Thursday, November 11, 1999

Another Indonesian
bid for independence

Bullet The issue: The people of the Indonesian province of Aceh are calling for a referendum on independence.

Bullet Our view: Another disaster comparable to the situation in East Timor is possible unless the new government in Jakarta handles the issue well.

HAVING permitted a referendum that resulted in a vote for independence in East Timor, followed by brutal retaliation by pro-Jakarta militias and the introduction of a United Nations peacekeeping force, Indonesia is now confronted with similar demands for independence for the province of Aceh.

The province lies on the northwestern tip of the island of Sumatra, on the strategic Strait of Malacca. Last Monday 500,000 people rallied in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, demanding a referendum on independence. They were evidently inspired by the Aug. 30 referendum in East Timor, although the independence movement in Aceh began years before the issue arose in East Timor.

Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, said he supports the idea of a referendum in Aceh, adding he did not expect the vote to favor independence.

Indications are that judgment is wrong. Moreover, the national legislature opposes a referendum. The speaker of the parliament, Akbar Tandjung, said legislators were not in favor of allowing Aceh to vote on its future.

Aceh is more important to Indonesia than East Timor. It has a large timber industry and is rich in fossil fuels. The population of 4.5 million is significantly larger than East Timor's, which is about 800,000.

Unlike the Timorese, who are largely Catholic and were under the colonial rule of Portugal until 1975, the people of Aceh are Muslim and were ruled by the Dutch like the rest of Indonesia. Thus Aceh's potential loss is viewed as being more serious than East Timor's, possibly leading to a breakup of the entire country.

During the three-decades-long rule of former President Suharto, Aceh was often a battleground as government forces tried to crush guerrillas fighting for independence. Last year then-President B.J. Habibie canceled military operations in the province and withdrew part of the army contingent, but refugees from Aceh continue to give accounts of atrocities.

Government officials said privately that President Wahid's endorsement of a referendum was intended to placate the Acehnese but should not be taken seriously.

It would be difficult for the president to make good on his endorsement of a referendum without the support of the legislature. But having taken that position, it isn't clear how he can back out.

Wahid said he plans to visit Aceh to view the situation first-hand. When he does he will find a powder keg that could quickly erupt into violence rivaling the disaster in East Timor unless his government handles the issue more skillfully.

Miranda warnings

Bullet The issue: Disputes over the scope of Miranda warnings against self-incrimination will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bullet Our view: The high court should uphold criminal suspects' protection against self-incrimination but provide police latitude in pursuing investigations.

MIRANDA warnings to criminal suspects against self-incrimination have been standard police procedure since the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its landmark decision 33 years ago. Disputes about the scope of the requirement are headed back to the high court, and clarification is needed for future guidance.

Police should not be allowed to grill those who have insisted on remaining silent, but neither should suspects' post-warning statements necessarily be protected by the Fifth Amendment.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia ruled in February that a confession given to the FBI and Alexandria, Va., police in a bank-robbery case could be used at trial even though the suspect had not been given his Miranda warnings. The court cited a 1968 law aimed at reversing the Supreme Court's Miranda vs. Arizona ruling even though the Justice Department has never used the law, still won't and indeed shouldn't, because it is unconstitutional.

The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week disapproved of the practice of Los Angeles and Santa Monica police in questioning suspects who have been read their rights and invoked their right to remain silent.

In two unrelated murder cases, suspects made incriminating statements after receiving the Miranda warning and declaring that they would not answer any further questions. In one of the cases, police assured the suspect after the warning that his statements would not be used against him.

The 9th Circuit judges concluded that police had deliberately ignored the suspects' requests to talk to attorneys, thus violating their right against self-incrimination. That clearly was the case in giving false assurance to one suspect that his statements would have no legal consequence.

However, a suspect's stated desire for legal representation should not require police to end all questioning or risk violating the suspect's rights. Voluntary statements following Miranda warnings should be allowed at trial under some circumstances.

The Virginia decision has been accepted for consideration by the Supreme Court, and so may the California ruling. The Miranda warning has resulted in the past three decades in improved police respect for suspects' rights and should be retained in essence. The high court needs only to draw the line between Fifth Amendment rights and police abuse.

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John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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