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Indonesia's Aceh struggles to integrate former rebels fairly

As Indonesia's Aceh Province works to rebuild from decades of bloody battle - and a devastating tsunami - many analysts say feelings of injustice could wedge a new community divide.

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A man rides a motorbike near houses which were rebuilt on the area heavily affected by the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, April 18.

Heri Juanda/AP

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The misty terrain of this long-troubled Indonesian province is dense and arresting and laced with contrasts. Eight years ago gunfire riddled lush paddy fields. But today small mansions stand out among clapboard villages.

Home to a decades-long separatist insurgency, Aceh has been mostly peaceful for the past seven years. Last month former rebel Zaini Abdullah was elected governor of the province in largely non-violent polls that international observers called a successful test of the peace process.

With his win, Gov. Zaini Abdullah, the former foreign minister of the separatist Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, gained control of the resource-rich land for which he and his group of rag-tag supporters fought for more than 30 years. 

His entrance into politics, however, belies another fracture that has grown deeper recently, say analysts. Since the signing of a 2005 peace agreement in Helsinki that ended the fighting – in part by getting former combatants from GAM to lay down their arms and enter politics – the government has struggled to reintegrate ex-GAM members into society.

As this fragile province works to rebuild from decades of bloody battle – and a devastating tsunami in December 2004 – many analysts say feelings of injustice could deepen community divisions and spark violence from disgruntled ex-GAM who see the spoils of their struggle fall victim to nepotism and political corruption.

A return to wholesale, organized conflict is unlikely, says Ed Aspinall, a political professor who specializes on Aceh at Australian National University. But “sporadic, low-level squabbles over economic access” are “certainly possible.”

Many former rebels are unemployed, lacking basic skills needed to fish or farm, while money from a state assistance program aimed at easing the transition has been unevenly distributed.

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