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Let Aceh Hold An Independence Referendum

By David Harries
Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2000

(Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece from Wednesday's Asian Wall Street Journal, with title "The Fall of the Javanese Empire". Harries is a Jakarta-based engineer and technology consultant.)

JAKARTA -- As the death toll rises in Indonesia's violence-torn provinces, it is time for President Abdurrahman Wahid to consider dissolving the Javanese empire. While the violence in Maluku province is primarily the result of sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians, the bloodshed in the relatively wealthy province of Aceh is the result of a well-organized separatist movement with longstanding claims to independence. If Indonesia continues to block Aceh's independence by force of arms, the costs on both sides will be enormous in terms of lives lost and economic opportunities wasted.

Moreover, a war for control of Aceh would signal the loss of an ideal opportunity to test a paradigm that the forces of globalization and democratization are about to place before us all: That a state losing part of its territory need not be seen as a failure if the loss is achieved in a way that produces a viable new member of the international community while leaving its previous host more stable. This idea flies in the face of statist dogma and the Westphalian model of sovereignty. But as the ideals of democracy and self-determination spread in the post-Cold War world, not even the most rabid sovereignist can claim that desperately clinging to a separatist territory is the best course of action in all cases, especially when the state in question is no longer politically viable.

Indonesia is arguably the world's best example of a state that is no longer politically viable. The Indonesian archipelago comprises thousands of islands and over 210 million people, many of whom feel little if any allegiance to Jakarta. The country as it exists today is the result of Dutch colonial rule followed by decades of Javanese empire building. Aceh, an oil rich province in northern Sumatra, is just one of seven territories where separatists are waging struggles for independence. Acehnese guerrillas have been fighting Indonesian rule since the mid-1970s. One of their main complaints has been unfair taxation and representation, as well as the corruption and brutality of the security forces that have long occupied the province. Aceh has the size, wealth (a higher per capita income than the rest of Indonesia) and natural resources to put it high in the ranks of Southeast Asian states.

Given the cash cow that Aceh has been, it's easy to see why President Wahid refuses to let it secede, and has instead proposed provincial autonomy within an Indonesian federation. But it will be years before Jakarta can increase its governmental capacity to the levels needed to secure a federation in an area as geographically vast and demographically diverse as the Indonesian archipelago. The waiting game aside, Acehnese leaders have little faith in Jakarta's promises.

Shortly after becoming president last October, Mr. Wahid visited Aceh and told its people that being mistreated, lied to and stolen from was no longer their lot as citizens of an Indonesian province. He then met with the rebels and surprisingly offered Aceh a referendum on self-determination "within seven months." Due to political pressure and fear of another East Timor, however, the offer was soon amended. Jakarta now told Aceh its choice would not be "stay in or leave," but stay in peacefully or stay in by force. As for a referendum, Aceh was told it could vote on the use of Islamic law. But since Aceh knows it could implement Islamic law on its own, the offer amounted to little more than an insult. This past weekend, Mr. Wahid reportedly waffled once again, saying Aceh could have a referendum but would have to wait at least three years. Again, it was unclear what the referendum would entail.

To be fair, Mr. Wahid is in the middle of a delicate balancing act with the Indonesian military that could topple his government. Talk of a coup is growing, and many military leaders believe he has been too soft on the separatists. Under intense pressure, the president has refused to declare marshal law in Aceh or the Malukus. Mr. Wahid seems to understand that an all-out war over Aceh would be disastrous for Indonesia and the region. The sea lanes of one of the world's most important commercial straits, Malacca, would be threatened. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations would be burdened with yet another conflict, and Malaysia would remain the home of Free Aceh leaders prolonging intra-ASEAN tensions. Moreover, the major international oil, gas and agriculture concerns in Aceh would most likely be forced to reduce their operations, if not abandon them completely. As a result, investor confidence in Indonesia would plummet even further, thus worsening chances for economic recovery.

The respect given the Indonesian Defense Force (TNI) - already under siege for its human-rights violations in East Timor, Aceh and other provinces - would no doubt sink to new lows if it embarked on a violent clampdown in Aceh. As for the Acehnese, they would most likely wage a successful guerrilla war - as they have in the past - but the cost to the Acehnese people and economy would be staggering. An all-out war for independence would almost certainly result in a horribly destructive scorched-earth policy from an embittered TNI. Past crimes against the people of Aceh would simply be replaced by new ones.

This worst-case scenario can still be avoided, but only if Mr. Wahid and the TNI allow Aceh to determine its own future. Mr. Wahid, should state clearly and definitively that Aceh will be given a referendum on self-determination and set a date - with the agreement of Acehnese leaders - for sometime this year. The international community should make it clear that it supports Mr. Wahid's decision and will not abide a military coup in Indonesia. Most important would be the setting aside of the Suharto-era custom of responding to all protest and change not sanctioned or led from Jakarta with force or terror. Aceh's dark past could then be investigated, and reconciliation could begin.

If, in a referendum sanctioned by Jakarta, Aceh chooses independence, there will be one less border in the world marked by endemic conflict. For this reason, Aceh should be seen by the international community as an opportunity. If Indonesians are brave, the West is supportive and ASEAN countries deploy intellectual honesty, there is no reason why Aceh could not become a prosperous, sovereign state and a model for the future of self-determination in international relations.


For more information on Aceh referendum please see statement from 

News collection about Aceh Referendum could be found here
No Bargaining With Aceh Referendum (from Kompas 9 November 1999)

An Analysis for Self-Determination for Aceh (International Forum for Aceh Analysis, November 18, 1999)

Vote result from others web on REFERENDUM for Aceh 
(including CNN.Com/Asianow Quick Vote,, and )

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Last modified: May 19, 2000