Thousands in Indonesia’s Aceh March for Separatist Flag

Acehnese villagers look at three Free Aceh Movement (GAM) flags in the village of Paloh Mampreh in Indonesia’s Aceh province in 2005. In a peace deal with the national government that year, rebels in the province gave up demands for independence and were granted semi-autonomy from the central government. (Photo: Reuters)

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Thousands of Acehnese people took to the streets Monday to demand that a separatist flag be made the official flag of the province, police said.

About 3,000 people took part in the demonstration at the main mosque in the provincial capital Banda Aceh and then marched to the parliament building, said local police spokesman Col. Gustav Leo.

They unfurled a giant red flag with a white crescent and star outside the mosque while shouting “Allah akbar,” or God is great, and “Long live Aceh.”

Last week, the Aceh Legislative Council passed a bylaw allowing use of the flag, once the symbol of the Free Aceh Movement, as the official flag of the province.

“This flag is our pride, we can’t wait anymore to see it fly in our land,” said Indra, a rally organizer who goes by a single name.

Indonesian law prohibits the use of separatist flags and symbols, while any bylaws made by provincial councils must be forwarded to the Home Affairs Ministry for approval.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the move could be a setback to a 2005 peace deal between the government and the Free Aceh Movement.

“We have evaluated their bylaw,” Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi said. “We will soon convey the results to the local government.”

He said he hoped that local leaders and lawmakers could adjust the bylaw within the existing state’s laws and regulations.

Aceh, an oil-and-gas-rich province of 4 million people on the northern tip of Sumatra island, has experienced almost constant warfare for more than 140 years, with an outbreak of serious fighting that started in 1976 killing at least 15,000 people.

Efforts to end the civil war gained momentum after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck on Dec. 26, 2004, which left at least 167,000 people dead or missing and half a million others homeless in the province.

Under a 2005 peace deal, the rebels gave up their long-held demand for independence and handed over all of their weapons, while the government allowed them to participate in local politics.

It also allowed the predominantly Muslim province to implement a version of Sharia law and to enjoy semi-autonomy from the central government.


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