Analysis by Andreas Harsono
KUPANG, Indonesia, Jul 19 (IPS) - Devastating though it was, the Asian tsunami brought the proverbial winds of change to Indonesia by focusing international attention on the festering conflict in Aceh province and creating conditions for a political settlement that may yet instruct other ethnic groups.
Many would call the deal between the Indonesian government and the Free Acheh Movement (GAM), signed in Helsinki on Sunday a 'sell-out' but it is hard not to spot in it a model that could be replicated as Jakarta moves to deal with other regional movements in this far-flung archipelago.
Just about a week after the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami struck the coasts of Aceh the first round of talks began to take place in Helsinki under the auspices of former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, government negotiators were surprised by GAM leaders saying they were ready to contest elections, rather than push for independence.
''It is only through the establishment of an open, democratic and plural process that we can guarantee a peaceful political future, facilitate post-tsunami reconstruction and enhance social and economic development in Aceh,'' said GAM spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah.
Suddenly, for the first time in 30 years there was an end in sight to one of Southeast Asia's bloodiest conflicts, that had already consumed 15,000 lives, and the possibility of removing the paranoia of Javanese political leaders and intellectuals that Indonesia was about to disintegrate.
The idea itself is not new. About three or four years ago academics and intellectuals began suggesting that the way forward to end the armed conflict lay in tapping on the interest shown by GAM to form a regional political party based in Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra island.
Donald K. Emmerson, a political scientist at Stanford University is among those who have suggested that the Indonesian government consider changing its Java-centric political system to accommodate regionalism as an option.
''It (allowing space for regional parties) has a tendency to moderate formerly radical positions. What if, in Algeria, the elections had been honoured? In Iran, the revolution is over. There is a movement toward the centre,'' said Emmerson.
Examples to support the view abound across Asia. It was refusal to honour the results of an election which would have seen Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Dhaka-based Awami League party as prime minister of a united Pakistan that led to civil war and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
In Indonesia, the idea was not seen kindly by the Jakarta-based media, in spite of the press freedom gained from the overthrow of the authoritarian Suharto regime.
Worse than that, well-known editors openly favoured an Aceh that is integral to the Unitarian State of the Republic of Indonesia (Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia or NKRI).
''We journalists should be red-and-white first and defend the NKRI,'' declared Derek Manangka, the news director of RCTI, Indonesia's largest private channel, while talking at a seminar on coverage of the war in Aceh. (The Indonesian flag is often referred to as red-and-white).
Suryopratomo, the chief editor of Kompas, the largest daily newspaper, said it was better that Indonesia's 'stubborn' territories remained within the republic even if human rights abuses and injustice takes place in Aceh, Papua and others. ''Still it is better to be united in this age of global competition,'' he said.
The idea, however, trickled into Stockholm, where most GAM leaders live in exile. GAM is the Malay acronym of the Free Acheh Movement (Gerakan Acheh Merdeka). They claimed that Indonesia had become a vehicle for a ''Javanese nation''.
Javanese form about 45 percent of Indonesia's population and are based on the island of Java where the national capital is located.
When Hasan di Tiro, the head of GAM, declared an independent 'Acheh' in 1976 he started out by using a different spelling 'Acheh' rather than 'Aceh' as a mark of distinct identity. Later, many Achenese, however that is spelt, realised that their land was resource rich and that much of its income was being siphoned away to Java and Jakarta.
Before long the Indonesian army cracked down hard on the rebels. Since the 1980s, human rights groups have been accusing the Indonesian army of executions, disappearances, torture, rape and collective punishment of civilians.
But the tsunami changed all that with thousands of foreigners pouring into flooded Banda Aceh as well as Aceh province's urbanised areas like Meulaboh, Sigli and Lhokseumawe.
Murizal Hamzah, an Acehnese journalist of the 'Sinar Harapan' newspaper, described the tsunami as ''a blessing in disguise,'' for it gave a chance for the Achenese cause to become internationalised.
As with the Tamil Eelam cause in Sri Lanka, the international community wanted reconstruction efforts to go hand in hand with the peace process.
Sunday's Helsinki pact could not have been an easy bargain for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Under Indonesian law, parties must be headquartered in Jakarta and have branches in more than half of Indonesia's 33 provinces. Yudhoyono was reluctant to change the law to accommodate GAM, fearing similar demands from other ethnic or religious groups.
He offered instead to let GAM stand under the umbrella of existing political parties but nationalist legislators objected to even that as too big a concession. And they wanted the army to continue with repression.
Indonesian Information Minister Sofyan Djalil, although himself an Acehnese and a negotiator in Helsinki, rejected the GAM proposal for a ''national Aceh party.'' Djalil argued that Indonesia never had a place for ethnic or regional political parties.
Djalil was wrong. In Indonesia's first election in 1955, ethnic-based parties were accepted and contestants included the Daya Party which represented the Dayak tribes people on Kalimantan island.
''Such restrictions mean that Indonesia's political parties are controlled from Jakarta,'' Bakhtiar Abdullah said. "We reject such centralised control which does not and cannot reflect the wishes of the people of Acheh.''
''If the government of Indonesia really wants to preserve the unity of the state, it must meet the legitimate, democratic aspirations of its citizens,'' said Abdullah.
By the fifth round of talks in July, Abdullah's ideas had begun to take hold and Vice President Jusuf Kalla, persuaded his chief negotiator Hamid Awaluddin to push for an 18- month period during which preparations could be made for provincial elections and GAM agreed.
Liem Sioe Liong of the London-based 'Tapol' human rights group, which focuses its work on Indonesia, believes that a key factor in the settlement is the fact that the two politicians involved were ethnic Bugis and understood better the aspiration of groups outside Java Island.
Both Kalla and Awaluddin are Bugis from southern Sulawesi island at the eastern end of the archipelago. Yudhoyono, just like most Indonesian presidents, is Javanese.
''Maybe those Bugis politicians also thought that they might set up their own Bugis political parties if the Achenese are allowed to have one,'' said Liem.
But it is still a long way from peace as the Helsinki deal is to demand rigorous socialisation and implementation measures.
Will the Java-based political parties support the deal? Will the Jakarta media put aside its bias? How will Yudhoyono overcome his stubborn army? Only time can provide the answers to these questions. (END/2005)