Fakhurradzie M. Gade, Banda Aceh – Thousands of protesters accused Indonesia's government Tuesday of failing to deliver on promises made when separatist rebels signed an agreement a year ago to end decades of fighting in Aceh province.
The demonstration in front of the provincial capital's 18th century mosque was one of the largest in Aceh in recent years, highlighting lingering challenges despite the success so far of the Aug. 15, 2005 peace deal.
The separatists and Indonesian troops agreed to stop fighting months after the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed 131,000 people in Aceh. Both sides said they did not want to add to suffering or hinder the reconstruction process.
More than 10,000 protesters on Tuesday called on the government to change a recently passed law that cements the terms of the accord, saying it watered down the level of autonomy promised to the oil- and gas-rich province.
"If the government does not respond to our demands, don't blame the people of Aceh if they once again demand their freedom," Mohammed Nazar, an activist twice imprisoned for organizing rallies in favor of an independence referendum, told the crowd.
The demonstration was called by a loose coalition of local rights groups, some of whom have links to former members of the Free Aceh Movement, which waged a 29-year war against the government that left 15,000 people dead.
The peace deal, signed in Finland, saw rebels hand in their weapons and drop their independence demand, accepting greater self-rule for the region and the withdrawal of most Indonesian troops.
Later Tuesday, ex-rebels and government officials were to join former Finish President Martti Ahtisaari, who brokered the deal, at a ceremony in a district of the provincial capital hit hard by the tsunami.
The former rebels and activists have raised several complaints about the recently passed law. The most serious is a clause that enables Jakarta to make important decisions relating to Aceh after "consulting" the province, rather than with the province's "consent," as agreed to in Helsinki.
The ex-guerillas have said they have no intention of taking up arms again, but at least two have said they worry that if the complaints are not addressed, new rebel movements could rise up within the next decade.
The government has said that the law can be amended in one or two years. It says that the version of the clause agreed to in Finland would have given Aceh's legislature more power than that of the national parliament, which would have violated the constitution.
Peter Feith, the head of the European Union-led peace monitoring mission, has said he considers the law "broadly in line" with the terms of the deal and also noted that it can be amended. "I am optimistic that the people of Aceh will enter 2007 with all the preconditions for a comprehensive, sustainable and long lasting peace," he said in a statement.