Indonesia Loosens Reins — So They Won't Break

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Indonesia may have learned a lesson from East Timor. Recently elected president Abdurrahman Wahid said Tuesday he would grant an independence referendum to the rebellious province of Aceh, and would abide by the result. He underlined his good intentions by withdrawing Indonesian troops from a decades-long counterinsurgency operation there, and promised the Acehnese the sweetest of deals if they vote to remain inside the Indonesian federation — full autonomy and control over 75 percent of the revenues generated there. After decades of repression failed to keep East Timor in Indonesia, Wahid is hoping that loosening the seams presents the best chance of maintaining the unity of a patchwork nation stitched together by Dutch colonialism. And unlike the situation with East Timor, there is an economic rationale in making nice with Aceh: The region is rich in natural resources and generates 13 percent of Jakarta’s budget, even though its people make up only 2 percent of Indonesia’s population.

A Muslim people whose kingdom dominated the Malaccan Straits when the first Europeans arrived in the 13th century, the Acehnese fiercely resisted the Dutch and later the Indonesians. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to demand independence at a rally in Aceh Monday, and the guerrillas of the Free Aceh movement remain at large, underlining simmering Acehnese resentment at their impoverishment despite the territory's wealth of resources. The stakes are high for Wahid: Jakarta can't afford to have the resource-rich region destabilized by political turmoil, and the very future of the Indonesian state may depend on its ability to keep Aceh from bolting, which might cause a rush for the door by the secessionist peoples of Irian Jaya and Ambon, too. The Suharto regime depended on military force to keep the Indonesian family together; Wahid is hoping to rely on persuasion — and material incentives.