Hongkong:  The ASEAN Regional Forum  meeting has avoided mention of the troubles of Aceh, where separatism threatens the integrity of Indonesia and has strategic Malacca Straits significance too

Hongkong: Foreign ministers of the Association of South East
Asian nations (ASEAN) have waffled their way through another
annual meeting. Their 11 partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum
have taken the opportunity to worry aloud about perennial
flashpoints  North Korea, the Spratlys and the Taiwan straits
and issue appropriate denuciations of troublemakers.  

But diplomacy forbids discussion in these circles of the issue
which most immediately affects the stability of southeast
Asia: the territorial integrity of Indonesia.

The ministers did not need to bring their maps to realise that
they were at one end of one of the world's most important
international waterways -- the Malacca straits. But sitting 
in a well-organised Singapore with its formidable forces and
close ties to the US, it may have been easy to forget what
lies at the other end: Aceh.

The escalation of separatist violence in Indonesia's
northermost and westernmost province is probably the most
dangerous irredentist development to have hit the region in
three decades. It is being overshadowed for now by
developements in Timor because Timor is an international issue
involving the UN and issues of recognition of sovreignty.

But few Indonesians believe the loss of tiny, remote East
Timor, acquired belatedly and under peculiar circumstances,
poses a direct threat to the integrity of the republic. Timor
does matter to Aceh. The vote on independence sets a
precedent, and realisation of that goal would embolden
Acehnese separatists. But Malay, Muslim Aceh is qualitatively
different. If it can break free of what the separatists call
"Javanese imperialism", the whole concept of a geographically,
culturally and religiously diverse Indonesia, united by a
common language and larger identity, is at risk.

It had been hoped that the end of the Suharto autocracy and
the diminished status of the armed forces would have
channelled separatism from insurrection to participation in
the political process. The opposite has happended. Insurgency 
has escalated. The Free Aceh movement has a thousand or more
under arms. Its attacks have resulted in military counter-
insurgency operations which have created tens of thousand of
refugees who have become fertile recruiting ground for
militants. Some accuse the military making matters worse to
strengthen its claims to be the indispensable guardian of
national unity. True or not, any government in Jakarta now
faces a massive task of restoring order and trust.

The Aceh situation has been compared with the long-running
Muslim separtist insurgency in Mindanao. But it is more
serious. The Philippine Muslim areas are split by geography
and tribal loyalties. Nor are there separatist movements
elsewhere in the Philippines which would take attempt to
follow its example. Aceh on the other hand is geographically
well defined, had a long history as an independent sultanate
which which fought the Dutch for decades, and has the natural
resources to make independence seem attractive.

Aceh also happens to be very near to Thailand and Malaysia and
as close to India and Burma as to Singapore. It is of
sufficient strategic importance to be of interest to meddlers
from farther afield too. No one accuses Thailand or Malaysia
of helping Acehnese separatists. The Thais have their own
problems with Muslim separatists and Malaysia, despite some
past help for Mindanao secessionists, is aware of its own
potential problems in East Malaysia. But Aceh insurgents have
been helped by the easy availability of arms in Thailand and
sympathy and money from individuals in Malaysia, including
Islamic militants and businessmen of Acehnese origin.

The long political process in Indonesia is causing Aceh to
fester. A new president elected by democratic process and
within the context of freedom of speech and assembly may be
able to regain Acehnese trust and the initiative for Jakarta,
just as President Aquino's election turned the tide of
insurgencies in the Philippines. But it will be difficult
given the need for any president to have the support of an
army accused of constant abuses today as well as responsible
for massacres earlier in the decade. Independence will remain
"non-negotiable" for any leader in Jakarta. What, then, will
placate the Acehnese?

That's not a question neighbours can answer. But greater
cooperation between states might help reduce insurgency. ASEAN
leaders need to worry more about their own backyard than about
Asian strategic issues over which they have scant influence. 




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