STANFORD — An Italian restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach district is an unlikely place to be served dinner by an activist from Aceh, the Indonesian province (pronounced "Ah-cheh") whose momentum toward independence is growing. He carried a business card identifying himself as an officer of the International Forum for Aceh. His card listed three electronic addresses, including one at the group's California headquarters in Oakland.
When I asked him when he thought his homeland might be free, he replied without hesitation: "Next month" (meaning December 1999). That is by far the earliest forecast date for Acehnese independence since demands for a referendum on sovereignty began sweeping the province early this year.
The cybernationalist waiter may expect too much, too soon. But the issue of independence for Aceh is urgent. It is also vital not only to Indonesia, but potentially for Southeast Asia, Japan and the United States.
An estimated two-fifths of world shipping moves through the sea lanes inside or adjacent to Indonesia, including four-fifths of the oil Japan needs to keep its economy going. Historically, the most important of these maritime pathways has been the Malacca Strait. Aceh, on the northwestern end of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, overlooks the western gateway to this crucial waterway.
Indonesia has long been the world's leading exporter of liquid natural gas. In recent years, perhaps one-third of it has originated in Aceh. That stream has generated billions of dollars in annual export revenues for the central government in Jakarta. Hydrocarbons from Aceh have also been vital to energy-importing countries in Northeast Asia, notably Japan, and have made the province a profit leader for Mobil Oil Indonesia Inc., a major investor. But perhaps only 5% of what its natural resources earn on world markets comes back to Aceh.
Of the province's 4 million inhabitants, 98% are Muslims, making Aceh the most deeply Islamic of Indonesia's 26 provinces. For this reason, and because no part of Indonesia is farther west, Aceh is sometimes hyperbolically called "the front porch of Mecca."
If a referendum on independence is held in Aceh and its people choose to become a sovereign state, a question mark will loom over the disposition of the new country's resources. Countries for which the Malacca Strait is a lifeline will wonder how an independent Aceh will regard freedom of navigation. Depending on what sort of Islam the state espouses, states with non-Muslim majorities--Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines--could worry lest their Muslims be emboldened by Aceh's secession to follow suit and break away or to demand the right to implement Koranic laws. Nor would multireligious Malaysia welcome an assertively Muslim newcomer on its western flank.
Exacerbating these concerns is a contrary fear growing in Asia, Australia and the United States: What could happen if a referendum is not held? Will escalating conflict between Acehnese insisting on freedom and Indonesians refusing to grant it provoke a "Yugoslav" scenario or, at any rate, drain energy that Jakarta should be spending on such national priorities as healing a sick economy?
Within the past 18 months, the presidency of Indonesia has changed hands twice against a background of ethnoreligious and political clashes that have taken as many as several thousand lives, some of them the result of army crackdowns in Aceh. Last June, national, provincial and district elections revamped Indonesia's representative institutions. Then, in an Aug. 30 referendum, East Timorese did what many Acehnese would now like to do: vote themselves out of Indonesia altogether.
Having acknowledged East Timor's right of self-determination, are Indonesians now on the verge of democratizing the rest of their country out of existence?
It was, after all, new President Abdurrahman Wahid who boosted the hopes of Acehnese earlier this month when he asked, "If we allow East Timor to go ahead with a referendum, why don't we allow Acehnese to do so?" To be inconsistent, he added, would be "unfair." Since then, hundreds of thousands of Acehnese--some say more than a million--have demanded that Wahid keep his word and let their province say goodbye.
Wahid recently doubted this would happen. He described pro-independence elements on his country's many islands as "a very small minority." But a spokesman for the Indonesian army, Maj. Gen. Edi Sudradjat, flatly disagreed: "A referendum on autonomy [inside Indonesia] is fine. But a referendum on independence: no," because it would lead to "Balkanization."
What is striking about Sudradjat's remark is its implication that the people who live in Aceh and other rebellious provinces are prisoners of Indonesia and that denying them the right of escape through self-determination is essential to keeping Indonesia whole. By his logic--and if democracy means deciding one's own future--repressing democracy is necessary to maintain Indonesia's national unity.