Indonesia rules out Aceh referendum

Associated Press

Jakarta, February 1:

Indonesia today rejected an offer by Acehnese rebels to put their independence claims on hold in return for an eventual referendum on the issue, but mediators were optimistic that coming peace talks could be fruitful.

The two sides held talks over the weekend in Helsinki to consider a formal ceasefire in Aceh province and to reopen a peace process that was broken in 2003 by the Indonesian military.

Although the Helsinki meeting ended inconclusively, both sides said negotiations will resume in February, and mediators said Jakarta’s offer of limited self-government for the province would likely be the key issue at the talks.

Acehnese rebels yesterday offered to put their secession demands on hold if the tsunami-hit province is allowed to hold an independence referendum within five to 10 years — a proposal the government rejected today.

“The Indonesian government has never entertained the idea of a referendum for the province of Aceh,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said. But mediators were

optimistic about the next round in Finland.

“Obviously, the fact they’re meeting again after nearly two years is a very good sign,” said Anthony Zinni, a retired US general who mediated in peace talks between the two sides in 2002. “They’re still feeling each other out, and the key issue remains the autonomy that Indonesia is offering,” said Zinni, who also served as US President George W Bush’s envoy to the Middle East. “We’ll see how that plays out, but I’m very encouraged by the fact that they’re talking again.”

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who convened last weekend’s meeting, said he expected the coming talks —tentatively scheduled for February 21 — to be difficult.

Representatives of the Free Aceh Movement want the Indonesian side to clarify the proposal to grant the province of 4.1 million people wide-ranging autonomy. In exchange for self-government, Jakarta expects the rebels to give up their independence struggle.

Dropping that goal would be crucial for integrating the rebels into politics. Most observers believe the Free Aceh Movement would overwhelmingly win any free vote in the region, but Indonesian law bans parties that advocate secession.

Separatists in the past have insisted on an internationally supervised referendum on self-determination — a demand unacceptable to Jakarta.

“It’s unfortunate the tsunami disaster had to be the catalyst for renewed contacts, but it is very promising the new round of talks are being facilitated by Ahtisaari, who has a long experience as a diplomat and international mediator,” said Budimir Loncar, a former Yugoslav foreign minister who co-chaired the 2002 talks with Zinni.

Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, who served as Indonesia’s principal mediator in those talks, said the government must accept that the “military option” has done more damage than good.

“I know that some people want the problem to be solved by military force,” he said. “But you must realise the killings have only created hatred among the Acehnese, which is poisoning the whole atmosphere.”