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Far Eastern Economic Review
Issue cover-dated November 18, 1999
Alarms in Aceh
The genie is out of the bottle: Separatist demands in Indonesia's restive province
will test the nation's fragile unity
By Margot Cohen in Jakarta
The honeymoon for Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, did not last long. On November 8, hundreds of thousands of protesters swarmed into Aceh's provincial capital of Banda Aceh to clamour for an independence referendum. Within a day Wahid had cut short a whirlwind overseas tour to head back to Jakarta to deal with the growing crisis. With the massive rally igniting fresh fears about the stability of the world's fourth most populous nation, Indonesia's new president has a serious problem on Sumatra's overheated northern tip.
Aceh is not just another hot spot in an archipelago sizzling with Reformasi demands. It's endowed with vast reserves of natural gas, timber and other resources needed by the central government to meet debt payments and subsidize poorer provinces. Aceh's gas exports alone accounted for $1.3 billion last year. Yet the Acehnese remain deeply alienated from Jakarta, scarred by years of human-rights abuses and economic inequities. Feeding on such ills, rebels from the Free Aceh movement enjoy fervent popular support, while separatists in other restive provinces, such as Irian Jaya, watch and learn. Clearly, Aceh presents a crucial test of Wahid's leadership.
To his credit, Wahid proclaimed Aceh a top priority as soon as he took office. He pledged to withdraw non-Acehnese troops and prosecute alleged violators of human rights, regardless of rank. His new human-rights minister, a native Acehnese, announced that trials of "five spectacular cases" would begin this month. But all this has drawn only a tepid response from the Acehnese, who are pressing for an instant solution. Moreover, confusing presidential comments on the possibility of an independence referendum and rebel overtures have invited wide-ranging speculation: Is Wahid cleverly buying time by appearing to concede to Acehnese demands? Or is he squandering credibility by promising something he may be unable to deliver?
Beneath his new veneer as a serious statesman, the statements reveal flashes of the old "Gus Dur" that many Indonesians know so well: pioneering yet puzzling, dramatic yet dilatory. Consider Wahid's approach to holding a referendum, which could allow the Acehnese to decide for themselves whether to remain part of the Indonesian republic. In the past, Wahid has often repeated his commitment to Indonesia's territorial integrity, reassuring Southeast Asian neighbours concerned about regional stability. Indeed at a lunch event in Singapore on November 6 there was noticeable relief in the audience that he avoided mentioning the term "independence" for Aceh. Yet, at a news conference two days earlier, he had proclaimed: "I support a referendum as their right. If we can do that in East Timor, why not in Aceh? But the question is when it will be held."
Some analysts believe that widely headlined comment could help appease the Acehnese, if only temporarily. Desire for a referendum has been whipped up by Aceh's increasingly cohesive student movement. University students and Islamic boarding-school pupils worked together to mobilize villagers to march in different districts in late October and early November, as a warm-up to the huge Banda Aceh rally. Tens of thousands of people participated in each locality, including many Free Aceh sympathizers. T. Syaiful Achmad, an Acehnese legislator from the National Mandate party, argues that by opening the door to a referendum sometime in the vague future, Wahid encourages a "cooling down process. Meanwhile, he has more time to improve the situation."
Some student leaders support this theory. Faisal Ridha, head of the organizing committee for the Banda Aceh rally, says that if the president had turned the referendum idea down flat, "that would have provoked great anger among the Acehnese people." The problem is that Wahid also risks growing pressure to deliver. While the emotional crowds chanted in the provincial capital on November 8, hundreds of students demonstrated in Jakarta, calling on the president to "fulfil his promise" to hold a referendum. It seems like the military would not go along with that promise: A news report on November 9 quoted the military's chief spokesman, Maj.-Gen. Sudrajat, as flatly ruling out a referendum.
Even if a poll does take place it won't be easy for Jakarta to tender a referendum that simply offers Aceh further autonomy while skirting the crucial issue of independence. Although many local student leaders, politicians and community activists claim neutrality in advocating a referendum, their rhetoric suggests otherwise. "The people will not accept special autonomy. They all want independence," insists Faisal. "If the referendum is not held, we're worried that there will be a revolution. The people will run amok, or there will be war."
Even more controversy has arisen over Wahid's claims that he's negotiating with Free Aceh, the province's splintered separatist movement. At his lunch talk in Singapore, the president colourfully described how he sent a reconciliatory letter to Free Aceh leader Hasan di Tiro, who is living in Sweden. Wahid said the letter prompted tears from the 75-year-old rebel and produced an instant offer to hold talks. But in a phone interview with the REVIEW, Hasan insisted that Wahid had never made contact with him, and described Wahid's account as one of "the greatest lies of the century." Would Hasan ever consider negotiating with Wahid? "That depends," he says, refusing to elaborate further. Hasan maintains he expects to see an independent Aceh "in one year."
The question of negotiation is muddled by confusion over the chain of command in the rebel movement. While Hasan insists that he never authorized any of his deputies to meet Wahid in Jakarta, government sources say the president held a three-hour breakfast meeting with 10 representatives of Free Aceh on October 31. This underscores the impression that the rebel movement is fractured, even while it is gaining in strength at the grassroots level.
Free Aceh's most potent weapon is propaganda. In recent weeks, rebels have grown more aggressive in airing their views in the local media--denouncing human-rights abuses, calling for a referendum and warning against criminal activity. They also remain active in indoctrinating refugees who have gathered in camps along the northern coast, in the wake of military operations in villages.
Human Rights Minister Hasballah Saad says the troop withdrawal quietly began on November 6. Western military sources say a battalion of army regulars will leave the province along with an unspecified number of special-forces, or Kopassus, troops. The fate of 1,700 combat police, known as Brimob, remains unclear.
Meanwhile, other Acehnese legislators are racing to complete a new draft law on special autonomy, which Hasballah hopes to see implemented within the next six months. Although Aceh has already been granted autonomy in applying Islamic law in governing the province, the new law would give the Acehnese sweeping control in political and economic management. "Religion is not everything," says Hasballah. "A sick person needs medicine, not bonbons." For many Acehnese, however, independence would taste even sweeter.