With police and soldiers nowhere in sight, as many as 1.5 million demonstrators rallied peacefully today in Aceh province to call for independence from Indonesia.
People of all ages and walks of life--university students and rice farmers, women in shawls and children blowing whistles--paraded around the provincial capital demanding a vote to choose between independence and Indonesian sovereignty.
"Freedom, freedom," they yelled. "God is great," shouted others, waving separatist banners.
Aceh's police chief, Brig. Gen. Bachrumsyah Kasman, said there were as many as 1.5 million marchers, or 35 percent of the province's population of 4.3 million. The local Red Cross estimated the crowd at about 1 million.
Wearing red or white headbands with the word "Referendum," people jammed the streets, hitching rides on trucks and motorcycles along the river and around the city's main mosque and governmental building.
Police and soldiers--the deeply resented symbol of Indonesian rule--stayed in the background.
Wardens said 113 prisoners, excited by the protesters' shouts, tore down the gates of a city jail and escaped. Police shot and injured one inmate, and a police officer was hurt by a rock a prisoner hurled. Fifteen prisoners were recaptured.
Dutch troops occupied Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, a century ago after a bitter colonial war. After World War II, when Indonesia declared independence, Aceh was promised autonomy. Instead, it became part of Indonesia.
The separatist movement began two decades ago. Human rights groups have said 2,768 civilians were killed in the past decade, and 3,862 disappeared after being detained by security forces.
Indonesia has been struggling to appease anti-government sentiment driven by ethnic and religious differences throughout the nation.