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Peace and reconstruction in Aceh

The slow process of rebuilding still needs focused international attention.

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Following extensive coverage of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and its one-year anniversary, the global media spotlight has moved on to other crises. But in Aceh, the Indonesian province that took the brunt of the waves' destructive power, two closely related issues demand close scrutiny. One is reconstruction. The other is implementation of the August 2005 "memorandum of understanding" (MOU). This peace deal ended a brutal 29-year conflict between the central government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) - and was made possible by changed attitudes in the wake of the disaster.

Peace is critical to reinvigorating an economy marked by rampant unemployment and reducing poverty that afflicts some 40 percent of the Acehnese population. And swift reconstruction and economic revival are essential for absorbing several thousand former GAM fighters, taking care of victims of the tsunami and the conflict, and giving people a stake in peace.

Flush with unprecedented levels of aid, the reconstruction catch phrase is "building back better." Yet progress on the ground has been agonizingly slow. Meuraxa, an area on the outskirts of the capital Banda Aceh, was still desolate when I visited last December. Across Aceh, only about 16,000 out of 120,000 houses needed have been built, leaving many survivors stuck in dreary barracks and rickety tents. Moreover, in March some 10,000 of the new houses were found to be so poorly built and equipped that they may need to be done over.

Rebuilding has been marred by land and property disputes, corruption, and turf wars among foreign aid agencies that have promised more than they can deliver. The government and aid groups have proclaimed 2006 to be the year when rebuilding will hit its stride. Making good on this promise is imperative to prevent growing resentment.

In contrast, the first phase of the peace process was an outstanding success. In accordance with the MOU, GAM fighters turned in their weapons, and the government sharply reduced its security forces in Aceh. It is the next phase, focused on political and human rights issues, that represents treacherous territory.

A new Aceh governing law is to incorporate key provisions of the MOU and lead the province to greater self-government. But the legislation submitted by the Indonesian government to parliament for final approval is much weaker than the initial draft that was drawn up in Aceh with popular consultation. Parliamentary deliberations have been slow - marked by a tug of war between those wanting to strengthen several provisions and those displeased with what they regard as unwarranted concessions to Acehnese separatism.

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