Like E. Timor, other regions try to secede

President Wahid weighs a referendum after Aceh province mounts thecountry's largest protest.

The honeymoon may be over for Indonesia's brand new president. On Nov. 9 Abdurrahman Wahid planned an early return home from an Asian tour, drawn by news of the largest anti-Jakarta demonstration the country has ever seen.

On the lips of Mr. Wahid, as well as many Indonesians, is the possibility of a referendum on independence for the western province of Aceh.

The scale of the protest in Aceh (estimated at 1 million people) coupled with Wahid's apparent willingness to entertain a vote, raises great hopes for some Indonesians and fears for others.

Analysts note that an independent Aceh could trigger a chain reaction of separatist movements that might mean the end of a unified Indonesia, a 3,000-mile-long archipelago that combines a hodgepodge of dialects, ethnicities, and religions.

The possible "Balkanization" of Indonesia, with the accompanying political and religious unrest, is deeply worrying to neighbors near and far. The US and Japan rely on strategic shipping routes through Indonesian waters, and the international community has invested billions in the country.

Analysts and local Acehnese say it is not too late to stop the separatist tide in the area, but it will take swift action.

Encouraged by many recent factors, Acehnese say they are feeling all the more optimistic about their chances of independence.

"People came from all over, pouring into Banda Aceh," says Acehnese student Maksalmina Wahab, describing the mass rally. "Everyone is sleeping in mosques all over the city, and local people are supplying food and water. There's a lot of cooperation. It's very exciting to have so many people come together and have it be peaceful. We've never seen anything like this before."

The Acehnese have been long schooled in struggles against a larger power. The area was the last part of Indonesia to fall to Dutch colonizers a century ago. When Indonesia declared independence in 1949, the new leaders promised Aceh autonomy. After that promise was broken, the predominantly Muslim area became home to an Islamic-inspired breakaway movement.

Since then, resentment over the exploitation of its natural resources has sustained separatist sentiment. The area is rich in rubber, timber, gold, and oil and provides one-third of Indonesia's natural gas exports. Yet Acehnese have benefited very little from their wealth, seeing most of the profits siphoned off by the national government and foreign firms.

Government attempts to suppress the most recent expression of separatism led to a nine-year military crackdown and the deaths and disappearances of more than 6,000 people, human rights groups say. That crackdown ended last August, and with its end came renewed Acehnese determination to see their struggle bear fruit.

In recent months, they have had reasons to be more optimistic. Wahid's predecessor passed laws to give provinces like Aceh more control of local wealth. To make amends for past abuses, the military presence in Aceh has also been drastically scaled back. And the newly appointed minister for human rights affairs - an Acehnese - has pledged to speed troop withdrawal and investigations into Army abuses in the region.

Wahid has also contributed to the burgeoning independence hopes, reiterating his support for a referendum more than once during his current Asian tour. But he also says he believes Aceh would choose to remain with Indonesia.

Acehnese student Mr. Wahab says he takes these pro-referendum statements with a large grain of salt. "We've heard leaders like [former presidents] Sukarno and Habibie make this promise before, but nothing has happened," he says. "But Wahid's been saying this for a while, which is a good sign."

One Jakarta-based Western diplomat says these comments have "created a level of expectation" in Aceh. They are expectations that seem to make Wahid's Cabinet ministers and others deeply uncomfortable. The new minister for regional autonomy, Ryas Rasyid, told reporters this weekend that Aceh is "the most serious situation we are facing now. If Indonesia should disintegrate, it would start in Aceh."

On top of these fears of national disintegration and the loss of Aceh's natural resources, resistance to an independent Aceh stems from the fact that many strongly believe that it belongs within the country. Unlike East Timor, Aceh has been part of Indonesia since its independence. This view is particularly strong within the military, which sees itself as the guardian of Indonesian unity.

The situation could still be defused though, analysts say. Aceh's separatist movement lacks a strong, charismatic leader who could drive events. Dealing with past military abuses might solve most of the problem, some say.

"The key remains bringing people to justice for abuses, including the big fish," says the Western diplomat. "That kind of a step forward might be enough to calm things for a while, but if it doesn't happen quickly it might be too late."

According to Wahab, "People my age and older support separating. But older people worry that the time of the referendum, the transition time, would be like East Timor - difficult. Even in East Germany after the Wall fell, they still have problems there, 10 years later. But if we never try, we'll never know."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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