Tsunami Eased Peace Process with Aceh Rebels

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Steve Inskeep talks with Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group about how the tsunami spurred reconciliation between the Indonesian government and rebel fighters in Aceh. Jones says the tsunami changed the political dynamics in Indonesia, but she credits the political will of the new government and the rebels' combat fatigue as critical factors.


One year ago today, we were just starting to learn how much a tsunami changed much of the world. It would take weeks before it was clear that hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Today, it's possible to understand other ways the disaster altered the country's across South Asia. This morning, we'll hear about political changes in two nations, starting with Indonesia. We've called Sidney Jones. She works with the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organization and she's been analyzing conflicts in Indonesia.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. SIDNEY JONES (International Crisis Group): Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: And the reason that we want to focus on political changes is because the area of Indonesia that was hardest hit, Aceh province, is an area that had been suffering a low-scale civil war for years before the tsunami struck.

Ms. JONES: This was a conflict that had been going on for 30 years. It looked like one of the region's most intractable conflicts, and within a month of the tsunami, the rebel group called GAM and the Indonesian government were sitting down to talk in Helsinki.

INSKEEP: Did the tsunami have something to do with that?

Ms. JONES: It did, although the peace talks had started secretly in 2004. There had been efforts to try and open up the process, but the tsunami really changed the political dynamics and also to some degree the psychological dynamics of both parties. There was a real decision that finally there was something more important to do than fight and I think both sides saw it in their political interest to see a settlement after the tsunami had so devastated the area.

INSKEEP: What had the rebels been fighting for all those years?

Ms. JONES: They had been fighting for independence from Indonesia. They were members of what they called the Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front. There had been between 10 and 15,000 people killed over the course of those 30 years and the tsunami had struck after two years of intensive military operations that had left the guerrillas really combat fatigued and eager for some kind of exit strategy. And I think that made a real difference in how the tsunami was able to push them to the table as well. And one of the things they did when they did get to the table was to give up their claims for independence and decide to use the political strategy and fight through the ballot box rather than militarily.

INSKEEP: Hmm. In addition to speaking to rebel fighters, you've spoken to Indonesian troops who've been involved in this conflict. What have they had to change or give up?

Ms. JONES: They believed that right as the tsunami came, they were on the verge of crushing GAM militarily and they didn't see any reason for talking to these people that wanted to separate from the Indonesian government. They should be crushed and they should be crushed completely. And they were very reluctant to see any kind of peace process under way that would give a pause in the fighting. So they also had to basically agree that ending the conflict through peaceful negotiations was better than trying to stamp it out militarily. And I think the distrust of the guerrillas on the part of the army is still extremely high and that's one of the things that's going to have to be overcome gradually as we move now into a different phase of the peace process.

INSKEEP: Which raises the question of whether the peace in the end will hold.

Ms. JONES: Yes. And I was always a skeptic and I've become a convert now. I really think that there's a chance that finally this will hold but there are hurdles ahead. I think there's a problem of will the combatants come down from the hills and actually find employment in Aceh because if they don't, then the tendency is either going to be to go back to the hills or go into some kind of criminal fighting. And another is that there has to be a new law that the Indonesian parliament has to pass that will give the rebels a chance to form their own political party and there may be people in the Indonesian parliament that don't like the idea of allowing these guerrillas to actually form their own party. And if they don't allow that to happen, then the peace process could be in jeopardy as well.

INSKEEP: We've been talking to Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.

Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. JONES: You're welcome.

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