BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – A year after the tsunami destroyed their battlefield, Indonesia's Aceh rebels formally disbanded their armed wing on Tuesday, effectively ending their 30-year separatist insurgency.
The move paves the way for the guerrilla group to transform itself into a political party expected to make a strong showing in elections in April.
"The Acehnese national army, or the armed wing of the Free Aceh Movement, has demobilized and disbanded," said Sofyan Daud, a rebel commander. "The Aceh national army is now part of civil society, and will work to make the peace deal a success."
"We are entering a political era now, we do not need weapons anymore," Daud said.
Efforts to end the civil war picked up pace in the aftermath of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami. The rebels and the Indonesian government returned to the negotiating table saying they did not want to add to people's suffering.
"Both sides immediately realized the catastrophe presented a unique opportunity to end the war," said Damien Kingsbury, senior lecturer at Australia's Deakin University and an adviser to the rebels.
The tidal waves swept away more than 200,000 people in 12 countries, with Indonesia's Aceh province bearing the brunt: more than 156,000 killed. A year to the day after the disaster, survivors wept and prayed in ceremonies at mass graves and beachside memorials across the Indian Ocean region on Monday.
"After the dimension of the disaster became clear, we ordered our units to stop fighting and to help save lives," said Bachtiar Abdullah, an exiled leader of the Aceh separatist movement. He spoke Saturday as he returned home after 25 years in Sweden.
The two sides made major concessions. The rebels gave up their long-held demand for independence and the government agreed to give the region limited self-government and control over 70 percent of the revenue from the province's mineral wealth.
The government also offered amnesty to the rebels, freeing more then 1,400 from prisons all over Indonesia just two weeks ago.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, after meeting Tuesday in Aceh with rebel representatives, renewed his government's pledge to complete the withdrawal of its more than 24,000 troops from Aceh by year's end.
The peace deal was "an example of how a new hope for peace can emerge out of the ruin of destruction," Yudhoyono said Monday.
So far, the deal has stuck. The rebels have finished handing in all their self-declared 840 weapons while the Indonesian military has withdrawn nearly 20,000 troops from the Sumatra island province.
By contrast in Sri Lanka, the giant waves that left 31,000 dead there has not led to a peace agreement between the Tamil rebels and the government.
Right after the tsunami, foes in Sri Lanka too reached across ethnic divides to help shelter and feed survivors.
But friction emerged in the Tamil Tigers' demand for a say in distributing the billions of dollars in aid that poured in. When President Chandrika Kumaratunga finally agreed, some coalition supporters abandoned her.
In Aceh, however, the peace process had the full support of the government of the newly elected Yudhoyono, who had promised to end festering insurgencies in Aceh and Papua provinces.
Aceh has a long history of opposing outside rule. The current rebellion, in which at least 15,000 people have died, began in 1976. A previous attempt to end the bloodshed collapsed in 2003, after the Indonesian military kicked out foreign observers and restarted combat operations against the rebels.