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The next battle for Indonesia

Hundreds of thousands of Acehnese massed in the provincial capital yesterday in the biggest separatist rally of Indonesia's history.

Security forces, whose years of brutal rule in the resource-rich province are blamed for the growing separatist movement, were conspicuous by their absence as waves of Acehnese poured into the Banda Aceh city center and toward its main mosque, shouting "Independence!" and "Referendum!"

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Asked in a weekend interview the chances of Aceh breaking away, regional autonomy minister Ryaas Rasyid said: "I think 50-50. Psychologically, [the rebels] have been very, very successful in internalizing the spirit of referendum among the people."

Some estimated the crowd was close to a million, while more conservative estimates put it at about 500,000.

The new government of President Abdurrahman Wahid has put the Aceh problem at the top of its agenda, conceding that a ballot is a possibility after the one in East Timor where the population voted overwhelmingly for independence.

The East Timor vote has fueled the demands for an Aceh referendum, but Indonesia's chief military spokesman yesterday rejected the calls.

"The demand for a referendum is not realistic," chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Sudrajat said in an interview.

"Aceh is a part of Indonesia. So Aceh is managed by Acehnese people together with the Indonesian people.... That's why the demand for a referendum is not realistic and ... separatism is unconstitutional."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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