Grievances to splinter a country

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

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."

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.

"People expected things to get better, people were excited about reformasi," says student Maksalmina Wahab, using the Indonesian word for the reform taking place in Jakarta. "But they've just gotten worse. In the past, people were only killed in certain areas, now the violence is spreading all over."

More than 80 people have been killed in violent incidents since May, according to press estimates. A series of arson attacks on schools and public transport buses has flared since early June. At least one charred bus skeleton still stands on the province's main two-lane road, and transportation companies are cutting the number of buses traveling the north-south road, especially at night.

Ordinary Acehnese blame the military and military-backed provaca-teurs for these incidents.

"It's impossible for it to be [Aceh Merdeka], says Mustafa, a young juniorhigh school math teacher. "They want the community to advance."

But the military insists the separatists are behind the violence and it is beefing up its presence. Last week, it replaced the commander in charge of Aceh's most troubled districts and announced plans to put a senior officer in Banda Aceh for the first time. Analysts say both moves could signal another period of harsh Army control over the area.

Leaders of the separatist group say they will be adopting new tactics to counter the Army. "We're watching East Timor," says Abdullah Syafi, referring to that province's slow lurch toward independence. East Timor has benefited from the work of high-profile activists, including a Nobel-prize winner. But it also has a network of activist groups who lobby governments worldwide and make sure East Timor remains a visible issue.

Unlike Timor, though, Aceh is seen as a more permanent part of Indonesia. In addition, its natural resources are a great source of wealth for Jakarta whereas many of Timor's resources are still untapped. Both reasons will make it harder for Aceh to break away.

Still, Mr. Syafi, a war commander for the Free Aceh Movement, says his group aims to rally the kind of international support Timor has long enjoyed. "We haven't gone into a United Nations meeting yet, but we're working on diplomacy," he says. "NATO got involved in Kosovo, they helped Kuwaitis when Iraq invaded, the UN is in East Timor right now," says Syafi, rapping a knuckle on the wooden floor. "We expect the international community to become more aware of us."

Students are already spearheading another new approach. Taking a page directly from East Timor's book, they've started a campaign for an independence referendum. In rice paddies, beside small farmers' huts, on roads, rooftops, and tree trunks throughout Aceh, signs promote the idea. "We want the military out and a referendum is the best solution. It's the middle way and the democratic way," says student Hafnawi Muhammad, sitting cross-legged on straw mats that cover the floor of a university student union. He says he supports the separatist movement, but that violence is never justified.

Syafi makes no apologies for his group's approach, and refuses to answer questions about his group's size, fighters, training, weaponry, or missions. "[The military] keeps beating us up," he says. "And there is never any accountability."

The question is whether that will change when the Parliament elected in the recent national elections is in place and its members select a president in November. Most analysts don't think so, particularly if nationalist Megawati Sukarnoputri becomes president. "I'd be very surprised if the next government takes on the Army," says a second Western diplomat.

Even so, Indonesia's nascent democracy, Aceh's energized separatists, and the growing calls for a referendum here will make it harder for Jakarta to hold onto Aceh, some observers say. "Is it foreordained that Indonesia will break up? My answer would be no," says Indonesia expert Adam Schwartz. "[But] Aceh's probably not going to stay."

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