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The restrictions drew immediate criticism from international aid officials. "I am sure the Indonesian government will agree with me that the most important thing is to save lives and not have deadlines," Jan Egeland, chief of the U.N.'s tsunami-relief effort, told reporters after the announcement, adding that he was "worried" by the restrictions on the movement of aid workers. In Banda Aceh, aid officialswho preferred to speak anonymously to avoid offending their Indonesian hostssaid the move could interfere with their work, but much would depend on how strictly the restrictions were applied. "We'll just have to see where the military wants to take this," says a senior official with a major relief organization.
The Indonesian government's actions may have to do with the dilemma it faces in Aceh in the wake of the tsunami. For nearly 30 years, the province has been wracked by a separatist insurgency that has claimed the lives of some 12,000 people, mostly civilians. The Free Aceh Movement (or G.A.M., its Indonesian acronym), the main rebel group fighting for independence, asserts that Indonesian troops have committed widespread human-rights abuses in Aceh and that Jakarta has shortchanged the province over its share of the revenues from its oil and gas reserves. The government, in turn, says that G.A.M. fighters do not reflect the wishes of the vast majority of Acehnese, who want the province to remain a part of Indonesia, and that the rebels are merely bandits who kill and loot.
Indeed, Indonesian officials say they are restricting the movement of aid workers in order to protect them. That's the unequivocal view of Major General Bambang Dharmono, the powerfully built, crew-cutted ex-commando who is the operational chief of the international relief effort in Aceh. Dharmono says he has no worries about his foreign military colleagues. They are there to help, he says, and besides, "they are willing to be under my control ... they get their tasks from me, so I don't have a problem." Dharmono's concern, he says, are the NGOs. "They go wherever they like without control." If relief workers stray into unauthorized areas, "that would make me very unhappy. That would become a problem ... and whatever happens to them, the Indonesian military will get the blame."
Privately, most aid officials don't take warnings of attacks by guerrilla fighters seriously, not least because it is in the rebels' interest to keep the foreign presence in Aceh as long as possible. Most of the smaller NGOs and the informal volunteers are likely to leave Aceh soon anyway. "Some of them can be a bit off the wall," concedes the senior relief official, noting that the Church of Scientology's relief group, which is offering free therapeutic massages to refugees, has pitched its bright yellow tents in a field near Banda Aceh's main mosque. "But there will be a natural attrition. Exhaustion and money problems will take care of most of them over the next few weeks. It's the big relief outfits that are here for the long haul, and they are more than capable of working with the army and the government. At the end of the day, the aid agencies won't be the problem. It's the combatants on both sides who will make or break this operationand any prospect of peace."
The uncompromising positions adopted by both sides meant that, in the past, negotiations went nowhere. In fact, until the tsunami hit, Aceh was under martial law and effectively closed to outsiders, Indonesian as well as foreign. But now Aceh has been forced to open up, and a cease-fire is in effect to facilitate the delivery of aid. Will this lead to the peace talks that Jakarta now says it wants? Much will depend on whether Yudhoyono can perform a delicate balancing act. By all accounts, the president himself does want peace with G.A.M. When he was minister in charge of national security under his predecessor Megawati Sukarnoputri, he tried hard to keep negotiations going but had to accept Megawati's decision when she pulled the plug on talks and declared martial law in May 2003.
Now that it's his call to make, Yudhoyono is discovering that he has to walk a narrow tightrope. He needs international assistance to provide relief and to help rebuild Aceh. But at the same time, the 55-year-old retired general has to pander to a variety of influential lobby groups. Foremost is Indonesia's powerful military, which has long regarded Aceh as its private fiefdom. According to Aceh specialists such as Australian academic Damien Kingsbury, the province is an important source of income for the military through a web of enterprises that include illegal logging, "taxes" on fishing and coffee, and even the running of the province's lucrative marijuana trade. The President must also cater to conservative politicians and religious leaders who want the rebellion crushed and who fret about the presence of so many foreigners on Indonesian territory.
"The foreign military presence has made nationalists extremely nervous," says Sidney Jones, an expert on Aceh who works for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "The religious conservatives are also extremely concerned that some of the relief groups have a Christian agenda. And the army is convinced that all this is playing into the hands of the rebels. You couldn't have picked a worse place in Indonesia to have a disaster happen that needed substantial foreign help." Nasaruddin Abubakar, an activist who thinks Aceh should be allowed to hold a referendum on independence, reckons the authorities are imposing restrictions on foreigners because "they [think] the international forces will hinder their ambition to control Aceh."