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Tens of thousands mark year of peace in Aceh

Agence France Presse - August 15, 2006

Nurdin Hassan, Banda Aceh – Tens of thousands have rallied in Indonesia's Aceh, celebrating a full year of peace but calling on Jakarta to honour the pact which ended three decades of separatist warfare.

Crowds crying "Peace!" and "Long live the Acehnese!" converged around the province's main mosque to mark the historic pact signed on August 15 last year between the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the central government.

Muhammad Adam, a 32-year-old from North Aceh district, arrived in the provincial capital Banda Aceh with fellow villagers on Sunday ahead of the event.

"We all just wish that this peace will last forever," he told AFP. "During the conflict, people in my village could barely make a living but now, after the MOU (memorandum of understanding, or peace pact), we can go calmly to the rice fields without fear." ElShinta radio estimated as many as 200,000 people had turned out.

The pact was signed in the wake of the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which slammed into Aceh's coastlines killing some 168,000 people, and ended 29 years of fighting in the province at the westernmost tip of Sumatra.

One of Asia's longest running separatist conflicts had seen the death of an estimated 15,000 people, mostly civilians.

Under the deal, signed in Helsinki and mediated by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari who attended the formal celebrations Tuesday, GAM dropped its demand for independence in return for wide-ranging autonomy.

A law that was supposed to cement the peace deal was passed by the government last month but has elicited criticism from former rebels as well as ordinary Acehnese, who have already protested in their thousands.

Tuesday's rally was also being held to urge the Indonesian government to draft amendments to the law to bring it fully into line with the Helsinki deal. Muhammad Nazar, head of non-governmental organization the Aceh People's Referendum Information Centre (SIRA), expressed the concern of some Acehnese.

"We ask the Indonesian government not to betray Acehnese people again. Right now, Acehnese are very disappointed because the Aceh autonomy law contradicts the Helsinki MOU," said Nazar, who served more than three years in prison for sedition before the pact. "Actually, Acehnese people are peace-loving and do not like war, therefore the peace that we seek is an honest and fair peace," he told the crowd.

Critics of the law say several articles effectively curtail the power of the local administration in areas such as natural resource management, while the role of the Indonesian military in Aceh remains unclear.

Anwar, a 45-year-old farmer who took a 12-hour truck ride to attend the rally, said it was an outlet for him to express his wishes. "What I really want is for the Indonesian government to no longer trick Acehnese because during the conflict, we truly suffered and could not work peacefully," he told AFP.

Aceh police spokesman Jody Hariyadi said about 400 officers, assisted by an undisclosed number of soldiers, were providing security.

Meanwhile at a traditional ceremony at the governor's residence, Aceh's customary council gave traditional hats and golden daggers to Ahtisaari, Vice President Yusuf Kalla and GAM's chief negotiator Malik Mahmud, among others instrumental in securing the pact, the Detikcom online news agency reported.

"For the first time, the people of Aceh now can breathe, they have new breath," Mahmud said during the ceremony.

Another official ceremony was to be held at Ulee Lhee port in Banda Aceh, one of the areas worst-hit by the tsunami.

Despite the unease over the new law and earlier predictions of doom, former rebels have called the peace process "irreversible" and insisted they will not return to fighting.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said at an event marking the anniversary in Jakarta on Monday that the peace still needed work and commitment to ensure it was permanent.