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Monday, 20 August, 2001, 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK
Aceh: Megawati's toughest test
Free Aceh rebels
Free Aceh rebels are demanding full autonomy
By regional analyst Nick Nugent

Hours after Indonesia's new president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, apologised for what she called 'mismanagement' in the troubled provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya, there were a series of explosions in the Acehnese capital, Bandar Aceh.

Aceh has become the litmus test of success in both governing Indonesia and in keeping this vast country united.

President Megawati's predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid, made it his top priority to solve the separatist violence that has brought about the deaths of at least 6,000 people over 12 years.

He promised greater autonomy for the province and said the province could keep a greater share of its oil and gas wealth. He also initiated talks with the separatist Gerkan Aceh Medeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement.

Several rounds of talks have taken place in Geneva.

Armed intervention

However, he is also reported to have sanctioned army operations earlier this year aimed at wiping out GAM on the ground, a move said to have been supported at the time by then Vice President Megawati.

Indonesian Prime Minister Megawati Sukarnoputri
Megawati is treating the province as a top priority

There has certainly been no reduction of violence in the province with around 1,000 people killed since the start of this year.

President Megawati has similarly made Aceh a top priority.

Since taking office last month, she has met senior provincial leaders, signed into law a provision granting Aceh an unprecedented level of financial and political autonomy and announced her intention to visit the northern Sumatran province early next month.

Her most dramatic gesture came in the presidential speech to mark Indonesia's 56th anniversary of independence from the Dutch on Friday.

She apologised for past government "mismanagement, for prolonged conflicts and abuse of human rights" in both Aceh and the other troubled province of Irian Jaya.

Violence in the Acehnese capital following the speech suggests it has done little to appease militants separatists, who claim to have most of the Acehnese people behind them.

Autonomy hopes

President Megawati hopes the autonomy law, which will be implemented gradually over several years, may help solve the separatist problem.

The new law:

  • Authorises the introduction of shariah, or Islamic law, in this staunchly Islamic province which was never entirely subdued by the Dutch.

  • Provides for local electoral reform giving the people greater control over their own affairs.

  • Grants the province 70% of revenue from its rich oil and gas fields.

    This may seem generous given that the province's gas exports alone are reported to have provided 30% of the central government's revenue in 2000.


    Closure of the gas facility for three months this year because of separatist violence is said to have cost the government and the Exxon Mobil subsidiary that runs it around $350m.

    Acehnese referendum demonstrators
    Acehnese are demanding a referendum

    However, it will not have escaped the notice of Acehnese separatists that East Timor, which seceded from Indonesia in 1999, is to receive 90% of revenue deriving from the oil and gas fields in the Timor Gap.

    The provision comes under the terms of a deal brokered by the UN authority now administering East Timor.

    Acehnese have demanded they be granted the same right to opt for full independence by referendum which was granted to East Timor, a demand Megawati, like her predecessor, has rejected.

    Contrition and generosity

    President Megawati knows that contrition and generosity are essential if she is to placate the very angry people of Aceh and to quell the separatist rebellion.

    President Sukarno
    Megawati is determined to follow in her father's footsteps

    But a commonly expressed view in the province is that she needs to go further and to put on trial the senior military officers allegedly responsible for years of atrocities.

    The recent discovery of another mass grave containing 45 bodies will increase calls that someone must answer for what the President has euphemistically called "mismanagement".

    President Megawati is committed to holding together as one the country her father, Sukarno, brought to independence.

    Her challenge is to do so without resorting to the ruthless military action that in the past has been responsible for causing so much alienation and disenchantment towards Jakarta.

  • See also:

    16 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
    Megawati sorry for rights abuses
    16 Aug 01 | Business
    Megawati says 'no' to kickbacks
    17 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
    Soldiers respond to Aceh violence
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