Peace Turns Aceh Rebels Into Civilians

Villagers in Aceh, where the tsunami killed 170,000 people, shovel gravel for $5 a day. Despite a peace deal, former fighters face an uncertain future.
Villagers in Aceh, where the tsunami killed 170,000 people, shovel gravel for $5 a day. Despite a peace deal, former fighters face an uncertain future. (By Yayu Yuniar For The Washington Post)
By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 1, 2006

MUREU, Indonesia -- Abdul Muthalib misses his AK-47. He carried it for 15 years as a rebel but gave up it up as part of a peace deal that ended almost 30 years of conflict in the province of Aceh, where he lives.

"The gun," he said, "it's like my second wife."

Muthalib traded his weapon for a motorbike taxi. On a good day, he makes about $5. He is hoping, he said, "to find something better."

The rebels of Aceh face an uncertain future, but for the province, being at peace already is something better. Military checkpoints are gone. People can move about freely.

Last week, the rebels officially disbanded their military, the Aceh National Armed Forces. Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, embraced the top rebel commanders in a moment of reconciliation. The last of 25,000 Indonesian soldiers sent to Aceh because of the conflict have left, and on Monday the last of the 7,000 special police officers are scheduled to withdraw.

"The peace deal proves that the Indonesian government is now capable of finding political answers to political problems, rather than military answers to political problems," said Damien Kingsbury, a political science professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and an adviser to the former rebels. "It's a very significant shift in the history of Indonesia and a positive sign for the overall stability of the region."

On Aug. 15, the Indonesian government and the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known by their Indonesian initials as GAM, signed a historic peace deal in Helsinki, Finland. The rebels were fighting for an independent Acehnese state, separate from a government they viewed as unjust.

The agreement ended a 29-year conflict that had taken 15,000 lives, mostly civilian. The rebels agreed to give up their quest for independence, in exchange for a law that gives Aceh a greater measure of autonomy. Many people, inside Aceh province and out, were skeptical a deal could be reached.

The pact is a bright spot in a year of tragedy. It contrasts with the near-collapse of a similar peace effort in Sri Lanka, where rebels have been fighting the government for decades. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 170,000 people in Aceh alone, put the province in the international spotlight, increasing pressure for a deal to allow the relief effort to proceed smoothly. But the accord faces significant challenges.

Under the terms of the deal, the parliament must pass a law allowing any group in Aceh, including the former rebels, to form a political party to contest local and parliamentary elections. Nationalist political parties have voiced opposition to such a law, arguing that it could undermine the unity of the state. Debate on the law begins in January.

Of more immediate concern to Muthalib, 35, is his economic future. He sat on a bamboo platform on a riverbank in this former rebel stronghold glistening with rice paddies but lacking a hospital or midwives.

Muthalib said he was one year into a 32-month prison sentence for treason, for being a GAM member, when the tsunami hit. The following afternoon, taking advantage of the chaos in the prison, he and 27 other prisoners escaped.

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