David Liebhold, lhokseumawe – On the northwestern tip of Indonesia, the proud people of Aceh have been dreaming of independence for nearly 100 years. Last week they got tired of waiting. In the northern hamlet of Kandang, residents erected barricades and set up checkpoints around town, fearing for their lives as the Indonesian armed forces searched for leaders of the Free Aceh separatist movement. "ABRI is not allowed in here anymore," declares resident Sopian Ramli, using the Indonesian acronym for the armed forces. "We will have our own government!"
In reality that prospect – a grail coveted ever since the Dutch finally took control after a bloody 35-year war of conquest in 1908 – remains as distant as ever. But some 20 soldiers and civilians have been killed in Aceh in the past two weeks, and the outbreak of violence bodes ill for the future of the tiny province. Just four months ago, after the fall of Indonesia's longtime leader Suharto, the military felt comfortable enough to apologize for its past abuses in Aceh and to withdraw hundreds of troops from Sumatra's northernmost province. The recent bloodshed indicates how little has changed – a warning that reverberates across the tense, far-flung archipelago.
According to some estimates, more than 6,000 troops remain in Aceh, and they are at the heart of the most recent violence. In late December, Acehnese began enlisting in citizens' militias to defend themselves against so-called "ninjas" – the shady, black-clad assassins blamed for scores of murders in Indonesia over the past six months. On Dec. 29 one such militia pulled 18 off-duty soldiers and police off a bus in Lhok Nibung, East Aceh. Seven of them could not produce civilian identity cards; six of their bodies were later found, covered with knife wounds. A day later, two marines were abducted by another mob. Hundreds of troops were rushed to the province to hunt for the missing men and for the perpetrators.
Dubbed Operation Authority, that mission led to further violence last week. On Jan. 3 in the North Aceh capital of Lhokseumawe, a crowd angered by the army's brutality and indiscriminate arrests burned government offices and a police station. Troops, claiming to have taken fire from rebel snipers, blasted away at the crowd with live ammunition. By week's end 11 civilians had died of gunshot wounds received during the crackdown, and a familiar sense of fear and outrage had resurfaced in the province. All around Lhokseumawe, residents complain that troops have been conducting nightly raids to arrest young men. In response, the entire village of Kandang has taken to sleeping outdoors along the main street. "ABRI is cruel," explains a local. "They come into people's homes and beat them. They don't ask questions."
Such heavy-handed tactics help explain Aceh's unhappiness with Jakarta. A rise in guerrilla activity led authorities to declare the province a Military Operation Zone in 1989, joining the ranks of East Timor and Irian Jaya. The subsequent deployment of thousands of additional troops marked the beginning of a reign of terror. A fact-finding team set up by the provincial government last August found that 1,021 people, mostly unarmed civilians, died in counter-insurgency operations in the early 1990s, and 864 "disappeared." Non-government organizations say the number of dead and missing exceeds 4,000. "The military operation was not just about fighting the insurgents," says Ibrahim Adam, a farmer from Cot Girek village who has been crippled since being shot and beaten by the military in 1992. "It was about wiping out our people." Last August, following student-led protests and revelations of torture camps and mass graves, the military operation was formally ended. Armed forces chief General Wiranto issued an apology for atrocities committed by the military, and in October the central government donated $325,000 to compensate the victims of human-rights violations. Yet so far not a single soldier has been brought to book for crimes in the province.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, many Acehnese suspect ABRI had a hand in the recent unrest. They note that the Lhok Nibung kidnappers were not locals and that rebel leaders deny involvement in the incident. In December, they say, a vehicle carrying three soldiers was found to contain complete "ninja" outfits. "We believe that the goal of all this is to provide a pretext for ABRI to return to Aceh, and for past human-rights abuses to be covered up," says Dahlan Rahman, chairman of the Muslim students association in North Aceh, who notes as well how much money the all-powerful military once squeezed from the resource-rich province.
The charge points toward the more fundamental divide between Aceh and Jakarta – a lingering sense that local resources are being exploited solely for the benefit of the center. The province possesses one of the world's largest reserves of oil and gas, but almost all the proceeds go to the state-owned oil company, Pertamina. The region is also rich in gold and other metals, and has potentially lucrative agricultural, forestry and fisheries sectors. But in all these fields, too, profit has mostly been drained from Aceh by Jakarta-based firms. As in Irian Jaya, the wealth produced per inhabitant in Aceh is among the highest in Indonesia, while per capita income is among the lowest. "The people see that Aceh is rich in resources," says Iqbal Farabi, a lawyer and human-rights activist in the provincial capital Banda Aceh. "Why must they be poor?"
Acehnese anger is intensified by both a strong Muslim identity and a history of resistance: even after succumbing to the Dutch, the province rose up again in the 1950s, joining several other regions in rebellion against the chaotic Sukarno regime in Jakarta. In a poll conducted late last month in Banda Aceh, 49% of respondents – mostly students and academics – said there was a danger that Aceh would secede from Indonesia if the province's human-rights grievances were not addressed. "We will resist until death," says Kandang's Sopian. "It's not just this village, it's all Aceh." But such ardor remains unfocused. Many Acehnese continue to pledge loyalty to Hasan Tiro, the great-grandson of Tengku Chik di Tiro Mohamad Saman, a famous martyr of the Netherlands-Aceh war. Yet after founding a modest guerrilla movement, Hasan fled Indonesia in 1979 and now lives in Sweden. Since 1983 he has led a government-in-exile with several of his self-styled "ministers." His foreign minister lives in Singapore, and his military commander is thought to be in Malaysia.
More worrying is the absence of a viable leadership to channel the frustrations of residents – a problem that extends far beyond Aceh, and that could prove particularly troublesome as the first post-Suharto elections loom in June. The Acehnese lack respected figures who might guide them to independence or anywhere else. The student movement is fragmented and even the ulema (Islamic teachers), who have traditionally been respected spokesmen for the Acehnese, have lost their influence after years of collaboration with the authorities. "There is no one to lead this wounded people," laments Banda Aceh activist Otto Syamsuddin Ishak, noting that the vacuum leaves Aceh vulnerable both to separatists and to army manipulation. He could well be speaking of the whole of Indonesia.