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The key to Aceh's future lies in events of 2006

Jakarta Post - January 5, 2006

Aguswandi, Banda Aceh – The one-year commemoration of the tsunami could be the last time the world focuses on Aceh. Despite promises that the world will not forget Aceh, it is very likely that the commemoration marked the beginning of the end of global attention to Aceh. After all, second anniversaries are rarely heard of.

But while the world might not be paying as much attention to Aceh in the new year, the key to Aceh's future lies in the events that will unfold throughout 2006. In fact, this could be the most important year in Aceh's modern history.

The international Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) will come to the end of its mandate this year, and it is very unlikely the mandate will be extended beyond 2006. This means peace will be in the hands of Indonesians soon. We should right now begin preparing security arrangements for Aceh without the presence of the AMM. There will be no more AMM offices for locals to go to in order to report their problems.

A complaints commission should be established to replace the AMM. The Acehnese should be fully informed about the AMM's forthcoming departure so they can prepare for the change. The building of trust between the Indonesian government and the former separatists from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is going to take time, and will have to be done without ASEAN or European observers.

This year also, prior to the first-ever direct local elections in Aceh, scheduled for April, the House of Representatives and the government in Jakarta have to approve (or reject) the new Acehnese administration draft law that has been submitted by the Acehnese. This law could be a turning point, where an unhappy past can become a hopeful future. It is the outcome of 30-plus years of conflict articulated in a single piece of legislation. After thousands of deaths and the wreckage of war, everything must be resolved in this draft.

Unfortunately, so far is not so good. I am not suggesting that the draft is inadequate but, perhaps more importantly, that the drafting process seems to have been monopolized by Acehnese elites. A bad draft created through a strong process is better than a strong draft built on a bad process, but it is unlikely that where there is a strong process a bad draft will result.

The process should have been strengthened with more involvement of the public and marginalized Acehnese groups, especially woman. As things are, there have been fewer public consultations than expected. The time line is important, but an overly tight deadline for the draft's submission has not been helpful. More time and more support for public consultations on the draft should have been allocated, especially to gain a sense of public ownership in the process which could have contributed to the building of trust and hope.

After the draft's approval, the elections should be next on the agenda for the year. These direct elections will be, hopefully, the freest ever held in Aceh. At this stage the main issue will be whether GAM and Acehnese civil society groups will be able to compete in and have involvement in the electoral process, through the establishment of local political parties and the nomination of their own candidates without any intervention by Jakarta. While technically this will depend on whether the new legislation allows this democratic engagement, practically it will depend on the maturity of all the parties involved.

All in all, 2006 will determine whether the armed conflict can really be transformed into a political battle, where GAM and other Acehnese groups can compete with national parties at the local level. If this happens, it will be a landmark of building democracy in Aceh, which might set a good example for the rest of Indonesia.

And of course, 2006 will also be the year when the post-tsunami reconstruction really has to show its worth. Reconstruction can be judged more fully this year, whether there is progress or stasis, chaos or coordination. The success or failure of the reconstruction work depends on whether we are delivering on our promises to the Acehnese people.

Since the Aceh conflict looks as though it can finally be resolved peacefully, authorities can no longer cite the excuse of the conflict as a reason for the lack of progress. As we now have peace, if things do go wrong with the reconstruction it can only be through our own mistakes. We are all equally responsible: the international agencies, central and local governments, and civil society groups.

This must be the year when the Acehnese can finally see a better future. If the Acehnese see that their hopes can be realized, it will disarm their minds and make peace in their hearts.

[The writer is working as a postconflict reintegration consultant based in Aceh. The views expressed here are personal.]