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Grievances to splinter a country

Fed up with little control and attacks by military, far-western

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 1999


Ayub Abas calls his work a legacy. "Our parents fought for freedom against Dutch colonizers," he says, stocky in crisp fatigues, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. "This is the same struggle, just a different enemy."

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Like his father before him, Mr. Abas wants independence for Aceh, the Indonesian province at the country's westernmost tip. But instead of Indonesia's longtime colonizers, his foe is the central government. Now, after years of Army repression, analysts say Aceh's separatist movement is drawing inspiration and energy from Indonesia's new democracy and East Timor's upcoming referendum. Abas's colleagues mention the inspiration of Kosovo's fight for liberation from Serb control.

But the legacy isn't Abas's alone. Indonesia's new government will inherit the standoff in Aceh, and they're not likely to be happy about it, as the movement could have a significant impact on the rest of the country.

Nationalist politicians and the military fear that if Aceh goes, so might other parts of the 3,000-mile-long archipelago that houses a multitude of ethnicities, dialects, and religions.

Unlike East Timor, which was annexed in 1975, Aceh has been one of Indonesia's 27 provinces since its founding, and its departure would be more significant. Violence in the area is rising and observers say the military is likely to respond with a renewed crackdown.

"The potential for Indonesian disintegration is greater coming from Aceh ... than it ever was from East Timor," says a Western diplomat who requested anonymity. "It's hard to see what will turn the tide. It won't happen right away, but it remains to be seen whether the new government [which will be fully in place in November] can do anything to counter this."

Indonesians aren't the only ones who worry. The US depends on shipping lanes that cross through Indonesian waters and its firms need stability for investments there. Japan relies on Indonesian oil. Indonesia's neighbors watch for any signs of trouble, since it could affect them.

In the small jungle compound where Abas and his comrades discuss plans, there are no signs of trouble or even tension. Camouflage-clad guards stroll around the perimeter, but make frequent stops to socialize with visiting villagers and their children. In a traditional building, raised on stilts and painted peacock blue, a few men offer a prayer to Allah while women below chat in the shade and fan themselves.

Aceh is an intensely Islamic corner of Indonesia, and has long been fiercely independent. It was the last part of Indonesia to fall to Dutch colonizers, and after national independence in 1949 it was home to an Islamic-inspired separatist movement.

The Free Aceh movement, known here as Aceh Merdeka, grew out of 1970s frustration that Mobil Oil Company's development of regional resources mostly benefited Jakarta. Many Acehnese say that before this spring they would have been content with more resources and justice for military abuses. Even women around the separatist compound, many of whom say they are widows courtesy of the Army, say they had high hopes. "Peace would be nice," says Noni, in a cherry-red veil and matching lipstick.

For a while, it looked as if it might happen. In August, the military ended an almost decade-long crackdown in which thousands were killed, according to one US State Department estimate. President B.J. Habibie freed political prisoners, discussed autonomy in Aceh, and passed laws giving provincial districts a greater share of the wealth taken from their land.

But things quickly went downhill. In December, an attack on a bus carrying soldiers was attributed to Aceh Merdeka, prompting increased military sweeps and, say local activists, retribution. In March, Mr. Habibie came to Aceh to promise the advent of better relations. But as he spoke in a mosque in the city of Banda Aceh, the army fired on and killed student demonstrators down the street.