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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OPPORTUNITY IN CRISIS?

Three rebel outfits have been quiet - so far


FOUR YEARS AGO ACADEMIC Juwono Sudarsono, now environment minister, reminded Indonesians of the fragility of their sprawling republic when he said: "If trouble breaks out in Java, the outlying provinces might move to secede." So far there has been no sign of increased rebel activity in three major trouble spots - East Timor, Aceh and Irian Jaya - but given the upheavals on the archipelago's main island, trouble may not be long in coming.

The Fretilin resistance group fighting for independence in East Timor is Indonesia's best-known insurgency. Since the territory was incorporated into the republic in 1976, the rebellion has been a serious drain on government coffers and military manpower. Moreover, the success of pro-independence lobbyists overseas has kept the province high on the international agenda; in 1996, rebel leaders Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize. Last year, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas reiterated the government's refusal to grant more autonomy to East Timor. "If we were to [do so]," he said, "every other province would start demanding the same treatment."

Rebels in Aceh, the northernmost province of Sumatra, have been fighting for autonomy since at least the '50s. In 1959, Jakarta acknowledged demands for a greater role for Islam in Aceh, by allowing Islamic courts to operate in the province. But over the years, the resentments never really dissipated. In 1989 and 1990 the separatist Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) group waged a bloody guerrilla war against migrants from Java and Bali - until a military campaign of terror forced them back underground. Led by an Acehnese exile in Sweden, the rebels received considerable sympathy in Malaysia. But when the economic crisis struck, Kuala Lumpur began sending illegal immigrants home, including Acehnese; several of them are seeking asylum in Western countries. Essentially, the Acehnese are tired of watching Javanese despoil their resource-rich province. "If we were independent, we could be as wealthy as Brunei," says one. "But instead all our income goes to Jakarta."

Irian Jaya's Free Papua Organization, formed in 1964, presents another challenge to Jakarta, most recently in 1996, when a band of rebels captured foreign wildlife researchers. Generally considered little more than squabbling groups of disorganized brigands, the rebels nonetheless remain standard-bearers for Irianese fed up with domination by other Indonesians. As one local puts it: "We cannot get jobs because they go to the cousins of all these newcomers. We cannot use our land because they take it for plantations and other developments. We are being destroyed as a culture and as a people."

There is little doubt that activists from the three major trouble spots are wondering how to best use Indonesia's current political turmoil to their advantage. Special forces troops reportedly were being pulled back from Aceh. That may be just the sort of news the rebels have been waiting for.

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