Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - In a striking policy change, the Indonesian government has described Muslim separatists in the violence-torn, northwestern province of Aceh as "terrorists" and threatened to impose emergency rule there.
The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has since 1976 been fighting Jakarta in a war that has cost at least 10,000 lives. Human rights groups accuse both the army and the rebels of committing abuses.
A series of peace talks - most recently in May - and ceasefire declarations have failed to end the conflict.
The announcement by Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that GAM was considered a terrorist group drew strong opposition from federal lawmakers from Aceh.
Yudhoyono asked parliament to approve the imposition of a civil emergency - one step away from full martial law - in the province, which has been hit by a series of murders, kidnappings and arson attacks against schools.
Following the emergency threat, GAM at the weekend freed 18 civilian hostages it had been holding since June on suspicion of spying for the Indonesian military.
The hostages included a group of athletes as well as crewmen from a boat charted by ExxonMobil. The corporation is involved in tapping the province's considerable natural gas resources.
Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago, is the world's largest Islamic country, and it is wrestling with a number of religious, ethnic and separatist crises.
Even openly Islamist groups, such as Laskar Jihad - blamed for anti-Christian bloodshed in Maluku and Sulawesi provinces - have managed to avoid being labeled "terrorists." On the contrary, the country's vice-president has controversially associated with radical leaders.
It therefore came as a surprise when Yudhoyono said late last week in reference to Aceh: "We have told the world that it is difficult for us to hold dialogue with terrorists. Do the United States and other Western countries talk to terrorists?"
The minister said the government had given GAM "much time," but had to re-evaluate its policy in the light of recent attacks. "Enough is enough."
Again on Sunday, a senior police officer in Jakarta used the word "terrorists" to describe five Acehnese suspected of several bombings in the capital.
In the aftermath of last September's attacks on the U.S. by Muslim hijackers, Islamic governments have grappled with the concept of terrorism.
Indonesia's new approach makes it the second Muslim country in southeast Asia to cite post-Sept. 11 international terrorism concerns as justification for clamping down on internal Islamic dissent.
Neighboring Malaysia has since last fall arrested dozens of militants under security legislation allowing detention without trial.
Suspected al-Qaeda-linked terrorists have also been arrested in Singapore and the Philippines, but Indonesia has been seen by these countries as reluctant to do its part.
Some U.S. defense officials are keen to bring Indonesia into the campaign against terrorism, but Congress has banned weapons sales and military training since Jakarta's military was involved in serious abuses in East Timor in 1999.
The government's decision to crack down on Aceh has raised alarm bells at home.
Human rights campaigners and Muslim student groups have been among those warning that a purely military solution to the decades-old conflict would not work.
Some critics have pointed out that previous Indonesian administrations, including the authoritarian Suharto regime, had failed to beat Aceh into submission.
Before independence in 1950, Acehnese fought Dutch colonial rule in a 70-year campaign that cost tens of thousands of Dutch soldiers' lives.
This year alone, 600 people have been killed in fighting in Aceh. At the weekend, at least two civilians and two rebels were the latest to die - the two youths shot by unidentified killers on a motorcycle, and the suspected GAM members killed in a clash with troops.
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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