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Trouble is Brewing in Aceh

Asiaweek - April 9, 1997

Keith Loveard – When armed men robbed a bank in the northern town of Lhokseumawe earlier this year, Indonesia's top brass noticed. Not because the men escaped with $172,000. Nor because they killed two people and wounded three military police. Rather, the generals suspected this was no ordinary heist but the work of Acehnese separatists. Subsequent investigation, said the military, netted 68 rifles, a handgun and a grenade launcher. Apparently the Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) movement was back in business.

Before you could say stick em up, soldiers in the far northwestern state of Aceh were on high alert. According to the Jakarta newsmagazine Gatra, military posts appeared along the highway from Medan to Banda Aceh (see map). Soldiers stopped all vehicles and checked identity cards. Since then, at least 14 people have been arrested, and Aceh has emerged as yet another hotspot of Indonesian unrest. In the last year violence has convulsed Central and Western Java, West Kalimantan, East Timor and Irian Jaya. As elsewhere, the Aceh tension is fueled by economic and ethnic factors. Many Acehnese villagers believe the majority Javanese are stealing their jobs.

This kind of thinking is nothing new, of course. For the past 20 years central authorities and multinationals have grown rich from the provinces abundant natural resources – the Arun natural gas field being a notable example. Acehnese say there has been precious little trickle-down from the Mobil-run project and others like it, a claim some officials find hard to rebut. The Acehnese want a piece of the action and have suggested the creation of a separate state – an idea several economists deem viable. Jakarta wont have it, and that is what led to an uprising in the late 1980s. It burned brightly until 1991, when the army brutally suppressed it.

Perhaps as many as 3,000 people died during the crackdown. Villagers watched military operatives drag suspected Aceh Merdeka operatives from their houses in the middle of the night. Many were never seen again. Legal Aid workers spoke of rotting corpses floating down rivers, of bodies flung from helicopters into villages. Many people who were arrested later appeared in court with crippling injuries, said one lawyer. Some were never heard of again. Now human-rights activists worry that the military is planning a reprise.

Subduing the Acehnese is famously onerous. They kept the Dutch at bay until the 1900s, long after the rest of the archipelago had been subdued. Todays rebels apparently have support in other countries, including Libya. And some Malaysians, especially those in the conservative northern states of Kedah, Perlis and Kelantan, at least lend a sympathetic ear to the grievances of their deeply religious Acehnese neighbors. Many Acehnese live and work – some legally, some not – in Malaysia, and the peoples of Kedah and Aceh have been friendly for centuries. There have been unsubstantiated reports that supplies for Aceh dissidents are channeled through underground Acehnese contacts in Kedah, and even that supporters of Free Aceh have – after training overseas – returned home illegally via northern Malaysia.

The situation is ticklish for Kuala Lumpur. ASEAN nations are bound to stay clear of one anothers domestic affairs. Malaysia publicly condemns talk of a free Aceh, and some allege PM Mahathir Mohamad promised President Suharto last year to crack down on illegal Acehnese immigrants. In recent months, Malaysia has campaigned to get all foreign workers to register; some say the move was aimed at Acehnese. A number of them descended on foreign missions in protest; eight are still camped out at the Swiss and Dutch embassies in Kuala Lumpur.

The Acehnese can expect no more sympathy from Jakarta this time than before. Maj.- Gen. Prabowo Subianto commanded the unit that led the last assault against the rebels. He is unconvinced that more economic opportunities will curb demand for a separate state. We have to do more in bringing economic development to all parts of our country, he says. But if you talk about us negotiating with people who have opted for a violent course, it is very difficult. As the Dutch found out, the Acehnese will not go quietly.