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After East Timor it's time for Aceh's independence

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    After East Timor it's time for Aceh's independence

    Aceh: Still dreaming of

    Nervous Indonesian soldiers patrol the luch Acehnese countryside

    The stillness of the impossibly green rice-fields was
    broken only by the twitter of birdsong and the crunch of
    marching boots.

    It might have been the most peaceful
    scene on earth, and yet the air was
    heavy with the possibility of violence.

    Just five minutes before the road had
    been lined with people, buying and selling fruit, chatting
    in animated groups, the usual bustle of any Indonesian

    Suddenly they were no
    longer there, as the soldiers
    walked quickly past, eyes
    darting from side to side,
    fingers gripping their

    These are the two worlds of
    Aceh: The frightened young
    men who have been sent
    from other islands to subdue
    this rebellious; and the
    Acehnese people, hardened
    and embittered by years of
    harsh repression.

    In a region where nation states are so new and so
    fragile, the Acehnese think they have history on their

    This was a powerful
    independent state,
    dominating the Straits of
    Malacca when Marco Polo
    first arrived in East Asia in
    the 13th century.

    Right up until this century, it
    resisted attempts by
    outsiders to control it - the
    2,000 graves filling the old
    Christian cemetery in the
    provincial capital testify to
    the trouble the Dutch had in
    trying to drag Aceh into its colonial empire.

    Now, in the chaos and uncertainty following the collapse
    of the Suharto regime, the Acehnese are having another
    stab at breaking free.

    History is clearly on Teunku Abdullah Syafei's mind as
    he bounds up the steps of the little mosque where he's
    agreed to meet me.

    It has proved unexpectedly
    easy to find this rebel
    commander, who is being
    hunted down by several
    thousand Indonesian troops.

    When he realises I'm English
    he grasps me in a suffocating

    "The English are our friends",
    he proclaims to his armed
    bodyguards who have taken
    up positions beside the doors
    and windows of the mosque.

    "They signed a treaty back in 1873 recognising us as a

    Tradition of resistance

    It's a piece of history I know almost nothing about, but I
    don't let on. Teunku Syafei is passionate about his
    country's tradition of resistance.

    "We Acehnese understand
    the meaning of war", he
    says. "We'll beat the
    Indonesians, just as we beat
    the Dutch."

    There is a struggle going on
    to redefine the new Indonesia
    and it's being conducted at
    two levels.

    On the ground it's a raw and
    bloody battle for supremacy,
    pitting different ethnic and
    religious groups against each other, with an increasingly
    demoralised army trying to position itself somewhere in
    the middle.

    But at another level, it is about what kind of country
    Indonesia should be - or whether this amazingly diverse
    string of islands should be a country at all.

    The Acehnese already appear to have made up their

    Dreams of independence

    In the refugee camps which
    have sprung up around the
    mosques to shelter the tens
    of thousands fleeing from the
    army, life revolves around the
    dreams of an independent

    The people use only their
    own Acehnese language and
    in the evening, before
    prayers, they sing rousing
    national songs and fly the
    black-and-red Acehnese flag.

    They refuse to have anything to do with the local
    Indonesian administration, which operates in a vacuum
    behind barbed wire and sandbags.

    The soldiers are hated, and they know it. Years of
    indiscriminate brutality have robbed them of any
    prospect of winning hearts and minds.

    Yet for the government in Jakarta, this is still a life or
    death contest it cannot afford to lose.

    An abstract state

    "Indonesia is an abstract concept", explains Dewi
    Fortuna Anwar, President Habibie's spokeswoman. "it is
    either the whole of the former Dutch East Indies, or it's

    In her view, to let the Acehnese go would be to invite the
    dismemberment of the whole archipelago into dozens of
    potentially unstable little republics. And she is convinced
    the international community, bruised by its experience in
    the former Yugoslavia, wouldn't want that.

    Maybe not.

    But if the casualties continue to pile up on both sides in
    Aceh, and in other troubled parts of the country, the rest
    of the world must wonder just how great the human cost
    will be of keeping this most unwieldy of nations together.