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INDONESIA-CONFLICT Jan-24-2005 (870 words) xxxi

Aid agencies hope disaster provides leverage for peace in Aceh

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNS) -- The aid agencies that arrived in Indonesia's Aceh province after the tsunami disaster may provide the international community with the leverage needed to force a lasting peace and cease-fire in the region, Catholic aid officials said.

Without a permanent cease-fire, aid workers said they fear the millions of dollars earmarked for survivors in Aceh may not reach those who need it most.

"My hope is that the international community can use its leverage to get the government and the rebels at the peace table," said Patrick Johns, emergency response team director for Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency.

Reports of sporadic gunfire between the Indonesian military and rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM, have circulated since the tsunamis hit Dec. 26. Indonesia said Jan. 22 that it has killed about 200 rebels since the relief effort started.

Johns said an upsurge in violence could force aid agencies to scale back operations.

"The last thing we want to see is for us to put all this time into helping the people rebuild, and then to have flare-ups of violence and continued tension cause it to go down the tubes," he said.

One aid worker said the province's progress toward peace and human rights "will depend on how receptive the government is to civil society expressing themselves." The worker told Catholic News Service that initial signs from Indonesia were discouraging.

"Indonesia has already said that the refugees will be moved into larger camps, and then the communities will be rebuilt and the people will move back. But there are a lot of issues to consider; it's going to be somewhat controversial," the worker said.

"The people should have a voice into their future, and those views should be taken into account," the worker said. "When you're talking about more than 400,000 people, you're talking about a huge political force. Is the Indonesian military prepared to listen to them?" he asked.

Leo MacGillivray, country director of the International Catholic Migration Commission, said the international community "must be vigilant to ensure that these vast sums of money are used to meet the needs of the most vulnerable."

"The international community must be vigilant in ensuring that," he said.

Catherine Sexton, head of international programs for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the English and Welsh bishops' aid agency known as CAFOD, said the conflict in Aceh was one of the world's "hidden conflicts, with no real international witness."

"What it really depends on is the reaction of the Indonesian military to such a large international presence," she said.

Caritas Internationalis, the confederation of Catholic aid agencies, has raised about $261 million for tsunami disaster relief.

In an attempt to prove to the international community it is serious about securing peace, Indonesia said it is willing to negotiate anything -- except independence -- with the rebels.

Resource-rich Aceh has been beset by conflict since Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch in 1945. President Sukarno, the country's founder, promised the Acehnese special autonomy, which never materialized and led to several conflicts during the 1950s.

In 1976, the Free Aceh Movement was founded, and it declared Aceh an independent nation; in 1979, the movement's leadership fled to Sweden.

During the 1980s, a period known for its human rights abuses by the Indonesian military, President Suharto declared Aceh a military zone. In 1998, the Suharto government collapsed. Cries for a referendum on autonomy grew louder in Aceh. Also during this time, the people began speaking out on the abuses they experienced, creating more tension between the Acehnese and the central government in Jakarta.

Tensions also developed between the Acehnese and Javanese migrants, causing the Javanese to flee to refugee camps in North Sumatra province, where the Jesuit Refugee Service works.

In 2002, a cease-fire agreement was signed between the GAM and Jakarta, with neither side honored.

An aid worker familiar with the province said large portions of the province were under siege by the rebels and the military, which the worker said uses murder, kidnapping and extrajudicial killings to gain control.

"They (Acehnese) want to live in a dignified way. I don't feel GAM represents their views, and the military is reviled," the worker said.

In May 2003, the government declared martial law in Aceh, and all foreign humanitarian aid workers and journalists were forced to leave. Organizations registered as Indonesian nongovernmental organizations and with a national staff, such as Jesuit Refugee Service and the International Catholic Migration Committee, remained and continued to work with a low profile.

Martial law was lifted in May 2004; Indonesia declared the province a "civil emergency."

"There was a status change, but no real operational change. The people still experienced violence and human rights abuses," said a worker with a Catholic aid agency.

Ingvild Solvang, advocacy manager for the Jesuit Refugee Service Indonesia, said the province's bloody past provides the framework for post-tsunami work in Aceh.

"It's like the people are saying, 'Which trauma should we heal first? Where do we begin?' It's definitely more than just the tsunami. You have to understand that to work here," she said.


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