The 'price of peace talks for troubled Aceh

The wheels of diplomacy and bureaucracy are notoriously slow. Apparently not so in the case of this weekend's peace talks between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the government, in Helsinki.

After talks broke down in 2003, the military, yet again, launched an extensive operation to wipe out GAM forces. Prior to the tsunamis, no resolution, ostensible or otherwise, was in sight. Less than a month later, the two sides were suddenly rushing to the Finnish capital for negotiations.

The scale of the devastation was clearly the catalyst of the new talks, but the expedience with which the two sides agreed to confer suggests more than that.

While the coming meeting is being facilitated by the Finland-based Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), it is strongly believed that Jakarta had privately contacted various GAM representatives, even before the tsunami. The disaster of Dec. 26, in effect, merely accelerated the process.

Various sources consistently point to the role of Vice President Jusuf Kalla. In fact, even before Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had been confirmed President, Kalla had privately divulged that he had been tasked by his running-mate to pursue peace talks on Aceh.

Kalla has certainly built a reputation as the "peacemaker" through his relative success in Poso and Maluku; and, even as coordinating minister, he had attempted to engage GAM officials at home and abroad.

For the latest initiative, Kalla employed his close circle of fellow Makassar aides along with Aceh-born officers to make initial contact some two months ago.

Through a series of "middlemen", it is believed that preliminary meetings were held with GAM allies and kin in Malaysia who, it was hoped, could convince hard-line elements in Aceh -- led by GAM Commander Muzakkir Manaf -- to at least consider the proposals put forward.

It is not inconceivable, as some have suggested, that cash was channeled to secure the meeting with either GAM allies in Malaysia or the GAM commander.

Curiously, the meeting did not immediately take place. Sources suggest two alternative accounts: the money was disbursed to "brokers" but the intended meeting was never set up; or that GAM representatives in Malaysia refused to meet with Kalla's people.

A meeting eventually did take place, however, about a week before the tsunami struck, and after President Susilo dispatched two respected Acehnese clerics.

It was during this meeting -- believed to be in Kuala Lumpur -- that the latest proposals were relayed by the clerics.

Apart from the unimpressive pledge of ensuring the welfare of the province, rebel leaders were offered amnesty and a safe passage to foreign exile. In return, a one-time "compensation" package, in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars -- if we are to believe the accounts of some -- would be paid out.

In short, this was an attempt to buy off the rebels.

For the architects of this plan, the current GAM force could be divided into three: the ideologists, the regular leaders and the criminals.

The first and third were the minority. The first could not be changed, no matter what, while the third group just needed to be rounded up and jailed. Without the second group, it was concluded, the rebellion would dwindle.

Where would that astronomical amount of money come from?

It is not difficult to imagine foreign donors with long term natural-resource interests in Aceh pitching in to "buy peace in the province.

Whether such an offer is morally acceptable is debatable, but if it is truly the only one on the table than negotiators in the next three days will certainly reach an impasse.

It would become particularly complicated if GAM representatives arrived in Helsinki with the perspective that the talks were merely preliminary, with the simple intent of confirming a cease-fire.

It is clear that Jakarta does not want to be dragged into lengthy negotiations, which would only serve to raise GAM's profile as a political entity.

For a military man like Susilo, it is also inconceivable to accept anything less than a reaffirmation of Aceh as part of the unitary state.

Hence, despite the high hopes, neither side seems to be entering the talks with compromise in mind. Otherwise the question could be as simple as "what price, then, is peace?".

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat and Tiarma Siboro, Jakarta January 27, 2005