Hundreds of thousands of Acehnese, carrying pro- independence banners and wearing bandanas and Islamic headscarves, converged on the capital, Banda Aceh, shouting "Independence!" and "Referendum!" in the province's biggest display of opposition to the government in Jakarta. Estimates of the crowd ranged from 500,000 to 1.5 million, more than a quarter of the population of the province. One Indonesian soldier was stripped naked by a mob, and more than a hundred prisoners were reported to have been helped to escape from two jails in the province.
The government of the new Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, appears to be in disarray over its policy towards the independence movement, which threatens not only Aceh's future within Indonesia but the continued unity of therepublic. The new minister for regional autonomy, Ryas Rasyid, said at the weekend that he believed Aceh had an evens chance of breaking away from Jakarta. "It's the most serious situation we are facing now," he said. "If Indonesia should disintegrate, it would start in Aceh and [the easternmost province of] Irian Jaya. That's what I believe."
President Wahid, who is on a tour of south-east Asia, has said that he is willing to consider a referendum although not immediately. The parliamentary speaker says the President may need to visit Aceh. The demands for an independence vote have been fuelled by the August referendum in East Timor. But the chief spokesman of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), Major-General Sudrajat, rejected the possibility. "Aceh is a part of Indonesia," he said yesterday. "That's why the demand for a referendum is not realistic and separatism is unconstitution-al." The brutality of the TNI is one of several causes of resentment among Acehnese, whose struggle for independence dates back to the time of the Dutch colonialists. The province is strategically located at the northern tip of Sumatra island, on the Straits of Malacca, one of the world's busiest and most important maritime waterways.
Aceh generates one-third of Indonesia's exports of natural gas, and has rich reserves of oil, gold, silver, rubber and timber. But its natural resources have been exploited almost exclusively for the benefit of companies based in Jakarta and their foreign business partners.
Last year both the former president, B J Habibie, and his military commander, General Wiranto, gave official apologies to the Acehnese, and last week the TNI announced that it had abandoned its attempts to defeat militarily the guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement. But such compromises have done nothing to quell the self-determination movement, which has gained new momentum from the recently won independence of East Timor.
President Wahid appointed Acehnese to the cabinet and to the deputy command of the army in an effort to defuse the crisis but with no visible effect. The government is believed to be pushing for a political solution that would give Aceh a greater share of the huge oil and gas revenues. Jakarta may also allow the province to introduce Islamic sharia law, instead of the secular system that applies in the rest of Indonesia.
But Mr Wahid's concessions may be too little, too late. Suspicion and hatred of Jakarta and of the main island of Java is entrenched after years of summary executions, rape and torture at the hands of the military.