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Aceh: Huge Disaster and Political Hope

The messages from former students keep coming in, telling of horrifying destruction in Aceh by the monster waves - villages wiped out, bodies in rivers and swamps, under collapsed houses, hanging from branches of trees - many of them children too small and bewildered to escape the deluge.

For Daniel Lev, retired professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, the news is especially grim because violent death is not new to Aceh. The province has suffered a prolonged war between the Indonesian army and the Free Aceh Movement. Both sides give no quarter. Civilian casualties are commonplace.

The army which was only recently trying to kill Acehnese is now attempting to save them, and many soldiers have perished as well. "It smells so bad," says Colonel Buyung Lelana, leading an evacuation team on the northern coast of Aceh. "The human bodies are mixed in with dead animals like dogs, fish, cats and goats."

This is better behavior on the part of the Indonesian army, says Professor Lev. The military has insisted on crushing any sign of independence in oil-rich, rebellious Aceh.

Professor Lev says, "It was basically the army leadership that insisted the way to handle this issue in Aceh was to suppress it militarily. It should be taken for granted that a political issue cannot easily be resolved by military means, particularly within a country. It's foolish. But the army was given its way."

That did not have to be, says Professor Lev. There has been tension between the capital Jakarta and Aceh since the nation achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1945. But politics, not force, was used to keep the peace.

"There was an understanding on the part of the government that in a political crisis you make concessions, and concessions were made," adds Professor Lev. "Aceh was allowed autonomy, and it had its own military command there and so on. As the economic exploitation of Aceh grew, any effort by the Acehnese to protest this was simply put down. When you treat parts of the country essentially as colonial outposts, eventually they will declare independence if they can.

How many Acehnese want independence? It's hard to know, says Professor Lev. But army abuses over the years have obviously alienated people in the province.

Professor Lev says, "nobody has done a poll, and a poll would be impossible in those conditions. But I would not be surprised if most people in Aceh actually do think: 'Well, the hell with it. Let's be independent because right now we are being crushed in a county which is supposed to be our own.'"

Yes, Acehnese want independence, says William Liddle, professor of Political Science at Ohio State University. The Indonesian government is vehemently opposed, citing the breakaway province of East Timor in 1999.

But East Timor is not Aceh, says Professor Liddle.

"East Timor had been a Portuguese colony, not originally part of the Netherlands Indies as the rest of Indonesia was," says Professor Liddle. "So when Portuguese Timor was taken over by Indonesia, nobody ever felt in Indonesia or in East Timor that it was an ineluctable part of the country. But they certainly do feel that way about Aceh. It is very difficult to imagine an Indonesia Government letting Aceh go."

But the Indonesian government has not been altogether defiant, says Professor Liddle. Aceh has been granted more autonomy than other parts of the country.

Professor Liddle says, "in general, since Suharto's military new order was overthrown in the late 1990's, the Indonesian Government has decentralized quite a lot. But that decentralization has been carried even further in Aceh and Papua (province). So the legal arrangements are there for quite a broad autonomy right now."

Now catastrophe could finally reconcile people in Aceh, says Professor Lev, and bring an end to the war.

"The government in Jakarta has in effect called a kind of truce inevitably, and so has the free Aceh movement as well," says Professor Lev. "It is conceivable that this kind of natural crisis might encourage people to get over the political crisis. But it really depends on how effective and competent the government is in getting aid to Aceh immediately. It should have been there already."

Out of disaster could come peace, says Professor Lev. Nature has done its worst. Now humans can make the most of it.