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Retired Indonesian General Wiranto Visits Separatist Aceh Province - 2004-07-01


In Indonesia, campaigning has ended as the country prepares Monday for the first time to directly elect its president. As the campaign drew to a close, one of the leading presidential candidates, retired General Wiranto, held a rally in northern Aceh Province, despite security concerns caused by a decades-long separatist rebellion. He was the only presidential candidate to visit the troubled region.

On a hot morning under tight police security, General Wiranto brought his presidential bid to the Acehnese city of Lhokseumawe, near the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra Island.

Aceh had been under it latest bout of martial law for more than a year, after the collapse of a truce between the government and rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM.

GAM has been fighting the Indonesian government for nearly three decades, an insurgency in which thousands of civilians have been killed or have disappeared. As a result, the visit by General Wiranto, a former commander of the Indonesian military, surprised many people.

Local residents acknowledge that GAM rebels have committed abuses, but they blame the Indonesian military for most of the human rights violations during the rebellion.

But the general was warmly received in Lhokseumawe. First he paid his respects to the Ulama, or religious leadership, of the devout Muslim region, and was welcomed as a chief in a traditional ceremony.

General Wiranto thanked the religious leaders for the welcome and underscored the important role they play in this society.

He went by motorcade to an outdoor stadium where he was greeted by hundreds of supporters.

The general spoke about justice and the rule of law. And he recalled that when he was defense minister, six years earlier, he lifted martial law in Aceh, which ushered in a period of negotiations with the rebels that led to the now-defunct cease-fire.

But he acknowledged the suffering in the region and pledged to bring jobs and prosperity.

Acehnese blame the government for their grinding poverty, as the government in Jakarta has been reaping most of the benefits of the province's wealth in timber, petroleum and minerals.

General Wiranto made no mention of the insurgency, or the thorny issue of independence, which is backed by many Acehnese but is rejected by most Indonesians.

Then, the general delivered one of the trademarks of his campaign. He entertained the crowd by singing a classic Indonesian love ballad.

The crowd roared its approval, and then quickly began to disperse under the heat of the midday sun.

Later, General Wiranto explained to VOA why he chose to visit such a high-risk area.

General Wiranto says he came to Aceh because it is a very sensitive part of Indonesia and if its problems are not addressed they could disrupt the efforts to improve country as a whole. He says he would try to understand and fight for the aspirations of the people of the region and pledged to do so without violence or military intervention.

Having wooed the voters of Aceh, General Wiranto departed for the city of Medan, several hundred kilometers south, in the province of North Sumatra, where his support is strong. There he ended a hectic day on the campaign trail with a boisterous rally attended by thousands of supporters.

His trip underscored a subtle aspect of Indonesia's often-troubled transition to democracy. That is that although many say little has been done to address the social disparities inherited from three decades of military rule in Indonesia, a former commander from that dictatorship can visit this restive province and campaign for votes in a free election.

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