One million people rally for Aceh referendum

Peaceful crowd at mosque, backed by political elite, wants government to hold an East Timor-style vote.

A MASSIVE crowd estimated at up to one million people gathered in the capital of Aceh yesterday, demanding an East Timor-style referendum on self-determination as a minister warned that the odds of Indonesia holding on to the restive province were no better than “50-50”.

Threatening a jihad or Islamic holy war should their demands go unheeded, the hundreds of thousands, wearing bandanas inscribed with “referendum”, converged at the main mosque in Banda Aceh in the latest separatist protest to shake the multi-ethnic and distended archipelago.

Chants of “merdeka”, or freedom, “long live the people of Aceh” and “a united Aceh cannot be defeated” resounded throughout the area for more than three hours as student leaders, activists and Muslim scholars led the rally at the mosque and elsewhere in the city.

Mr Asri Sulaiman, an aide of Aceh Governor Syamsuddin Mahmud, told The Straits Times that thousands of others who could not congregate in the mosque because of the large crowd there were gathered in several large fields not far away. “People are out in very large numbers because they want the central government to listen to their demands,” he said.

“Some are beginning to get emotional and calling for a jihad because they don’t trust the government. Their thinking is if the government can allow East Timor to go independent, why not Aceh as well?” Jakarta is already beginning to feel the pressure from its western-most province, for so long a thorn in its side along with East Timor.

Demands for a referendum have grown since the government allowed East Timor a referendum on independence in August. Minister for Regional Autonomy Ryaas Rashid, who has called for a political solution to stop separatist pressures from imploding the country, said Aceh’s breaking away would be far more threatening to Indonesian unity than East Timor’s separation.

Asked in an interview with the Reuters news agency what the chances were that Aceh would break away, Professor Ryaas said:

‘I think 50-50. Psychologically, the rebels have been very, very successful in internalising the spirit of referendum among the people. It’s the most serious situation we are facing now.

“If Indonesia should disintegrate, it would start in Aceh and Irian Jaya, that’s what I believe. If we could solve Aceh and Irian Jaya, it would be very helpful to maintaining the continuation of the unitary state.”

While President Abdurrahman Wahid suggested last week that a referendum was possible, the conservative military, blamedfor human rights atrocities in the area, remains adamant about not letting the resource-rich territory have its way. A three-star army general said: “East Timor will be the first and the last to go. We can’t afford to make another blunder and will have to find some other way of accommodating Aceh’s demands.”

Surprisingly, eyewitnesses said that not a single uniformed Indonesian soldier or police officer was seen at yesterday’s rally.

Mr Sulaiman said that troops were put on alert, but none were deployed because there was no incidence of violence in the largely peaceful demonstration.

The rally started in the morning when the crowd, which streamed in from different corners of the territory by buses, cars and motorcycles, hoisted a giant 4-by-8-m white flag with the word “referendum” in blue letters on a flagpole of the mosque.

Backing, most importantly, also came from Aceh’s political elite. “Everyone is involved,” said Aceh-based journalist Mawardi Ibrahim. “Hopefully the government will wake up.”

A petition in support of a referendum, to be sent to the Indonesian parliament and to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, was signed at the mosque by the leader of the Aceh parliament Muhammad Yus and Vice-Governor Bustari Mansyur.

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