Threat of disintegration

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Mon Nov 22 06:31:59 MST 1999

The Hindu on
Saturday, November 20, 1999

Threat of disintegration
WITHOUT REALISING THE full import of a referendum in the troubled province
of Aceh, the new Indonesian President, Mr. Abdurrahman Wahid, has promised a
vote in seven months time. The Government and the military appear to be
deeply divided on the advisability of holding a referendum in Aceh, so soon
after a `popular consultation' in East Timor paved the way for its
`independence'. By all accounts, the Acehenese too will vote overwhelmingly
for secession from Jakarta. Unfortunately, the Islamic cleric-turned Head of
State seems to have miscalculated that just because the Acehenese are
predominantly Muslim, the people may not want to break away from Indonesia.
But things have reached such a pass that no matter when a referendum is
held, the Acehenese will insist on a choice of independence. If Mr. Wahid
thinks he can talk the pro-independence leaders of Aceh into accepting a
broad package of autonomy and increased prominence, he is sadly mistaken. He
may be falling into the same trap that his predecessor, Mr. B. J. Habibie,
fell over the referendum in East Timor, though it was an entirely different
case and its annexation by Indonesia was never recognised by the United
>From a purely Indonesian perspective, it will be disastrous to let Aceh
secede in the very first year of a new, democratic Government assuming
office in Jakarta. With problems galore in many provinces and the inherent
problem of cultural and political differences between the major regions in
the archipelago, granting independence to Aceh will surely open a Pandora's
box. The threat of Indonesia disintegrating in the short or medium term will
become real and imminent after that. The powerful military was against a
ballot even in East Timor, but they could not resist political and
international pressure. They have already expressed misapprehensions about a
referendum in Aceh. But the President had chosen to commit himself both
before his election and subsequently too. Now, he has set a seven-month
deadline to hold it without offering independence. Even the best political
and academic team Mr. Wahid can put together to persuade the Acehenese
militia and pro-independence groups to settle for greater autonomy and less
interference from Jakarta cannot succeed in the present climate. Though
anti-democracy lobbies in East Asia will jump to conclusions and point to
the fissures in Indonesia to slow down the process of democratisation
elsewhere, they cannot hide the fact that the present trend in Indonesia
stems from the brutality of the armed forces and the autocratic regime of
Mr. Suharto. The massacres in Aceh in the 1980s cannot be erased from
For South-East Asia and even India, an independent Aceh and the threat to
the integrity of Indonesia are bound to become a major security and
political problem. The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has
grown with Indonesia in three decades. The threat of disintegration in the
largest member-state can spell gloom in ASEAN and Indonesia will remain the
main concern for the group in the years ahead. For India, Aceh will be a
neighbour, closest to the Andamans. Just as the problem in Jaffna has its
repercussions in South India, an upheaval in Aceh can have a spill-over for
both India and Malaysia. Separatism and secession will get a boost if this
trend persists in Indonesia. Mr. Wahid and his Government need all the
courage, sagacity and help to deal with this major threat of disintegration
to save Indonesia and the region from a prolonged spell of violence,
uncertainty and suffering. It may be suicidal for the Acehenese themselves
to break away at this stage without building either a political leadership
or institutions to manage on their own. Aceh will be a major challenge and a
test for Mr. Wahid, as the rest of the world will be watching the
developments closely.

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