War and aid in Aceh

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DEPUTY DEFENSE Secretary Paul Wolfowitz paid a call on Jakarta over the weekend, and in his wake, U.S. and Indonesian defense officials talked of rising prospects for renewal of military cooperation, limited for more than a decade because of murders and other abuses by Indonesian forces in now independent East Timor.

Not so fast.

It's hard to disagree with the argument that access to U.S. training would serve as a civilizing influence on the Indonesian army. But that sizable carrot - along with other military aid or sales - ought to be held out only once it's clear that Jakarta will sufficiently rein in its military in the tsunami-battered province of Aceh to allow badly needed foreign relief efforts to proceed effectively. Right now, that's not certain.

Last week, for example, Indonesia suddenly announced that it was setting a deadline for foreign troops delivering aid in Aceh to leave and that it also would be monitoring the movements of civilian aid workers. After U.S. protests, that deadline was mutually massaged to mean a goal for when Indonesian forces would take over for foreign troops.

The moves, of course, are well within Indonesia's sovereignty. But they also ignited fears that they were driven by the Indonesian military's intent to get back to its 20-year war with rebel separatists in Aceh, a region long closed by Jakarta to outsiders and long a focus of human rights concerns.

Aceh was the region hardest hit by the tsunami, which took about 100,000 lives and left a half-million homeless there. Indonesia faces huge obstacles to reconstruction - if only from government corruption. If restrictions on relief efforts by foreign troops and aid workers were to lead to a slowdown in aid to Aceh, that would be tragic.

Also tragic would be resumption of full-scale fighting there. After the disaster, there had been hope that truce offerings by both Jakarta and the rebels would be observed. Sketchy reports since then indicate resumed fighting. Human rights groups, having long accused the military of abuses in Aceh, are deeply skeptical.

Before the tsunami, Indonesia's newly elected president, former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had declared a goal of a peaceful settlement in Aceh. That has to have much greater urgency now. Rather than using this disaster as an excuse to resume military ties with Jakarta, U.S. officials first ought to be pushing hard for peace.

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