The people of Aceh went on strike Wednesday to show support for a separatist movement that, though much ignored by the world, could prove much more dangerous to Indonesia's unity than the well-publicized rebels of East Timor.
Yesterday buses stopped running, shops closed down, and most people stayed at home during the second day of the strike organized by students and activists in Aceh, the westernmost tip of Indonesia. The Acehnese are demanding the withdrawal of more than 30,000 Indonesian troops from Aceh, a trial of military officers who killed an estimated 2,000 Acehnese in the past decade, and a referendum on independence for the province.
The strike, the first regionwide protest in Aceh, has shown that resentment of Indonesian rule is not limited to ragtag gangs of separatist rebels who, after years of obscurity, have stepped up attacks against police and military in recent months.
While the strike was in part a reaction to the killing of more than 50 Acehnese by Indonesian troops last week, it also seeks to draw world attention at a time when the Indonesian police are launching a new crackdown on separatists in Aceh.
Aceh, at 30,000 square miles, is at opposite ends of Indonesia's archipelago from East Timor. It is treated very differently by the rest of the world. At the eastern end, the tiny territory of East Timor, north of Australia, has drawn attention from the US Congress, the United Nations, and hundreds of international correspondents who have set up shop there. Under UN sponsorship on Aug. 30, the East Timorese, who number fewer than 1 million, will vote on whether they want independence or expanded autonomy within Indonesia.
East Timor's case for independence has been advanced not just by exiled Timorese but also by Portugal, its former colonizer, and a Portuguese community in the United States that lobbies Congress. As the Timorese are Roman Catholic, the Catholic Church has played a supportive role as well. Nobel Prize-winners, one a Catholic bishop, have also helped concentrate the world's focus on East Timor.
The Acehnese, on the other hand, have an exiled rebel leader in Sweden to press their case. While Muslim, they have failed to garner much support from Islamic countries.
To gain international attention, nine Acehnese broke into the Dutch Embassy in Jakarta Wednesday, demanding that Indonesia's former colonial ruler lobby the UN for Aceh's independence.
Few correspondents pay more than an annual visit to Aceh, and human rights abuses there have drawn only summary condemnations from Western officials. While the US and other donors last month made aid to Indonesia conditional upon a peaceful referendum in East Timor, they have never tied aid to human-rights abuse in Aceh.
Yet Aceh, rich in oil and gas and controlling access to one of the world's busiest sea straits, is strategically more important than East Timor. Clashes between rebels and military have left more than 200 dead in recent months and some 100,000 Acehnese have become refugees, more than in East Timor.
Moreover, as Aceh was part of Indonesia from its inception in 1945, secession would have a much stronger impact on other parts of this ethnically diverse country than the loss of East Timor, which wasn't originally part of Indonesia.
That helps explain why Indonesians, unlike the rest of the world, are paying more attention to Aceh than to East Timor and are taking a much harder line on Aceh's request for a referendum.
In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this week, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie indicated his opposition to Aceh gaining independence. "They cannot have it," he said in the interview.
Mr. Habibie has rejected requests for an investigation into human-rights abuses by Indonesian troops since 1989, agreeing only to a limited probe into recent incidents. Several members of Habibie's cabinet served in Aceh during the early 1990s when, by estimates of the US government, the Army killed some 2,000 mostly unarmed civilians.
Instead, the national chief of police on Wednesday launched a new offensive against the separatists. He issued shoot-on-sight orders and vowed to wipe out the rebels by January by deploying more than 6,000 police and 5,000 additional police and Army troops.
Both Indonesian and international observers fear this crackdown will only escalate the violence. On Wednesday, Amnesty International urged Jakarta to call off the planned crackdown. "In the current climate of impunity, increasing troop numbers ... will only worsen Aceh's already critical human-rights situation," Amnesty said.
Ahmad Humam Hamid, an Acehnese sociologist, says support for secession was growing, but could still be contained if Jakarta would meet some student demands and initiate a dialogue. "It is very hard to distinguish the feelings of hatred, disappointment, and genuine desire for independence," Mr. Hamid says. "It could certainly become support for independence. Jakarta still thinks it can solve the Aceh problem with force, but it can't."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society