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Acehnese welcome political law and newfound peace

Reuters - July 12, 2006

Banda Aceh – Many residents in Indonesia's Aceh say they are unaware of the specifics of a new law giving the ravaged province greater autonomy, but don't want any opposition to it to derail a new-found peace.

The Indonesian parliament passed a bill on Tuesday aimed at cementing a peace deal signed in Helsinki last August between Jakarta and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), ending a conflict that killed around 15,000 people, mostly civilians, from 1976 to late 2004.

The peace agreement was a result of months of talks spurred by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that left around 170,000 Acehnese dead or missing.

Acehnese, weary of past failures to end the conflict, want this pact to last. "Working people like me have no idea on the shape of the bill," said 43-year-old Khairuddin, who lives near the provincial capital Banda Aceh, 1,700 km (1,060 miles) northwest of Jakarta. "I don't even know the shape of the government we have now." "What I want is just a safe Aceh," said the fruit farmer.

The bill covers a range of issues, including rules paving the way for the first direct election of Aceh's governor and the chance for ex-rebels to run for that post.

"Hopefully, this bill will improve the lives of the Acehnese and violence will no longer exist," said Syamsuddin Nur, who works for a local government agency. "The central government must obey the rules in that legislation." "The bill should not disrupt the peace that has been painstakingly restored," he said, sipping a cup of sweet, black Acehnese coffee at one of the ubiquitous roadside stalls in Banda Aceh.

GAM officials say the bill falls short of Jakarta's promises to give Aceh control of most of its affairs.

But Indonesian lawmakers argue the deliberations conformed to the Helsinki truce and the end result is that Aceh has more autonomy than any of Indonesia's 32 other provinces.

Indonesian officials have challenged GAM to spell out which part of the 273-article bill is in violation of the August 15 peace deal.

After Indonesian and GAM representatives met on Wednesday with European-led foreign monitors ensuring the implementation of the truce, the former separatists said they needed time to read the bill.

"GAM has not looked into, nor thoroughly studied, the approved bill. We need to study its content first," GAM spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah said. That would include inviting the opinions of independent legal experts and the process could take around a month, he added.

The Helsinki agreement came after GAM dropped its demand for an independent Aceh state. Jakarta in turn promised to allow local political parties, including any group set up by GAM, to operate in Aceh, although that contradicts Indonesian laws.

Existing national laws require parties to have branches in more than half the country's 33 provinces and individuals to get party endorsements before they run in elections.

Analysts say GAM could hurt its chances in the coming polls if their disappointment with the bill goes too far, because public opinion is largely in favor of the peace process moving forward.