Destructive tsunami also brought peace to conflict-riven Aceh

Banda Aceh: When a tsunami engulfed Indonesia's Aceh a decade ago, it not only killed tens of thousands of people but also wiped the slate clean in the conflict-racked, poverty-stricken province and paved the way for peace.

The province on the northern tip of Sumatra island was ill-prepared,disaster struck in ruins, mired in poverty and with barely any functioning infrastructure after almost three decades of conflict. Rebels in Aceh had spent years fighting against the central government for an independent state, a conflict that left at least 15,000 people dead, and a heavy military presence kept the area cut off from the outside world.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, triggered by a huge undersea earthquake off Sumatra on December 26, 2004, there was only a chilling silence from Aceh and it was not until several days later that the full scale of the destruction became clear.

Almost 170,000 people were killed in the archipelago, the vast majority in Aceh, by far the biggest death toll in any single country. More than 220,000 people died in countries around the Indian Ocean, with Thailand and Sri Lanka also hard hit. The disaster triggered a huge global relief and reconstruction effort that has been a success in Aceh.

But just as importantly, it finally persuaded the rebels and Jakarta to strike a peace deal that has held to this day. "It's clear that the tsunami hastened the peace process," said Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta-based think-tank the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), adding that "the chances of returning to conflict are very, very, very small".

Prospects for peace were already looking better before the tsunami, with a new government in Jakarta that seemed more determined to resolve the conflict and signs the rebels were growing weary, but the disaster provided the final push. Under the deal between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Jakarta, which was signed in Helsinki in August, 2005, the rebels agreed to give up their demands for independence in exchange for greater autonomy.

GAM fighters laid down their arms and Jakarta withdrew non-local troops and weapons and police from Aceh, and granted an amnesty to rebels and political prisoners. After a decade of post-tsunami reconstruction and nine years of peace, Aceh has been transformed. Provincial capital Banda Aceh is a pleasant, mid-size Indonesian city with few visible scars remaining from the disaster.

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