JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The Indonesian government has given the leaders of strife-torn Aceh Province until Tuesday to annul a bylaw passed last month that declares the banner of a former armed separatist movement to be the province's official flag and seal.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government says the bylaw violates multiple national laws against separatism, an extremely delicate issue in Indonesia given the secession of East Timor after a violence-plagued independence referendum organized by the United Nations in 1999.
While analysts said the flag dispute was unlikely to affect the 2005 peace agreement between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement, now defunct, they also said the government feared that it could stoke separatist sentiment in other parts of the country, including the restive eastern region of Papua.
On April 1, Mr. Yudhoyono sent a cabinet minister to Aceh, which is 1,100 miles from Jakarta on the northern tip of Sumatra Island, to urge Gov. Zaini Abdullah to scrap the bylaw. The sides have been talking regularly and could meet again in Jakarta this week, officials of the national government and Aceh Province said.
Mr. Yudhoyono said flying the flag of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM for the initials of its Indonesian name, would be "a step backward" for the province, where as many as 20,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the 29-year-long conflict between separatist guerrillas and the Indonesian military. Aceh was also hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, which killed 177,000 people in several countries. The tsunami, as much as anything, brought the shocked and weary sides back to the negotiating table.
The Indonesian Ministry of Home Affairs, which has the authority to annul regional bylaws, said a 2004 law on regional governments and a 2007 presidential regulation on regional symbols banned both flags and symbols of outlawed organizations and separatist movements.
"According to the law, local governments can have a flag, a hymn and a logo with a symbol," said Reydonnyzar Moeloek, a ministry spokesman. "But the symbol should be cultural, to unite that local region. It can't be similar to or inspiring separatism. This is not a political issue. This is an issue of the law, regarding evaluation of the bylaw by the central government."
The Aceh governor's office has countered that the 2005 peace agreement and the 2006 Law on Governing Aceh allow the province to have its own flag, hymn and symbol.
The separatist flag -- red with a white crescent and star and two black and white stripes -- dates to the former rebel movement's founding in 1976, but GAM is no longer an illegal separatist movement, said Muzakir Abdul Hamid, an assistant to Mr. Zaini.
"So why are the leaders in Jakarta upset?" Mr. Muzakir said in a telephone interview from Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. "If we look at special autonomy in other countries, they have a right to have their own flag. Ask the central government why they are so angry.
"Democracy means democratic."
Under the internationally brokered peace agreement, the rebels traded their rifles for amnesties, special autonomy for Aceh and the right to form political parties and contest elections, and they agreed to recognize Indonesian sovereignty.
The peace has held, and the latest dispute has, so far, been handled with negotiations rather than the use of force.
Mr. Zaini and the deputy governor of Aceh, Muzakir Manaf, have both been quoted as saying that the GAM flag symbolizes the historic struggle of the Acehnese, who fought off the Dutch who sought to colonize the area, the Japanese who invaded and the Indonesian armed forces and that, given that history, the flag should be the province's official banner.
The dispute over the flag has hit a nerve in both Aceh and Jakarta, the national capital. Mistrust since the end of the bitter civil war, one of Asia's longest, continues to run deep, in particular among both serving and retired Indonesian Army generals and former GAM civilian leaders and battlefield commanders who now hold senior government and legislative positions in Aceh.
While analysts and government officials say the peace agreement is not in jeopardy, the dispute presents sticky problems for both Jakarta and Aceh.
Mr. Zaini and his governing Aceh Party face opposition within their own autonomous province from the ethnic Gayo in the coffee-growing central highlands, who do not consider themselves Acehnese. More important, the rival Aceh National Party, led by former GAM leaders who split from the Aceh Party in 2010, consider the adoption of the new flag to be a stunt aimed at garnering public support, analysts say.
"For the Aceh Party, symbols are important to oblige people to identify themselves as the 'real' GAM," said Nezar Patria, an Acehnese journalist in Jakarta. "There's the Aceh National Party and the Aceh Party, and both of these parties are trying to gain public support. I think what the Aceh Party is doing by introducing their flag, and asking Jakarta to acknowledge this flag, is being pushed by an internal struggle within the party and with their P.N.A. rivals," using the initials of the Indonesian name of the Aceh National Party.
If Mr. Yudhoyono allows Aceh to fly the flag of former rebels, analysts say, it could embolden similar separatist movements in other parts of the country. He could also face renewed international pressure to release eight civilians in Papua who were convicted of treason and sentenced to prison, some for as long as 15 years, for displaying the banned Morning Star flag of the separatist Free Papua Movement.
Mr. Yudhoyono, a retired four-star general, may also face criticism from opponents if he appears to be weak on separatism, with legislative elections only 12 months away and his governing Democratic Party trailing badly in the polls, analysts say.
Humam Hamid, a sociologist at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh and a former candidate for governor, said he believed that a peaceful compromise was likely, with the Aceh government yielding to the central government.
"They have to see the stipulations in the laws on Aceh," he said. "I think they have to stick to the regulations regarding all separatist flags, which are banned."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.