How tsunami brought peace for some

Bachtiar Abdullah was in Sweden when he saw images of the tsunami crashing into his Indonesian homeland’s coastline, killing tens of thousands of people as it swept entire villages to sea.

Deciding enough was enough, he and other exiled leaders of the Aceh separatist movement ordered their followers to lay down their arms and help the survivors.

The tsunami was the catalyst for ending one of the longest armed conflicts in modern history.

In Sri Lanka, however, the giant waves had the opposite effect.

Initial hopes that the disaster could lead to an easing of tensions between Sri Lanka’s government and Tamil Tiger rebels quickly faded amid bickering over reconstruction aid, and there are fears the island will return to civil war despite a 2002 ceasefire.

Although the 130-year conflict in Aceh province was considered more intractable than Sri Lanka’s 22-year civil war, analysts note that both sides in Indonesia already were moving toward peace before the disaster struck.

When they returned to the negotiating table in Finland several weeks after the December 26 tsunami inundated Indian Ocean coastlines, killing 131 000 people in Aceh alone, they were ready for rapid progress. Seven months later, a deal was reached.

“Both sides immediately realised the catastrophe presented a unique opportunity to end the war,” said Damien Kingsbury, senior lecturer at Australia’s Deakin University and an adviser to the rebels’ Free Aceh Movement.

Aceh, a province of four million people on the northern tip of Sumatra island, had been off limits to foreign visitors since 2003, when an earlier truce collapsed and the Indonesian military launched a massive offensive to break the insurgency.

The rebels, based in Aceh’s forested hills, did not suffer significant losses militarily when the tsunami hit. But they were no longer able to rely on food or logistical support from coastal villagers.

“After the dimension of the disaster became clear, we ordered our units to stop fighting and to help save lives,” said Abdullah, who returned home two months ago after 25 years in Sweden.

And while many of the rebels would have been willing to keep fighting, they were good foot soldiers and followed the orders of their exiled leaders, said Abdul Hadi, a former combatant.

He was one of dozens of rebels freed from prison by the torrent of water, surviving by holding on to a pole in the courtyard and then swimming to a row of shops outside the prison after a wall collapsed.

“We all wanted to go home to help our families, but nobody said he was giving up,” Hadi said.

Still, 12 months later, the rebels completed the handover of all their self-declared 840 weapons.
The Indonesian military, meanwhile, has withdrawn nearly 20 000 troops from Aceh, with 4 000 more slated to leave by the month’s end.

Disagreements and mistrust

In sharp contrast, expectations that the disaster would compel the Tamil Tiger rebels and Sri Lanka’s government to forget their decades-old animosity faded quickly after the waves hit, killing 31 000 there—partly because of disagreements over tsunami aid and deep mistrust between the two sides.

The Tamil rebels, who have been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the minority Tamils in the country’s north and east, claim discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese. The conflict has killed about 65 000 people.

Unlike the Acehnese rebels, who never managed to establish control over their province, the Tigers—having already created a de facto Tamil state in the island’s north-east—had much more to lose if they signed a similar peace deal.

After the waves struck Aceh, the government in Jakarta took an unprecedented step and allowed thousands of soldiers, aid workers and journalists from around the world to enter the war zone.

This helped the Acehnese rebels’ cause by bringing world attention to Indonesia’s “forgotten war”—a conflict that started with the Dutch invasion of the Acehnese Sultanate in 1873 and rumbled on after Indonesian independence from the Dutch in 1949. The latest round of fighting began in 1976, claiming about 15 000 lives.

The Sri Lankan government, however, blocked a similar deal with the Tigers, fearing the group might gain legitimacy and get direct control of foreign relief funds.

In addition to disarming, the political settlement required the Acehnese to give up their demands for an independence referendum such as the one that ended Indonesian rule in East Timor in 1999, in exchange for wide-ranging autonomy and the right to stand in local elections.

The disarmament and disengagement process has gone remarkably well, according to monitors from the European Union and South-East Asian nations overseeing the process.

“The Aceh peace process is working beyond all expectations,” said a statement released by the International Crisis Group, a global think tank.

But despite its overall success, analysts warn that the peace process still faces pitfalls.

In a portent of how quickly things can go wrong, Indonesia’s military chief, General Endriartono Sutarto, suddenly announced on Thursday he was proposing to dispatch to Aceh 15 additional infantry battalions, allegedly to help with reconstruction work.

Although this is unlikely to gain President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s support, such a move by the notoriously corrupt and undisciplined army likely would wreck the peace agreement, which set a ceiling of 14 700 troops and 9 200 police in the province.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press reporter Dilip Ganguly in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report