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Indonesians hope disaster will bring end to conflict

JAKARTA, Indonesia—Grilling chicken satay skewers at his outdoor stand, Erwin Manghudu suggests that the killer tsunami may have been a lesson from God.

"If you think about why the tsunami happened in Aceh province, it may be because there's conflict between humans there," he said, referring to a long-running struggle between separatist guerrillas and the Indonesian army. "So God punished them by doing that."

Most Indonesians know Aceh, where the destruction and loss of life were greater than anywhere else, as a trouble spot. The military has repeatedly quashed uprisings as far back as 1976, sometimes with repressive tactics. International activists accused the army of human rights violations, particularly during the three-decade-long dictatorship of President Suharto.

Now, as fellow citizens reach out to help the Acehnese and the army spearheads a relief effort, there's a glimmer of hope that the goodwill may help resolve the conflict between the rebels and the Indonesian government. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have expressed such hope. The odds, though, remain long.

The rebels want independence, while the government is determined to keep Aceh within its territory.

"Everybody expects this disaster can become a fresh start for reconciliation, but I personally am quite pessimistic about that," said Rizal Sukma, the director of studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a research institute in Jakarta.

"After one month, when things get back to normal in a way, I think the old way of thinking will return."

Aceh (pronounced AH-cheh) is a province of 4.5 million people that sits on the northwestern tip of the 1,100-mile Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Independence struggles are nothing new for the Acehnese, who fought fiercely before falling to Dutch colonial rule in 1905, long after the Dutch had colonized most of Indonesia.

When Indonesians rose up against the Dutch after World War II, many Acehnese sold jewelry and other valuables to buy the first plane for the country-in-waiting, enabling its leaders to travel abroad to lobby for independence.

But by the mid-1960s, the relationship between Aceh and the government in Jakarta had begun to sour. Aceh, a region rich with natural resources, remained impoverished. Local activists felt that the central government was taking the wealth out of the province while ignoring Aceh's needs.

The conflict escalated in the 1990s, and the military adopted harsher tactics. Attempts to negotiate a settlement after the fall of Suharto in 1998 broke down a year and a half ago. The government imposed martial law, though last year it scaled that back to a "civilian emergency."

Both sides agreed to a cease-fire after the tsunami, though there has been at least one reported incident in which government forces killed rebels. The military maintained that the rebels were trying to make off with relief materials.

The chances for a lasting peace depend largely on whether the Indonesian government delivers aid and reconstruction to the province efficiently, shoring up its authority and siphoning support from the rebels.

"The government really has an opportunity now," said Robert Gelbard, who was the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia until 2002. "If they work this right, they could really find ways to win the people over again."

Indonesia's new president, former Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has long favored a more moderate approach to the Aceh conflict than others in the military, Gelbard said.

The tsunami could "alter the dynamic" in Aceh because the Indonesian populace has rallied around the province in the devastation's aftermath, said Arun Swamy, a research fellow at the Hawaii-based East-West Center.

That reaction differs from the tsunami's impact in Sri Lanka, also home to a long-running civil conflict, where the government and rebels have used the opportunity to consolidate control over portions of the divided country, Swamy said.

Aceh's reconstruction could shift support of the Acehnese from the pro-independence movement to the government, Sukma said.

"This is an opportunity for the government to prove seriously and genuinely that they really care and are really willing to commit unlimited resources to develop the area," he said.

Many Indonesians share his sentiment.

Sislandono, 35, sitting at his station at a valet parking booth outside a shopping mall in Jakarta, said he hopes the outpouring of support for Aceh will convince the Acehnese that other Indonesians care about them.

"I hope the government and the Acehnese can reunite after the tsunami," said Sislandono, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. But, he added, "It's going to take a long time."

Aviva Nababan, a 26-year-old democracy activist, isn't holding her breath.

"It's a long, powerful history," she said at the mall's coffee bar. "I don't know if a tsunami is big enough to change the course."

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(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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