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How Aceh found peace

Inter Press News Service - September 20, 2006

Milla Sundstrvm, Helsinki – "Amid all the destruction and loss the mood was high. People were making bricks, digging fishponds, building fishing boats. And people were sitting in coffee shops late into the night just as if there had never been any war."

This is how Mahmoud Malik, leader of the rebel movement of the Indonesian province Aceh described returning home in April this year after more than 30 years' exile.

Malik's feelings and the entire peace process that made his return possible are told in a new book 'Making Peace. Ahtisaari and Aceh' by Finnish journalist Katri Merikallio, who followed the peacemaking process in Finland closely, and also travelled to Indonesia to see how the process was put into practice.

The Finnish version of the book was launched in late August and the English version last week, both by Finnish publishing house WSOY.

Merikallio, who works for Finland's only political weekly paper Suomen Kuvalehti, recounts the Aceh negotiations in a stirring, almost thriller-like manner.

Finland's former president Martti Ahtisaari attended the book launch to talk about the remarkable success of his mediating efforts that managed in only seven months to end the war that had continued in Aceh almost 30 years.

"It was not a one-man show," Ahtisaari said, emphasising the role of teamwork in mediating the negotiations that covered five secret rounds between the Indonesian government and the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), the Free Aceh Movement.

The province of Aceh on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra is rich in natural resources, but it is one of Indonesia's poorest and most underdeveloped provinces. GAM declared in 1976 that the province had been illegally annexed by Indonesia in 1949, and started a fight for independence for the area.

The aspiration for independence has its origins in the history of Aceh. For centuries it used to be the independent Sultanate of Aceh, while other parts of Indonesia were colonised by the Dutch.

Aceh's population is about four million within the Indonesian population of 238 million. The province is 98 percent Muslim; the rest of Indonesia is 83 percent Muslim.

Between 15,000 and 50,000 people died during the decades of fighting in Aceh. Peace was sought numerous times but all attempts failed, the last of these only about two years before Ahtisaari's success.

News of renewed negotiations on Aceh in Helsinki in early 2005 was received skeptically in many parts of the world. But something had changed to create new ground for negotiations – it was the tsunami that hit the area Dec. 26, 2004, killing around 180,000 people in Aceh and leaving 600,000 homeless.

The book recounts how a local GAM commander sent a text message to the exiled leadership in Stockholm: "What are we fighting for any more?"

GAM declared unilateral ceasefire after the tsunami while the Indonesian army continued to search for its fighters. "Unarmed fighters who came looking for their families were arrested and shot in the midst of all the earlier destruction," Merikallio recounts in her book.

The first round of negotiations was held just outside Helsinki only a month after the tsunami. GAM 'prime minister' Malik Mahmoud had only to cross the Gulf of Bothnia that separates Sweden and Finland to join Ahtisaari and the Indonesian delegation.

That Gulf had been crossed several times before by Finnish consultant Juha Christensen who had laid the basis for the negotiations, and finally convinced Ahtisaari to take over.

Christensen and his wife Liisa, both linguistic researchers, had moved to Indonesia 20 years earlier. While acting as consultant for Finnish business interests in Indonesia, Christensen began his own explorations on bringing peace to Aceh.

With his language skills Christensen became Ahtisaari's right hand during the negotiations, and later an important member of the international mission that was sent to Aceh to monitor the peace building. Other members of Ahtisaari's team came from the independent Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) that Ahtisaari founded in 2000. The Finnish foreign ministry sent observers.

Ahtisaari had carefully studied the previous failed peace negotiations, the so-called Coha process (Cessation of Hostilities Framework Agreement), and chosen his own strategy that would be both narrow and tight.

"Three years went into the previous negotiations and it only really came up with a ceasefire agreement – an enormously wide agreement with a great many details," he said.

Ahtisaari made it clear to both parties that he did not intend to waste time if they were not serious about their involvement in the process. He also announced at the outset that the deadline for these negotiations was autumn.

In an interview with Merikallio, Ahtisaari admits that at times he had to be very strict, even hard.

"For example, I told GAM right at the beginning that I didn't know of any government that would support them. And that if they did not immediately grasp this opportunity, they might never get back to their homes in Aceh, but would die here in the North."

Ahtisaari's premise that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" took shape at an early stage. He had drawn up a framework on what he was prepared to discuss with the parties, and within this framework independence was not an option.

"My task was to create a whole which both parties could live with. This means that an agreement cannot come about before all the details have been agreed upon", he explains in the book.

The process ended with success, and Ahtisaari managed to involve the European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to begin an initial monitoring presence ahead of the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM).

The AMM took over a year ago under the leadership of Pieter Feith, the Dutch director-general for political and military affairs at the European Commission, and with only 222 international monitors.

In December 2005, before the first anniversary of the tsunami, GAM surrendered to AMM a total of 840 weapons. GAM also declared that its military wing had been disbanded and demobilised.

The peace agreement stated that a new law on Aceh has to be promulgated; the law was passed by the Indonesian parliament earlier this year. But new and complex problems emerged with the drafting of the law. The law does not even mention the Helsinki agreement, and in GAM's opinion it is weaker than the agreement on several points.

The peace agreement promises to Aceh authority over all matters except foreign affairs, external defence, national security, monetary and fiscal matters, freedom of religion and justice. Responsibility for these was to rest with the central government. But the new law adds to this list of exclusion the clause "other government affairs", which GAM says can be anything.

The peace agreement also promises to the Acehnese people eventually the right to form local political parties, which has not been allowed in Indonesia before. In the first elections, scheduled now on Dec. 11, GAM's candidates will be presented as independent ones.

The agreement confirms Aceh's right to retain 70 percent of the revenues from all current and future hydrocarbons. GAM says that in the law the article on managing oil and gas revenues is too vague, and makes the future uncertain. The law states that the Acehnese and the central government will decide on this together. It has not all been smooth sailing since the signing of the peace agreement, but all partners that Merikallio interviewed this summer, among them GAM's Malik who has returned to Aceh, are convinced that the organisation will not take up arms again.

Ahtisaari, 69, now faces the more complicated challenge of trying to solve the crisis in Kosovo on a United Nations mandate. He was president of Finland 1994-2000, and has long experience in conflict management in different parts of the world from Namibia to former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Northern Ireland.

He is being mentioned as a candidate for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, and Merikallio's book is not badly timed, considering that.

Merikallio writes that people who have closely followed various negotiations led by Ahtisaari are agreed on one thing: "He has an exceptional ability to create an environment of inclusion that gets people to commit to a common goal. The feeling that everyone is involved and that everyone's contribution is needed."

Ahtisaari himself recognises the difficulties on the road to peace..

"Part of the process is that sometimes one party does not trust you, sometimes the other, and then both begin to tolerate you again."

As teacher by training, he compares the negotiations process to raising children where "the aim is to bring up an independent young person – and you have to be able to release your grip".