- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

ACEH, Indonesia More than 1,000 miles from Borneo, where former headhunters last week went on a rampage of machete killings and burnings, Indonesia faces an even graver threat to its existence as a nation.

That threat lies in the resource-rich province of Aceh, where the separatist Free Aceh Movement flies its bright-red flag atop a rural electrical tower, openly taunting Indonesian police who search cars and buses on a nearby highway.

International attention was fixed on the area last week when Dayak tribesmen in Borneo killed hundreds of members of the rival Madurese ethnic group, beheading some of them. It was the latest in a series of separatist, ethnic and religious disturbances to tear at the fabric of this far-flung archipelago of 210 million people.

But when policy analysts contemplate a breakup of Indonesia, it is usually to Aceh that they look first.

Straddling the strategic sea lanes between the Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca, Aceh occupies the western tip of Sumatra island. Its 4 million residents are the most devoutly Islamic in this majority Muslim nation.

Off a bumpy dirt road near the industrial city of Lhokseumawe, a senior officer of the Free Aceh Movement guerrillas, known as GAM, said they have already set up an alternative government structure in eight of Aceh's 13 administrative regions.

"There already are GAM governors," said Sofian Daud, GAM's deputy military commander in the area, home to the PT Arun liquefied natural gas facility, partly owned by ExxonMobil.

Anyone trying to enter Mr. Daud's district of dirt yards and wooden houses is checked by a GAM policeman, a young man with a motorcycle and a pistol tucked under his shirt.

The rebels, who see themselves as a distinct people with a proud history whose forests and mineral wealth have been looted by Indonesia, now "control about 60 to 70 percent of the Aceh people," said Nurdin Abdul Rahman, a university English instructor in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

"Most of the government offices at the district level don't function any more," said Mr. Tahman, who was imprisoned from 1990 to 1998 on suspicion of being sympathetic to independence.

A six-hour bus ride from Banda Aceh to Lhokseumawe reveals some of the signs of government breakdown. Indonesian soldiers defending the office of the local government head in one area must shelter behind netting to guard against GAM grenade attacks.

The Jakarta government has been negotiating with GAM since last year while at the same time conducting a "law enforcement" operation with military assistance that includes armored vehicles.

Talks have brought a series of accords aimed at limiting fighting but which, in practice, have failed to curb the violence, workers with human rights groups say. These groups, which already blame the security forces for numerous atrocities, fear an intensification of operations in the province.

"There's no positive change in the field at all," said Faisal Hadi of a group called the Aceh NGOs Coalition for Human Rights. NGO stands for nongovernmental organization.

Mr. Hadi recorded 1,664 cases of torture, summary execution, arbitrary detention and kidnapping last year, slightly up from the 1,611 in 1999, before internationally sponsored attempts to curb the fighting began.

He said that the victims in the conflict are usually civilians, and that the police and military are responsible for most of the misdeeds.

While the Indonesian government has opened talks with the rebels, human rights workers in Aceh and Western observers in Jakarta say the military is not yet ready to accept a negotiated solution.

"This conflict, not only in Aceh but [elsewhere], has become their bargaining power with the civilian authorities," Mr. Hadi said. "It is a way to strengthen the military's position."

Acehnese complain that the security forces burn their homes and shops, fire guns into the air to frighten them and conduct nighttime kidnappings when they are out of uniform.

The commander of the joint police and military operation in Aceh, Police Commissioner Kusbini Imbar, emphatically denied that the forces under his command retaliate against civilians.

"We're from the people ourselves. I myself am from the people. It's impossible that we would hurt the citizens," said Mr. Imbar, a native of Java.

Legislators in Jakarta are preparing a bill that would grant a form of autonomy to Aceh as well as to Irian Jaya province, but Acehnese are skeptical.

"We must have independence. Aceh doesn't want to be with Indonesia any more," said Zulfikri, 23, who lives in a poor fishing village beside the giant white storage tanks of the PT Arun plant in Lhokseumawe.


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