Indonesia's president backs away from tolerance

Security forces clamped down on separatists in two provinces this weekend.

Some 10 people were killed in clashes between separatists and Indonesian security forces over the weekend, as Jakarta followed through on a promised crackdown against separatism.

Four senior independence leaders were jailed as security forces pulled down the independence movement's "Morning Star" flag across the sprawling province of Irian Jaya, which is about the same size as Great Britain. The flags were flying to commemorate the 39th anniversary of an independence declaration, made while the Netherlands was in the process of handing the territory over to Indonesia.

Meanwhile, 2,700 miles away, Indonesian forces were pulling down the independence flags of the Aceh independence movement, which celebrated its own separatist anniversary on Dec. 4. At least two people were killed in gun battles between Indonesian forces and armed separatists.

Almost exactly a year into the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid, a moderate Muslim politician who is Indonesia's first democratically elected leader in more than 40 years, the wheels are starting to come off his policies of inclusion and dialogue.

On Friday, Mr. Wahid signaled the change in policy: "There should be no effort to ... secede from the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia, be that in Irian Jaya ... or in Aceh." he said in a statement.

The change virtually guarantees that the temperature of Indonesia's already bloody secessionist movements is about to rise. He promised "firm action" against separatists.

Wahid rode to power on promises that the military's heavy-handed ways would be exchanged for dialogue, and that all citizens would be free to express their desires. On New Years Eve 1999, the new approach was symbolized by his visit to Irian, which is called West Papua by its inhabitants.

He told independence leaders their flags would be allowed to fly as a symbol of their political aspirations, and that he'd change the province's name to Papua. Now, the flags are being pulled down, and activists warn the crackdown is a prelude to more clashes. Indonesia has rushed 1,500 fresh combat troops to the province in the past month.

Seven people were killed over the weekend when soldiers opened fire on separatists in the coastal city of Merauke.

Political analysts in Jakarta say Wahid may not have much choice. His political position is incredibly weak, and nationalists in his own government, including Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, have been pressing him to take a tougher stance with rebels.

Four senior independence leaders from the movement's so-called Presidium have been in custody for the past two days, and police in Jayapura, the provincial capital, have threatened to charge them with "subversion." The draconian subversion laws were a favorite tool of former President Suharto, who fell in 1998, and it was thought their use would be abandoned with the end of his regime.

It's much the same story in Aceh, where negotiation is being replaced by force. Human rights activists as well as nonviolent independence leaders have been jailed over the past month.

Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia's west and Irian Jaya in its far east, could not be more different. Irian's Melanesian people are predominantly Christian, and have a divergent cultural history from the bulk of Indonesia. Aceh is peopled by Malays, who are among Indonesia's staunchest adherents of Islam.

But what links them is a history of murder and torture by the military that, while designed to keep them loyal to Indonesia, has helped to deepen separatist sentiment. Aceh's independence movement has had an armed wing for two decades, and 225 people have been called up in the conflict there since June.

Irian Jaya's struggle has been mostly peaceful this year, though young separatists have begun to criticize the tactics of the presidium leadership. Independence leaders from the warlike highlands tribes, in particular, have begun to threaten a guerrilla war. It's a war that probably can't be won.

To be sure, a senior minister apologized for the shootings in Irian Jaya at a press conference today. "The government has expressed regret about the incidents in Irian Jaya," said Coordinating Minister for Political, Social and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. "Violence will never resolve the problems.''

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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