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Human rights activist Ahmad Humam Hamid
"Acehnese have undergone a lot of human rights abuses"
 real 28k

Nasrullah Tahlawi, United People of Aceh
"We want outright independence"
 real 28k

President Abdurrahman Wahid
"Martial law would create more problems than we have now"
 real 28k

Thursday, 25 November, 1999, 21:42 GMT
Analysis: Indonesia needs Aceh
Acehnese take their message to the Indonesian parliament

By News Online's Joe Havely

Indonesia's new President, Abdurrahman Wahid, was never going to enjoy much of a political honeymoon.

Aceh can live without Indonesia, but Indonesia cannot live without Aceh
Dewi Fortuna Anwar
Former presidential spokeswoman
With East Timor finally allowed to go its own way and break off from Jakarta's rule, residents of the north Sumatran province of Aceh have been demanding that they too should be given the choice of following a similar path.

These demands are not new, but many Acehnese feel that they now have a precedent and their protests have grown even louder.

Fragile Archipelago
Perched at the north-western extremity of the archipelago, Aceh is a fertile, but as yet underdeveloped province, rich in natural resources and a valuable asset for a country beset by economic problems.

But the staunchly-Muslim territory has also been the scene of a long running and bloody separatist struggle whose roots go back centuries.

Evidence of atrocities

Acehnese are demanding they be given the choice to cut ties
Until recently, the only answer the Indonesian Government was prepared to give to demands for independence was to use yet more military force.

Thousands of people are thought to have been killed - many seized from their homes and never heard from again.

The army insists it has only operated against separatist rebels, but human rights organisations say there is also mounting evidence of atrocities committed against ordinary civilians. Hundreds of bodies have been unearthed from unmarked graves.

Amnesty International says that for years the army was allowed virtually free reign in Aceh.

If we do it in East Timor, why not in Aceh
President Wahid
4 November 1999
Now the government of President Wahid has begun to look for a way to solve the Acehnese problem.

But he finds himself in a difficult position trying not to antagonise the still-powerful military who traditionally regard themselves as the defenders of Indonesian unity.

Shortly after taking power, Mr Wahid offered what briefly appeared to be a major concession: Aceh would be allowed to hold a referendum on its future.

Chain reaction

President Wahid is under pressure from the army and the separatists
Other government officials quickly leapt in, adding that while there would indeed be a ballot, there was no question of an offer of outright independence.

They fear that letting Aceh go its own way could pave the way for other outlying provinces such as Irian Jaya or Sulawesi to demand independence. That could spark a chain reaction tearing Indonesia apart.

As Dewi Fortuna Anwar - the former spokeswoman for President Habibie - said in a recent interview: "Aceh can live without Indonesia, but Indonesia cannot live without Aceh."

To let the Acehnese go, she says, would be to invite the dismemberment of the whole archipelago into dozens of potentially-unstable little republics - a kind of South-East Asian Yugoslavia.

We fight for an independent state, so there can be no discussion about autonomy
Nasrullah Tahlawi
United People of Aceh
According to the Indonesian Defence Minister, Juwono Sudharsono, the Acehnese will be offered the choice of accepting the present arrangement of autonomy, or greater autonomy under Islamic sharia law. But both would mean staying under the ultimate control of Jakarta.

Neither is acceptable to the Acehnese separatists who have been fighting a bitter guerrilla war against Indonesian rule. For Nasrullah Tahlawi, chief spokesman of the pro-independence United People of Aceh, nothing less than full independence will do.

"We are ready to face any consequences - 99.9% of Acehnese are now ready to fight for an independent state," he told the BBC in a recent interview.

Military pressure

Far from calming things down, President Wahid's proposal has been met with an increase in pro-independence demonstrations and unrest in the province.

Acehnese guerrillas have been waging a long war against Indonesian rule
To restore calm, military leaders have urged him to impose martial law, a move he has so far resisted, saying it would only create more problems.

The thinking among civilian leaders seems to be that some concession will have to be made to the Acehnese, most likely by bringing to account those in the military thought to be responsible for atrocities committed in the province.

They argue that only by making an example of the military leaders who allowed civilians to be killed in such great numbers can Aceh be persuaded to remain a part of Indonesia.

But Mr Wahid's government is still new and still very weak and cannot risk confrontation with a military long used to getting its own way.

For them and many other Indonesians the issue of Aceh extends well beyond the province's borders - the whole integrity of their country is at stake.
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See also:
04 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Wahid backs Aceh ballot
06 May 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Aceh campaigns for self-rule
23 Aug 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Aceh: Still dreaming of freedom
08 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Acehnese on the streets

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