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After tsunami, a peace deal

Indonesian officials sit down with Aceh rebels to sign a peace accord Monday.

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Efforts to end one of Asia's longest-running conflicts will reach an important pass Monday when Indonesia is due to sign a far-reaching peace accord in Helsinki with Acehnese rebel leaders.

If the peace holds, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono can lay to rest a conflict that has disrupted the northern tip of Sumatra island since 1976, claiming over 12,000 lives and traumatizing an entire generation of men and women. The accord could pave the way for Indonesia to calm other restive areas, most notably Papua, where separatist sentiment runs high. It could also provide pointers for other Asian countries, such as the Philippines, in how to untangle seemingly intractable separatist rebellions over long-standing grievances.

"If we can deal with Aceh, it means that autonomy could work in Indonesia without splitting the country apart. It's an important lesson," says Umar Juoro, a political scientist at the Center for International Development Studies in Jakarta.

To be sure, major hurdles lie ahead, not least the demilitarization of a province awash in illegal arms. The path to peace in Aceh is littered with the wrecks of truces, including two failed efforts in the past five years.

This time, however, optimism is far more palpable among Jakarta's political elite, who have lined up squarely behind the accord. In Aceh, the mood is reportedly more somber, while still hopeful of peace.

In return for surrendering their arms, the fighters in the Free Aceh Movement, whose dwindling forces are put at 3,000, will be offered an amnesty and a chance to run for political office in an autonomous Aceh. In addition, 70 percent of the revenues from Aceh's abundant natural resources, including oil and gas, will go to the provincial government.

Indonesia's parliament last week voted unanimously to back the accord, though nationalist lawmakers remain skeptical over giving ground to the rebels, known by the Indonesian acronym GAM.

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