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Indonesia’s Megawati Plans Aceh Visit

Security has been increased in Indonesia's separatist northern province of Aceh ahead of President Megawati Sukarnoputri's first visit there Saturday. Ms. Megawati pledged to tackle the decades long problems in Aceh when she came to power six weeks ago.

With her first trip to Aceh planned for Saturday, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri is stepping into a crisis that has dragged on for more than two decades, and searching for a solution that has eluded three of the country's former leaders.

The statistics offered by human rights groups are staggering: more than 6,000 people killed in the past 10 years of fighting between the guerrilla Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian troops sent in to crush the rebels. Twelve hundred of those victims killed this year alone. Just a few weeks into office, President Megawati made a gesture of peace towards the Acehnese by apologizing for human rights abuses that have occurred there. She conveyed "deep apologies to our brothers who have long suffered as a result of inappropriate national policies." But the president also ruled out the possibility of independence for the province.

The conflict began in earnest in 1976, when rebels from the Free Aceh Movement declared the province to be independent of Indonesia. The government sent in thousands of troops to quell the movement. But analysts say the plan has backfired with the widespread human rights abuses committed by soldiers instead fueling support for the rebels. Many allege that the abuses by the military continue.

"I found myself in danger of being, yeah, being killed," said Nurdin Abdul Rahman, head of Rehabilitation Action for Torture Victims in Aceh (RATA), a non-governmental organization funded by the Danish government.

Earlier this year, Mr. Rahman visited the U.S. State Department in Washington to brief officials about the Aceh crisis. But upon his return to Aceh, he was forced to flee when a friend inside the military told him that he was on a list of people to be killed by the Indonesian military. "He spoke to me," Mr. Rahman said, "and he said that my name was one of 10 men, 10 names on the list, a hit list from the military. I asked how he knew this and he said he had the list with him, so I asked to see the list and he showed me the list."

Mr. Rahman says he was still skeptical until he heard about the murder of another person on the list. "The authorities still don't know where I am. The international community should know that this is the situation in Aceh and this is the way the military is operating," he said.

Still, there are efforts being made by the new government to help diffuse the situation.

Indonesian legislators say the Acehnese would drop their independence aspirations if they had more control over the province's natural resources oil and natural gas. To that end, Parliament passed a special autonomy bill for Aceh allowing the province to retain 80 percent of the revenues derived from its natural resources.

But with the Indonesian military continuing its efforts to crack down on the rebel movement, analysts say the new legislation will do little to win over the Acehnese. Diarmid O'Sullivan is with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta. "There's quite a lot of apprehension in Aceh that a Megawati government would be more inclined to give the military free rein," Mr. O'Sullivan said. That said, the government will be committed to implementing the autonomy law. But if these two processes are run simultaneously, they risk canceling each other out."

Cabinet officials say the president has no concrete plan of action to tackle the Aceh crisis, but that the upcoming trip is intended to help build trust between the two sides. However, local media say the president has no plans to meet with leaders of the Free Aceh Movement.