Gus Dur puts off US trip to tackle Aceh

INDONESIAN President Abdurrahman Wahid yesterday ended a whirlwind tour of Asean but postponed a planned trip to the United States to return home and face mounting pressure for a solution to calls for independence in Aceh.

His decision came as Cabinet ministers and elements in the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) warned that if nothing was done soon to calm nerves, the restive province could break apart and trigger the archipelago’s gradual disintegration.

Sources said he decided to delay his US trip till Thursday after being updated on developments in Aceh, where nearly a million gathered on Monday calling for a referendum.

Mr Abdurrahman was scheduled to fly yesterday from Manila – the last stop of his regional swing – to Salt Lake City in the US for eye treatment, and a possible meeting with President Bill Clinton in Washington if that could have been arranged.

But Haji Musthafa Zuhad Mughni, a close associate, said the President had to return because Cabinet members wanted him “to make a decision quickly on how best to keep Aceh part of Indonesia”.

Regional Autonomy Minister Ryaas Rashid told The Straits Times yesterday that he wanted Mr Abdurrahman to clarify whether he fully supported an East Timor-style referendum in Aceh. The President has said that he supported letting Acehnese decide their future – a point reiterated in Manila.

But Prof Ryaas maintained that it was “virtually impossible” to hold a referendum at this point: “We are talking here about logistics and enormous manpower. I don’t think it is technically feasible to hold one in Aceh.”

And letting Aceh go as a result of a ballot “will be a recipe for disaster for the rest of Indonesia because other provinces will demand the same thing,” he added.

He said the best way out was to immediately grant the province more autonomy and a greater share of financial revenues -a view shared by the TNI.

Colonel Syarifuddin Tippe, one of two army commanders in Aceh, said the situation was “returning back to normal” but there was no guarantee it would stay that way and that pressures would continue to build up for separation.

But independence was not a solution, he added: “There is no guarantee that there will be any stability when a civil war breaks out and my troops withdraw.”

To curb the possibility of violence if the referendum demand is not met, some ministers and legislators suggest that Mr Abdurrahman should travel to Aceh.

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