Michael Richardson, Jakarta – An Indonesian proposal to consider independence for East Timor if the disputed territory refuses to accept autonomy is a high-risk strategy that could encourage other restive parts of Indonesia – the world's largest island-nation – to break away or loosen the bonds holding it together, in the view of some analysts and officials in neighboring countries.
Adding to such concerns, the governor of Aceh Province on the island of Sumarta was quoted Friday by the news agency Antara as saying he believed that the best way of ensuring Indonesia's unity was to make it a federal state. Along with East Timor and Irian Jaya Province, which occupies the western half of New Guinea, Aceh has become a hotbed of separatist agitation since student-led demonstrations in May forced President Suharto to resign.
His departure ended 32 years of highly centralized authoritarian rule, leaving a weak government and discredited military to cope with a rising tide of political violence, sectarian killings and lawlessness exacerbated by the worst recession in a generation.
In the latest such clash, the police opened fire as they tried to disperse a crowd that had gathered to listen to a separatist speech by members of the Free Aceh Movement in Idi Cut, 1,530 kilometers (930 miles) northwest of Jakarta.
Village search parties pulled five bodies from a river on Friday, raising the known death toll in the clash to 18, a human-rights group said.
Regional unrest in staunchly Muslim Aceh is rooted in centuries-old resistance to central rule. The governor, Syamsuddin Mahmud, reportedly said that replacing Indonesia's unitary state with a federal structure would give the provinces more power to protect their culture and control their resources.
In recent years, Aceh and some of the 26 other provinces have voiced increasingly bitter complaints as they watched the central government exploit their oil, gas, minerals and timber but give relatively little back in return.
In an effort to calm these simmering resentments, the government of President B.J. Habibie is planning to give provinces more power over their affairs and more control of their wealth.
Ryass Rasyid, the Home Affairs Ministry's director-general for regional autonomy, said this week that a draft law on decentralization would be submitted to Mr. Habibie soon.
"This law is to democratize local governments, to give them more authority to make decisions in the interest of their community," he said. "We want the local governments to be powerful enough to make decisions on investments and other issues, except in monetary, defense, foreign and judicial policies."
Mr. Rasyid said the draft law would, at the least, double the budget of every province as Jakarta reduced its share of revenues from the regions. "For the resource-rich provinces of Aceh, Irian Jaya, East Kalimantan, South Sumatra and Riau, they will get more, maybe a 150 percent increase," he said.
The government had to balance the demands of increasing revenue for resource-rich provinces with the policy of subsidizing poor regions, Mr. Rasyid added.
Protection of religion has also become an issue in parts of Indonesia. Mr. Syamsuddin said the fact that Aceh was home to devout Muslims raised a possibility of Islamic law being applied if such powers were devolved to the provinces in a federation – something that is not permitted under Indonesia's existing secular state.
With more than 300 ethnic groups and many different religions spread across more than 17,000 islands, some neighboring countries fear that Indonesia may be confronting a risk of disintegration, a variation of "balkanization."
In an interview on Friday, the Indonesian foreign minister, Ali Alatas, sought to calm such unease. He emphasized that Jakarta's strongly preferred option for East Timor was for wide-ranging autonomy, not independence.
He said that even if the East Timorese rejected autonomy, he did not think that the offer of independence would set off a chain reaction in other parts of Indonesia. "The situation of East Timor is entirely different, historically, politically, and also on the ground, from Aceh or Irian Jaya and so on," he said.
Indonesia invaded East Timor, then a Portuguese colony, in 1975 and annexed it the following year, a move that was not recognized by most countries or the United Nations. The other parts of Indonesia were inherited from the Dutch East Indies colonial empire.
"Whatever differences and complaints people in Aceh and Irian Jaya have, there is a very proud, strong sense that we have fought the same battles for independence," Mr. Alatas said. "We are bound together by being under the same colonial yoke for 300 years. There is this sense of being a nation, which is perhaps less so with the East Timorese because they were under a different colonial power for 400 years."
While the independence offer to East Timor might embolden some hotheads in Aceh or Irian Jaya, they are only a small minority, Mr. Alatas said, adding: "The bulk of the population of Indonesia is not attracted to separatism."