AFTER DECADES of fighting that killed at least 15,000 people, the peace agreement signed last week between the Indonesian government and representatives of the separatist province of Aceh is encouraging. If all goes as planned, Acehnese political parties will finally be allowed to run in local elections, the province will get to keep 70 percent of the profits from its oil and gas reserves, and Indonesia will reduce its forces in the region by half. In return, the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM) will drop its insistence on independence, and its fighters will disarm.
Once virtually unknown outside the region, Aceh is now widely recognized as the place hardest hit by December's Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 150,000 people in the province of 4 million. Given the massive destruction of Aceh caused by the tsunami, the rebuilding effort will require international involvement for many years to come. A continued international presence may also work in favor of maintaining the peace.
Still, it is yet to be seen whether the agreement will hold any tangible benefits for the Acehnese people, who have been disappointed by such deals before. After a long history of independence alternating with invasion, the area, once a rich trading port, was annexed by force in 1950 by the relatively young Republic of Indonesia. Indonesian promises of autonomy have been made and broken since then, and fighting has been virtually uninterrupted for nearly 30 years. The last peace agreement, reached in 2002, broke down within six months.
This time, the situation is also precarious. Though the Indonesian government seems to be more in control of its military than in the days of the dictator Suharto, when the military largely ran rampant, there is still reason to be concerned about the military's willingness to comply with this peace agreement. As was seen in East Timor, the Indonesian government honored the will and rights of the East Timorese people, but that act did not translate into similar compliance by the Indonesian military. Rather, evidence suggests that much of the terror the militias wrought upon the East Timorese was orchestrated and supported by the military, which has a history of human rights abuses throughout the archipelago.
GAM leaders say that militias in Aceh, backed by the Indonesian military, have vowed to kill the disarmed fighters. Any such killings, or the resultant attempts by GAM fighters to defend themselves, could mean the collapse of the peace agreement. Though humanitarian organizations have reportedly witnessed militia attacks on civilians, the military denies the existence of any such forces.
It is vital that the international community continue to observe the situation on the ground, to ensure that human rights abuses by the Indonesian authorities do not persist. When the rest of the world moves on to the next conflict, it should not forget Aceh. This agreement, welcome as it is, is no panacea promising a peaceful age in the territory. The physical devastation is still there for all rebels and the militias in the province to see -- and the Acehnese people know all too well. The paramount interest of all should be in rebuilding homes, schools and roads -- far more important endeavors than fighting over historical and self-defeating grudges.