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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

In Sweden, a Sultan of Rebellion

Hasan di Tiro, 72 and ailing, is revered in Aceh, an Indonesian province whose separatist guerrillas take cues from him in exile.

June 30, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

ALBY, Sweden -- Hasan di Tiro has many titles. Prince. Sultan. Guardian of the State. He is the Tengku, the hereditary leader of the fierce Acehnese people who, as he once wrote, would choose death over surrender.

What his royal highness doesn't have is a country to rule.

Now 72, Di Tiro lives in this suburb of Stockholm, where he is the leader of Acehnese guerrillas fighting and dying in the Indonesian jungle 5,400 miles away.

More than anyone else, he is responsible for igniting Asia's longest-running war, which has been waged in the wilds of northern Sumatra for the last 27 years and has erupted with new ferocity in recent weeks.

His goal is to resurrect the nation of Aceh, a powerful Muslim kingdom that defied Dutch colonization for decades but was absorbed by Indonesia after World War II.

Di Tiro led the struggle from the jungle in the late 1970s and was wanted by Indonesia, dead or alive. Since then, he has been untouchable because of his most useful title of all: Swedish citizen.

Indonesia, which declared martial law and launched a military offensive in the province last month, has branded Di Tiro and his fellow refugees terrorists. But Stockholm has refused Indonesia's repeated requests to hand them over, saying they have not broken Swedish laws.

Once a wealthy New York-based businessman, Di Tiro is so revered in some parts of Aceh that his followers believe the water he touches has the power to cure illness.

Today, he himself is ailing, surrounded by a small group of supporters who call themselves a government-in-exile and help him manage his daily affairs. He was once fluent in seven languages, but a series of strokes has left him unable to convey anything more than the simplest ideas.

"It's our history to be independent," he says in answer to most questions about Aceh. "It's something we have to do."

The uncrowned prince has bestowed titles on his aides -- one is prime minister, another is foreign minister -- and from the safety of the far north they help guide the guerrilla war in the tropics. Usually, the government-in-exile communicates with commanders in the jungle by cell phone text messages.

"Indonesia is our colonizer, our oppressor, the robbers of our property, our killers," says Prime Minister Malik Mahmud as Di Tiro listens quietly. "They are the cause of oppression as well as instability in the region. The West keeps on recognizing them, propping them up, actually. Otherwise they would have fallen apart a long time ago."

Di Tiro comes from a powerful family of sultans who died fighting the Dutch during half a century of warfare. In 1976, he founded the National Liberation Front of Acheh Sumatra and issued Aceh's declaration of independence, signing it "Head of State."

He and his allies have managed to keep the movement alive, but after a quarter-century, not a single country supports its bid for statehood. More than 12,000 people have died in the conflict, most of them Acehnese.

'A Nation of Martyrs'

"It is no exaggeration to say we are a nation of martyrs," Di Tiro wrote in his 1984 self-published book, "The Price of Freedom: the unfinished diary of Tengku Hasan di Tiro." "There will never be any surrender, under any terms. We will continue to defend the independence of Aceh to the end, and we stand ready to accept Allah's will for us, life or martyrdom!"

The rebels call themselves the Free Aceh Movement and have 5,000 armed fighters, including women. Mahmud says the government-in-exile appoints the rebel commander and sets guidelines for the guerrilla army, but leaders in the field make the day-to-day military decisions. "The loyalty of Aceh with the leadership is absolute," he says.

The Swedish exiles' authority over the guerrillas is evident. In December, the leaders signed a cease-fire agreement with Indonesia in Geneva, and the fighting in Aceh paused for the first time in 26 years.

In May, Indonesia insisted that the rebels give up their claim to independence during peace talks in Tokyo. The leaders rejected the ultimatum.

The fighting resumed May 19 with Indonesia's declaration of martial law. Indonesian troops, notorious for their brutality and human rights abuses, went from village to village killing men and boys they said were rebels. Witnesses said soldiers summarily executed at least a dozen unarmed villagers, including boys as young as 12.

At the same time, arsonists burned 525 government-run schools across the province. Two men arrested by soldiers said the rebels paid them $25 for every school they torched, but Mahmud denied that the Free Aceh Movement was responsible.

Indonesia portrays the rebels as Muslim extremists and terrorists who seek to establish an Islamic state. This month, Indonesia presented Sweden with evidence it says shows that Di Tiro and his aides instigated armed rebellion in Aceh and masterminded bombings in Jakarta, the capital.

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