STUNNED and angry, the Acehnese villagers milled near shuttered shops beside the deserted main road. Just a half hour before, a farmer was shot and wounded while fleeing from patrolling Army troops. Villagers said that the military crackdown in Aceh (pronounced ``Achay'') was deepening their long-standing bitterness toward the central government in Jakarta.
``The Acehnese will not obey the republic. We must free Aceh from the republic,'' said a local resident, who claimed the wounded man was involved in antigovernment politics. ``They have promised many things, but the people do not get them. We don't want to live under colonialism.''
A shadowy rebellion is gripping Aceh, for years a center of defiance in the tumultuous Indonesian archipelago. Aceh is also a mainstay of Indonesia's economy. In recent months, about 80 people have been killed, most of them soldiers and Javanese settlers, who symbolize central rule to the fiercely independent Acehnese.
Motives for the ongoing uprising are murky. The government links the violence to common criminals involved in the area's thriving marijuana production. Also suspect are about 40 disgruntled soldiers discharged last year for indiscipline in a military crackdown on the drug trade. But Indonesian and foreign observers say the violence draws on Aceh's long-standing restiveness and opposition to Jakarta and Javanese dominance of the central government.
Aceh has a long history of rebellion. The Dutch, who colonized Indonesia for its spice trade, battled the Acehnese for four decades before conquering them earlier this century.
Since Indonesia won independence in 1949, resource-rich Aceh has been both a thorn in the side of Jakarta and a key contributor of export earnings from oil and gas. Positioned at the head of the strategic Strait of Malacca, Aceh was the first foothold for Islam in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Today, its residents practice a form of Islam more orthodox and intense than that of the rest of the country.
``The Acehnese resent any outsider,'' says a Sumatran businessman who worked in Aceh for years. Aceh's religious fervor and the potential militancy of Islamic leaders have long worried Jakarta, which fears the emergence of a more fundamentalist and politicized Muslim population.
The Indonesian government, which relies on Aceh's oil and gas operations for badly needed export dollars, has crushed periodic separatist outbreaks. Acehnese contend the government takes oil, gas, wood, rubber, and palm oil from the province, but gives little in return. The best jobs and land go to outsiders, particularly the Javanese, they say.
In the 1970s, an independence movement led by a group called Aceh Merdeka or Freedom for Aceh spread but was crushed after the death of its top leaders. People in Aceh revere the militants as martyrs. Today's trouble is reviving that movement, some observers say. Recently, an extremist group called the National Liberation Front Aceh Sumatra has claimed responsibility for the deaths of 30 soldiers. Buses and settlements of Javanese immigrants have been attacked, sending thousands fleeing. ``It's not all independence. It's also religion and economics,'' says a Western diplomat, who sees the violence as a cyclical outbreak rather than a serious threat.
In recent months, however, the Army has rushed 5,000 crack troops to the area. Acehnese say there have been house-to-house searches and many arrests. Curfew has been imposed in Banda Aceh, the main town, and authorities, who for weeks refused to publicly acknowledge the trouble, talk openly of Acehnese guerrillas. The daring daytime attacks and sophisticated automatic weapons of the extremists have fueled rumors of outside help from Libya or other Islamic countries.
``In the past, this problem resulted in only isolated cases of violence because there was no support from the local population. This time it's much better organized,'' says a foreign diplomat familiar with the insurgency.
``The problem is more complex than the government is saying,'' he continued. ``The government and military seem to be getting control.'' But heavy-handed measures by the military are fueling resistance, Acehnese say. Military officials in Medan and Jakarta were not available for comment.
Recently, a group of oil exploration workers hurried for cover when two truckloads of soldiers pulled up beside their cluster of ramshackle tents. At gunpoint, a soldier confiscated film of a foreign photographer. ``We are afraid they will arrest us or shoot us,'' says one of the workers. ``We feel fearful of the Army and the Acehnese.''
The trouble is starting to slow the local economy. There have been explosions near the natural gas facilities at Lhokseumawe. Prices have been rising, fishing is being disrupted, and Javanese settlers working on palm-oil plantations are leaving their jobs and deserting their settlements.