly realised that there had to be more to life than endless civil war.
The day following the tsunami, GAM announced a unilateral ceasefire and within a month the Indonesian government under President Megawati Sukarnoputri responded by agreeing to talks in Helsinki aimed at making the deal permanent. Jaw-jaw replaced war-war and it worked too.
On August 15, 2005, GAM agreed to drop its demands for independence in return for a devolution deal which gives the people of Aceh greater autonomy, with direct elections for a local assembly due to take place later this year. GAM agreed to disarm its fighters in return for a universal amnesty and the Indonesian security forces began to pull out of the province.
As long as the war continued, getting that solution was out of the question. The Indonesian government was determined to treat Aceh in the same way that it handled every other province, even if that meant imposing its will by military might. At the same time, GAM was relentless in its unwillingness to give up the armed struggle, even if it meant condemning the people of Aceh to a life of war and displacement.
The devastation caused by the tsunami changed all that: faced by the awesome power of nature, both sides decided to rally together in common cause for the benefit of the victims. Sometimes, just sometimes, good can come out of evil. 13 August 2006
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