Aceh rebels may settle for autonomy

Aceh separatists are ready to drop their 30-year struggle for independence from Indonesia in return for some degree of self-rule, a spokesman has said, in what could be a turning point in peace talks.

    The Indonesian province was hit badly by 26 December tsunami

    "The conflict cannot be solved like that and we have to come to terms with that," Free Aceh Movement (GAM) spokesman Bakhtiar Abd Allah said on Monday when asked if the goal of full independence had been abandoned in the interest of achieving greater autonomy.


    "That (self-government) is the main thing on the table," he said in Helsinki where peace talks with the Jakarta government were in their second day. "Of course, in the negotiations we go with the tangible things that are on the table."


    Indonesia and the exiled GAM leadership were making their second attempt in three weeks to agree on the future of the gas-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra island, where the conflict has cost more than 12,000 lives.


    Tsunami effect

    GAM has previously rejected offers of autonomy, insisting on independence, but the sides were brought together by the 26 December tsunami which hit Aceh especially hard. Almost 240,000 people are dead or missing and more than 400,000 were made homeless.


    GAM leaders, who have lived in Stockholm since declaring independence from Jakarta in 1976, said before the current round of talks they were open to all ideas.


    "We're really at not just a critical juncture but a historic juncture"

    Damien Kingsbury,
    Free Aceh Movement adviser

    "It's huge, it's a fundamental shift of position, and in itself it probably constitutes the single biggest step in the whole process," Australian academic Damien Kingsbury, who is advising the rebels, said.


    One of the main sticking points in the talks has been the form of autonomy Jakarta is ready to offer the Acehnese, who see "special autonomy" as meaning the status quo and prefer the term "self-government", he said.


    Building blocks


    Kingsbury said that, in a breakthrough, the Indonesians had agreed to take the "self-government" idea back to Jakarta for discussion. He said the rest of the talks would now focus on the political building blocks for a future Aceh.


    "You always have to be aware that (things) can go wrong or off the rails, but this is the most constructive the dialogue has been certainly since May 2003, and arguably ever," Kingsbury said. "We're really at not just a critical juncture but a historic juncture."


    An Indonesian spokesman declined comment on the issue. 

    SOURCE: Reuters


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