Jakarta’s shaky hold on Aceh

INDONESIA should have braced itself for another blow.

Barely three months after losing East Timor, the sprawling archipelago is once again tearing at the seams as another restive province, this time Aceh on its western flank, threatens to bolt.

Like East Timor, Aceh has long been a thorn in the side of Jakarta. Now, long-standing local grievances pushed aside and under by military force and political neglect threaten to boil over.

Separatist sentiments have re-ignited in the rebellious territory in a big way, manifested earlier this week when up to one million Acehnese flooded the capital of Aceh to demand a referendum on self-determination.

Chants of “merdeka”, “long live the people of Aceh” and “a united Aceh cannot be defeated” resounded for more than three hours as student leaders, activists and Muslim scholars added their voice to calls for independence.

The magnitude of the rally underscored the depth of feeling among ordinary Acehnese to break from Jakarta’s rule.

Aceh, which Indonesians call the “Verandah of Mecca” because it is the closest point, physically and spiritually, to the holy city, has long posed a challenge to the centre.

Since Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch after World War II, separatists have fought for Aceh to be a separate Islamic state.

Matters came to a head in 1951 when the government incorporated its territory into North Sumatra and placed it under a Governor in Medan.

The Acehnese, who once boasted a powerful kingdom that fought the Portuguese and Dutch colonists, revolted and proclaimed their province an independent Islamic republic in 1953.

This brief shot at independence lasted until 1961 when Acehnese military and religious leaders had a falling out. The central government stepped in and resolved the conflict by giving Aceh provincial status.

But this amounted to little more than granting autonomy in matters religious, cultural and educational. When it came to natural resources, however, Jakarta insisted on getting its full entitlement.

Rich in resources, Aceh became a target for large-scale investments, which brought with it immigrants from other provinces and led to the emergence of discontent over the distribution of the wealth generated from the oil and gas industries.

The Aceh Merdeka, or Free Aceh, separatist movement, which emerged in the mid-1970s after the discovery of the province’s huge oil and gas reserves, had often argued that Indonesia needed Aceh more than Aceh needed Indonesia.

They believed that if Aceh was left on its own, it could be as wealthy as oil-rich Brunei or Kuwait. Under the New Order government, such views were deemed subversive and were dealt with harshly.

In 1989, three areas – Pidie, North and East Aceh – were placed under military occupation. Locals charge that this gave soldiers licence to rape, torture and murder.

Despite the abuses, one could argue that up until a year ago, local leaders wanted genuinely to remain in Indonesia but on terms they considered just.

That mood has changed significantly in recent months. It is no longer about oil and gas revenues. It is about having family members killed and tortured during years of military operations to snuff out separatism.

East Timor’s attainment of independence was, of course, the event that led the rising tide of resentment to burst its banks.

Jakarta’s hold on Aceh at this point is at best shaky. An air of confusion reigns among members of the new government on how best to deal with the situation.

One reason for this is that several elements in the new administration backed the idea of a referendum, most notably President Abdurrahman Wahid himself, when they were in opposition.

The President has essentially painted himself into a corner. He has been forced to live up to a promise he made to the Acehnese in May this year, way before he assumed the mantle of the top job.

“I myself am pro-referendum,” he said recently in Cambodia while on his whirlwind tour of Asean countries. “If we can hold a referendum in East Timor, why not in Aceh?”

He added: “Aceh is one of the founders of this republic. That’s why the Acehnese people will never leave us. That there is a will to have a referendum, that is just natural.”

Like his predecessor B.J. Habibie who proposed a ballot for East Timor, Mr Abdurrahman has very little support within the conservative military, Parliament and among Cabinet ministers for a decision he made without consultation.

Noted a Western diplomat: “The President seemed to have forgotten that one reason why Habibie’s accountability speech was rejected was a lack of respect for government procedures and his failure to seek the advise of legislators and the military for his East Timor policy.

“Wahid seems to have taken the same route for his Aceh policy.”

Of the two, the bigger stumbling block is the military, still licking its wounds after being forced to let East Timor go.

Policy pronouncements from senior officers on the need to avoid a Yugoslav-style break-up have differed significantly from the President’s.

Said a general: “East Timor will be the first and last to go. We can’t afford to make another blunder and will have to find some other way of accommodating Aceh’s demands.”

Military sources said Mr Abdurrahman was also not making things easier by calling for investigations into human rights violations by soldiers in Aceh.

The President might see this as a short-term measure to soothe tempers in Aceh, but it risks incurring the wrath of the army.

Increasingly, Mr Abdurrahman’s room for manoeuvre will be constrained by the forces challenging the need for a referendum.

He is already way out in front and will have to find some face-saving mechanism to satisfy both the Acehnese and the Jakarta elite.

One option his aides say he is in favour of is full autonomy for Aceh – a deal that would allow it to keep 75 per cent of the revenue from its natural resources.

But the offer is riddled with practical problems. For a start, Jakarta will be constrained by its US$100 billion (S$167 billion) foreign debt. Then there is the dilemma of balancing Acehnese demands with the need to subsidise poorer regions.

There is also no guarantee that the Acehnese will accept the plan.

Whatever Mr Abdurrahman chooses to do, the odds are stacked against him to find a solution acceptable to both sides. On the matter of Aceh, the President’s brief honeymoon is all but over.

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