As residents of Indonesia's troubled East Timor region prepare for their high-profile vote on independence this month, an equally bloody but less publicized war of secession is underway in a province at the opposite end of the archipelago.

Aceh is caught in a spiral of insurgency and repression that has claimed more than 220 lives since May and may threaten the integrity of Indonesia even more than the East Timor fighting. At least 40 Indonesian soldiers and dozens of rebels of the Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) Movement have been killed in attacks and counterattacks. But civilians appear to be the principal victims of the violence.

Hundreds of houses, schools and government buildings have been burned. Entire villages have been deserted, and others are populated only by women--widows and mothers whose husbands and sons have been killed in periodic military sweeps.

At least 100,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, according to government estimates; human rights groups in the area estimate twice that number. They live huddled by the thousands around mosques and schools along the main coastal road between Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe.

"There are more cases of refugees caught in the middle," said a spokeswoman for a local relief agency in Banda Aceh who asked not to be identified. "They've got the military on one side and Free Aceh on the other."

The rebellion stems from the Acehnese sense that their region is distinct from the rest of Indonesia. Before independence, Aceh (pronounced AH-chay)--a sultanate and trading post with its own international trade agreements--led the battle against Dutch colonial rule. After Indonesia achieved independence in 1949, the country's first president, Sukarno, promised to make Aceh a special autonomous region but never followed through. And for a decade, from 1988 until last year, Aceh was declared a special military operations area. Human rights groups say thousands were killed as the army tried to suppress separatism.

With the resignation of Indonesia's second president, Suharto, in May 1998 after more than three decades of autocratic rule, pent-up frustrations were unleashed and separatist sentiment increased across the archipelago. In Aceh, separatist rebels were further emboldened when Suharto's successor, B.J. Habibie, decided to allow an independence referendum for East Timor. The armed forces have moved thousands of troops into Aceh in an attempt to suppress separatism in the weeks before East Timor's scheduled Aug. 30 vote.

The Acehnese separatist movement appears to pose a greater threat to the unity of Indonesia--a country of 210 million people and more than 300 ethnic groups, scattered across more than 13,500 islands--than does the one in East Timor.

While Indonesia was a Dutch colony, East Timor was under Portuguese control and did not become a part of Indonesia until it was invaded in 1975 and annexed one year later. In a country where the predominant religion is Islam, the overwhelming majority of Timorese are Roman Catholic. Except for its coffee plantations and some marble, East Timor is poor in resources, and its population of 800,000 is negligible in a country of this size. East Timor could separate and barely cause a ripple.

Aceh, however, is rich in natural gas deposits and is strategically placed on the northern tip of Sumatra, on the Strait of Malacca shipping lane. Although the Acehnese consider themselves distinct from the rest of the country, Indonesians consider the province an integral part of their nation. And Aceh is staunchly Islamic.

Habibie, in an interview this month, summed up the difference: "East Timor is just like Puerto Rico. Aceh is just like, for the United States, Georgia. You cannot separate Georgia."

Abuses by the military seem to be the main reason that popular sentiment for independence has grown rapidly in recent months. The stories are rife, and horrific. Forty-one civilians were killed in the north of the province May 3, after the military said they had surrounded troops who were searching for a kidnapped soldier. Troops killed another nine suspected rebels during a shootout on Aug. 5. And 20 more people were killed in separate incidents over the weekend.

In the most recent large-scale incident, at least 56 people were killed in the village of Beutong on July 23. Col. Syarifudin Tippe, the local military commander whose troops were involved in the violence, says his men killed 31 rebels who attacked them with machetes and homemade weapons. The 25 other dead, he said, were "bodies brought in to implicate the military." Human rights groups say all the victims were villagers.

Syarifudin said economic hardship, not military abuse, is fueling support for the separatists. "The recruits seem to be from the lower classes, from the unemployed," he said. One way to defuse the tension, he said, is "to strengthen local autonomy and regional autonomy."

Whatever the causes may be, solutions are not apparent. There are no peace talks, no cease-fire negotiations, no dialogue, no mediators--barely even an acknowledgment that a full-scale guerrilla war is underway.

"There will be no peace with the Indonesian government," Abdullah Syafii, the rebels' chief commander in the Pidie district, told reporters in a clandestine interview. "There will be no negotiations with the Indonesian government. . . . We will not take any form of autonomy from the Indonesian-Javanese government. We will not make peace with them. We will not make any deals with them."

Col. Syafnil Armen, the Indonesian military commander in Lhokseumawe, said: "I haven't seen any Aceh Merdeka people. I see looting and burning and killing by groups of people I don't really have a name for." Syafii "is harassing and terrorizing people, and it is our job to guarantee safety," Armen said. "He must be looked for and caught."

He summed up his military strategy succinctly: "It's kill or be killed."



Before Indonesian independence, Aceh was a sultanate, and led the battle against Dutch colonialists. It was promised special autonomous status at independence, but Indonesia never followed through.


The island's population is mostly Roman Catholic due to its Portuguese colonial history. Indonesia invaded after the island declared independence in 1975. Resistance remains strong. An independence referendum is to be held this month.

SOURCE: Staff Reports