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Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
Aceh's bloody war
Aceh's Gam fighters
Independence fighters say they have "huge" support

Indonesia's leaders are trying to work out what to do next with strife-torn Aceh.

More troops could be sent to the northern province, a civil emergency could be declared to give the authorities more powers or full military law could be imposed.

Acehnese separatists know what they want - independence.

Map of Indonesia showing Aceh and Jakarta
That is the least likely outcome in the immediate future. The most likely is more conflict and more deaths.

The province of Aceh is at the far north-west of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. Its capital, Banda Aceh, is 1,850 kilometres (1,150 miles) from the federal capital of Jakarta. But its violent separatist movement, plus its rich natural reserves put it centre stage of Indonesian Government policy.

Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently spent a week in the province speaking to military and civilian leaders. He was trying to identify ways to end the bloodshed that has accompanied a 26-year campaign for independence by the Free Aceh Movement or Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Gam).

'Emergency' laws

That campaign has been renewed recently after a period of retrenchment following the January killing by Indonesian security forces of Gam's military commander Abdullah Syafei.

Acehnese women protest against the imposition of a civil emergency
Gam claims a majority of supporters among Aceh's 4.5 million population
Mr Susilo appears to have backed down from a threat to impose a form of martial law. But he backed calls from Djali Yusuf, Aceh's military chief, for troop numbers to be boosted.

There are at least 28,000 members of Indonesia's security forces in Aceh, and Mr Yusuf suggested 8,000 more troops be sent.

General Endriartono Sutarto, the commander of the Indonesian Defence Force, said last week that troops would be a part of any solution.

"Problems in the province could not be settled only by the military and police or by the co-ordinating ministers," he was quoted as saying by the state news agency Antara.

Lesley McCulloch, lecturer at the University of Tasmania, believes that the military has wanted to enforce control over Aceh for some time. With President Megawati Sukarnoputri perceived as weak, the army was now able to flex its muscles.

We kill, but we kill only soldiers

Gam spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah

"The military has always wanted to crack down, but hasn't been allowed to," she said.


Whatever Jakarta decides, it will find the separatists determined to fight on.

The information officer for Gam, Bakhtiar Abdullah, told BBC News Online that in the long term, the Indonesian military would not win.

"We have a huge amount of support, majority support from the people," he said.

Sending more troops to Aceh or imposing any form of crackdown or martial law would "backfire", he said.

"The Acehnese are getting stronger and stronger and the morale in Aceh is even higher."

Amid the fighting, the two sides are also trying to win the propaganda war, accusing each other of the attacks that add, on average, 10 people a day to the death toll of more than 10,000.

Aceh's armies
20,000 troops
8,000 police
3,000 Gam fighters

Gam's Mr Abdullah said: "We kill, but we kill only soldiers. In the field, it's the gun that speaks louder than anything else."

The military reject the allegations that they kill any civilians deliberately, saying the acts are those of Gam, trying to smear government forces.

Gam's former commander Abdullah Syafei
Commander Abdullah Syafei's death forced Gam to regroup
A European Commission report on avoiding conflict in Indonesia said the motives of the Indonesian authorities could be questioned.

"The murders of Gam leaders and the establishment of a new regional military command in Aceh only increases suspicion that the government is not committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Aceh," it said.

The Human Rights Watch organisation blames both sides for abuses.

Peace talks

Peace talks have been launched under the auspices of the independent Henry Dunant Centre in Geneva. They have not broken down, but nor have they made much headway, correspondents say.

A limited form of autonomy was introduced in Aceh on 1 January. The province was promised a greater share of oil and gas revenues and elections for governor.

But the separatists want much more, especially now another formerly troubled Indonesian province - East Timor - has won its independence.

In fact there are crucial differences between the two cases, which explains why foreign nations are not lining up to support the Aceh separatists:

  • Aceh has no former Western colonial power like Portugal taking an interest

  • East Timor was annexed forcibly

  • Aceh's oil and gas reserves are important to Indonesia's economy and global trade

  • Aceh is strategically important, lying at the northern end of the Strait of Malacca, an important shipping lane

US interests

That does not mean Indonesia can ignore foreign opinion.

The United States has sought better ties with Indonesia and US Secretary of State Colin Powell is due in Jakarta in August.

But a senior US official in Jakarta has warned that the deteriorating situation in Aceh could stall any improvement of ties.

With the Indonesian army and the separatists equally determined, many analysts fear that continuing violence is the most likely outcome.

"Unless something big happens and someone is there with a camera, this can continue for some time," Lesley McCulloch said. "In the meantime, hundreds or thousands of Acehnese will be killed."

See also:

16 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
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04 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
20 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
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