BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - The Indonesian government and Acehnese rebel leaders signed a landmark agreement yesterday in Helsinki, Finland, that ends one of Asia's longest-running wars and brings peace to a region devastated by conflict and the Dec. 26 tsunamis.
After fighting for nearly 29 years, the rebel Free Aceh Movement agreed to drop its demand for independence for Aceh province in exchange for the chance to participate in elections.
The government agreed to withdraw about half of its 30,000 troops from the province, release more than 1,400 political prisoners and grant amnesty to rebels. The estimated 3,000 to 4,000 rebel fighters will surrender their weapons and receive land or jobs in return.
After the collapse of negotiations in Tokyo in 2003, the Indonesian government placed Aceh under military rule. But on Dec. 26, the dynamics of the province changed. Indian Ocean tsunamis devastated Aceh, killing at least 130,000 people. The waves destroyed countless villages and half of the city of Banda Aceh.
The urgent need to bring aid to Aceh prompted newly elected Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to open the isolated province to outsiders, including U.S. troops, for the first time. Weeks later, under the glare of international attention, the government and the rebels agreed to reopen peace talks, which ultimately led to yesterday's agreement.
Acehnese separatists contend that Aceh was a free state and was illegally absorbed by Indonesia, itself newly independent from Holland, in 1945. The Acehnese, who once ruled much of Sumatra, had held off Dutch colonialists for a century. In 1976, they began fighting for independence from Indonesia under the leadership of their hereditary sultan, Hasan di Tiro, who is in exile in Sweden.
In nearly three decades of low-level fighting, the war has claimed up to 15,000 lives. The Indonesian military has been accused of widespread human rights violations, including the kidnapping and murder of civilians. The Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym GAM, also has been accused of abuses and criticized for collecting "taxes" from civilians to finance its operations.
The province on the northern tip of Sumatra, more than 1,000 miles from Jakarta, the nation's capital, is one of Indonesia's wealthiest, with large offshore oil and gas deposits.
For the rebels, proud of their tradition of fighting to the death, giving up the demand for independence was the hardest part. Malik Mahmud, a rebel leader who also lives in exile in Sweden, said the decision required a "leap of faith" in the Indonesian government after decades of suffering from what he termed "military violence and repression."
Mahmud said the rebels' major achievement in the negotiations was winning the government's agreement to change the Indonesian political system, which until now allowed only national parties to put forward candidates in local elections. Under the agreement, Acehnese will be able to form local political parties that can offer candidates for election.
The province, which for decades has seen most of its wealth siphoned off by the central government in Jakarta, will receive 70 percent of the revenue from its oil and gas reserves.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.