Summoned before parliament to explain his policies for the first time, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid today defended his controversial plan to hold a referendum on the future of strife-torn Aceh province, and he urged legislators to debate whether it should go forward.
Many legislators fear a vote could trigger a wider breakup of Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation with 210 million people spread over 17,000 islands.
"I myself say there should be a referendum in Aceh. Differences of opinion will make Indonesia great in the future," Wahid told the 500-member house. "Through debate we can have a good result. This is what we call reform."
Wahid, who is nearly blind, spoke without notes and punctuated his nationally televised address with jibes and jokes that drew applause and laughter from lawmakers. At one point he likened parliament to "a kindergarten" and chided its members for not comprehending his views.
Wahid, who was elected last month, circulated a blueprint for his planned referendum in Aceh to lawmakers before his speech. It was not given to the media.
In Japan on Tuesday, Wahid said he wants to hold a vote within seven months. He said on Wednesday that such a ballot would not allow the province to opt for full independence, but only to choose whether to have greater autonomy within Indonesia.
Rebels in Aceh--part of the island of Sumatra, 1,110 miles northwest of the capital, Jakarta--have sought independence for years. More than 5,000 people have died or disappeared in the fighting since 1989, human rights activists say.