The first round of talks in Helsinki went quite badly. As GAM negotiators we perceived that President Ahtisaari knew little about Aceh or the Acehnese character and that the premise of the talks was that we were rebels who had to return to the fold. Ahtisaari started by telling us that this was not to be a negotiation between equals, that the government of the Republic of Indonesia was recognized and that we were not, and that, "I don't want to hear about independence or referendum, we are going to discuss your acceptance of the autonomy status. Don't waste your time trying to smuggle in ideas of independence or referendum - if you want to do so you'd better go back to wherever you have come from." This prompted a quick retort that we were Ahtisaari's guests, and if we were not welcome we were ready to pack our bags and go somewhere else. The option in mind at that time was that the Norwegians had made several approaches to us while dealing with the Sri Lankan conflict.
Learning quickly from his error, Ahtisaari apologized on the second day for his "bluntness", but could not prevent the round ending in failure when the Indonesians rejected our offer of a ceasefire and insisted we accepted the status of 'autonomy.'
If the words 'independence' and 'referendum' were taboo to Indonesia, we were allergic to 'autonomy,' which represented for us an abhorrent system of brutal oppression and impunity for murders, rapes, disappearances, massacres and all sorts of other brutalities. We knew that people in Aceh would not accept another autonomy law. However, we had come prepared with a hierarchy of plans that we could fall back on. Plan A proposed that Jakarta allow Aceh to have a ceasefire for 15 years, during which time it could build up Aceh as much as it liked - cover Aceh with gold, as we said - but afterwards the Acehnese must be allowed to have a referendum. This was rejected by the Indonesian side who said GAM would consolidate and at the end would continue their pursuit of independence.
On the first day of the second round of talks, we decided that if we insisted on that proposal, the peace talks would collapse. That evening, we communicated with GAM field commanders, explaining that Plan A was not bearing fruit. We waited for about six hours to get a decision from the ground about Plan B. Plan B proposed 'self-government' for Aceh - terminology that allowed our delegation to venture into new ground in relations with Indonesia without accepting the unjust autonomy law. In many ways, self-government was another word for autonomy, but without the same abhorrent connotations. Coincidentally, that same evening Ahtisaari talked on television in Finnish and said there was a great chance for peace in Aceh if it was given self-government. Initially we were not sure whether the Finnish word he used was self-government or self-determination. So we invited Ahtisaari to our room on the second day and asked what he had meant, and he said it meant self-government. We grabbed the terminology as a Godsend and pursued it relentlessly, starting to do away with other associated terminology such as 'governor' and 'bupati'. There was strong resistance from Sofyan Jalil on the Indonesian side, and back in Jakarta the team received heavy criticism from opponents in the military and parliament. The press however termed GAM's proposal 'brilliant' and it attracted tremendous public support. Eventually the Indonesian side accepted self-government in principle and we began to iron out what it meant in practice.
There was another crucial factor that made this advance possible: in the first round Ahtisaari had coined an excellent phrase that made it possible for us to return to the negotiation table without accepting the Indonesian demand for autonomy and for Indonesia to continue without losing face: "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." This became helpful when we explored difficult issues like self-government, because it meant if any one agenda item did not reach an agreement, all points were unacceptable.