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Megawati's Aceh overtures fall short

By Yenni Kwok

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- As East Timor, once Indonesia's 27th province, celebrated its first parliamentary election, Jakarta was struggling to hold another chunk of the country.

Another province simmering with separatist demands is the resource-rich Aceh, where decades of economic exploitation and human rights abuses have instilled a bitterness in the local population towards the central government.

Indonesia's new president Megawati Sukarnoputri has put forward a string of potential solutions to resolve the problem but none have yet received an enthusiastic response.

Under a policy known as Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam autonomy law, the government's reforms allow for the implementation of Islamic law and a greater share of revenue from natural resources for the local government.

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The law was seen as Megawati's attempt to earn the sympathies of Acehnese, who are known to be pious Muslims and refer to their homeland as "the Verandah of Mecca."

However, the new autonomy law has failed to impress many Acehnese.

"The Acehnese don't want sharia (Islamic) law; they want justice," said Sofyan Daud, the military spokesman of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

"It is not the aspiration of the Acehnese people," said Ruslan Razali, of the student-led Aceh Referendum Information Center (SIRA). "It is a solution offered by the local bureaucrats here. Common folks were not involved at all."

He added that Megawati's father and Indonesia's first president Sukarno affored Aceh status as a special province, but said "it was only a slogan."

Independence 'impossible'

Ruslan's organization advocates a 'referendum,' which would entitle Acehnese to choose between seccession or staying with Indonesia.

However, many people believe that Indonesia, especially under the leadership of nationalistic Megawati, will not allow another province to follow the path of East Timor.

In 1999, the youngest province of Indonesia opted for independence from Indonesia in a historic vote, permitted by then-president B.J. Habibie.

"It is impossible that Aceh will be given independence," said Salim Said, a Jakarta-based political analyst.

"The autonomy law is the best available solution," he added. "It reflects the efforts to mend the relationship (between the government and the Acehnese)."

Carrot-and-stick approach

On Wednesday, days before Megawati's scheduled visit to Aceh on Sunday, the government released five of the six detained GAM negotiators.

Despite the seemingly soft approach, Megawati adopts a carrot-and-stick approach.

While she apologized to the Aceh people for past abuses, she stressed she would not allow the province to separate from Indonesia.

Security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also said a military operation would be launched to stop the separatists.

"No country solves its armed movement with a dialogue," he said on Saturday.

His comments came only a day after the chief of the elite Army Strategic Reserves Command, Lt-Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu said that GAM must be eliminated.

"For years, we have had been stirred. Many of our men have died," Ryamizard told reporters angrily last week.

Salim said it was understood Jakarta would adopt the military approach as well. "The die-hard elements need to be crushed," he said.

However, many activists and observers warn the military operation would result in more civilian casualties.

The conflicts between Indonesian security forces and separatist rebels have caused over 1,000 deaths, most of them believed to be civilians.

• Words ring hollow for Aceh and Papua
August 20, 2001
• Government team tours Aceh
August 22, 2001

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