Tue, 09 Nov 1999

Acehnese clamor for referendum

BANDA ACEH, Aceh (JP): More than one million people took part in a mass rally in Banda Aceh on Monday, sending the loudest and clearest message to date to Jakarta of their demand for a referendum on self-determination for the province.

The rally, boasting the largest turnout ever in the restive province, passed peacefully as youths and students were recruited to direct the crowd and keep order.

The military and the police, which have been accused of committing atrocities in Aceh, kept a low-key presence.

The protesters secured the release of some 100 inmates from the town's two penitentiaries. There was no resistance from the prison guards after they were ordered to open the gates and let the inmates walk free.

President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was in Phnom Penh on Monday, reiterated his support for the referendum call, stressing the decision was in the hands of the Acehnese.

"It is the Acehnese people's affair, not mine," he told Indonesian reporters traveling with him during his five-day whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia.

"I have said that I am proreferendum. But we must wait and see how the referendum could be held."

The military has promised to withdraw all its combat troops from Aceh, saying the government is abandoning the "security approach" to problems in the province.

The protest paralyzed Banda Aceh, with most government offices closed for the day. Most shops were also boarded up amid fears of violence and looting. Schools were deserted as students joined the rally.

There were no flights in and out of Blang Bintang Airport on the city's outskirts and drivers of intercity buses did not dare to enter Banda Aceh.

The demonstrators, mostly youths, students and ulemas, assembled at Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in downtown Banda Aceh. Many came from other towns in the province, reflecting the widespread support that the referendum call now enjoys.

The rally organizers called the gathering the General Session of the Council for the Fight for the Referendum, which has the Indonesian abbreviation SU MPR, the same initials as the General Session of the People's Consultative Assembly held in Jakarta last month.

Speakers took turns to address the crowd, fueling their spirit as they chanted the cry of "referendum".

Leading the general session was Nasir Jamil, who was appointed by acclamation to chair the new Aceh legislative council to rival the one formed during the general election in June.

Noted speakers included Tengku Bulqaini Tanjungan, chairman of the Aceh Thaliban organization, and Cut Nurasikin, an Acehnese woman activist.

They argued to loud cheers that the referendum was the best and most just way to determine the future of the province after its people suffered abuses and injustices under Jakarta's rule.

They also appealed to the crowd to refrain from resorting to violence in their campaign to organize a referendum.

Other speakers criticized President Abdurrahman for choosing to embark on a foreign tour before visiting Aceh.

Many of the protesters who could not get close to the assembly toured the town.

Carrying large banners that read "Yes for Referendum", they rode on buses, trucks and motorcycles. While most shouted referendum slogans, some condemned Jakarta's cruelty and human rights atrocities in the province.

With the exception of a few hundred security personnel who were deployed around the mosque, the police were conspicuously absent.

Aceh Police chief Lt. Col. Dedy Suryadi praised the crowd for maintaining peace during the rally. "We have also ordered our officers not to use force in handling the demonstrators."

He confirmed the release of the inmates in the two penitentiaries, saying that security guards were helpless and could only comply with the demands of the protesters.

Hundreds of Acehnese students also staged demonstrations in Medan, North Sumatra, and Jakarta. In Medan, they showed photos depicting military brutality in Aceh.

Meanwhile in Irian Jaya at the other end of the archipelago, around 500 people descended on the provincial capital of Jayapura to demand separation from Indonesia.

The protesters, who came from towns including Puncak Jaya, Paniai, Nabire and Yapen Waropen, gathered outside the provincial legislative council to press their demands for a separate West Papua state.

Spokesmen for the demonstrators Decky Zonggonau and S. Kobogau said Indonesia should return Irian Jaya to its status as an independent state as declared on Dec. 1, 1963. (39/51/prb/rms)