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Indonesian President Apologizes to Aceh - 2001-09-08


Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri has apologized to the people of Aceh for decades of mistreatment under Indonesian rule. She made the statement in a speech Saturday during her first trip to the restive province since she took office in July. But few in Aceh believe Ms. Megawati can bring an end to the violent, decades-old struggle for independence.

President Megawati arrived early Saturday in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, amid heavy police and military protection. Ms. Megawati had pledged to make Aceh a priority when she came to power seven weeks ago.

Echoing an apology she made in front of Parliament last month, she told a crowd outside the town's main mosque that she was sorry for the suffering the Acehnese endured under often harsh, Indonesian military rule. Ms. Megawati says she apologizes on behalf of herself and the government. She says it is important for Aceh's four million people to forgive the past, and look toward rebuilding the war-torn province, with cooperation from Indonesia.

The new president has said that she wants open and honest dialogue with the Achenese, but has refused to discuss independence. Instead, Jakarta has offered Aceh special autonomy that would give it control over most of its vast natural gas resources and allow its citizens to elect the provincial administration.

Soon after her apology, Ms. Megawati was jeered by some in the crowd.

But some political observers say Ms. Megawati may be missing an opportunity in the search for a lasting solution to a war that has claimed some 10,000 lives.

Former human rights minister and Achenese civic leader, Hasballah Saad, says the president's last minute decision not to hold talks with any of the separatist leaders in the province gives the appearance that Jakarta is not yet willing to commit itself entirely to the peace process.

Mr. Saad says, although Ms. Megawati has issued an apology, he believes she must back up the apology with more action, to assure the Acehnese that Jakarta is sincere about its willingness to relinquish much of its political and economic control over Aceh.

That still may not be enough for most groups in Aceh who reject the special autonomy offer as an inadequate response to decades of misrule. Free Aceh Movement leaders say they will not accept any deals short of independence.

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