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In Sweden, a Sultan of Rebellion

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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

“These acts of murder, or terror, were communicated and instructed and commanded by Hasan Di Tiro and his colleagues from Stockholm,” charged Marty Natalegawa, spokesman for Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jakarta.

Sweden said it would examine the allegations and question the rebel leaders.

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Earlier, Indonesian authorities accused the rebels of killing hundreds of civilians and attacking the province’s giant natural gas facility, forcing it to shut down for months in 2001.

Mahmud, 64, denies any part in terrorism, the bombing of civilian targets or religious extremism. In 2000, top Al Qaeda leaders visited Aceh, but Mahmud says they never made contact with the rebels. He rejects government claims that the rebels have ties to the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network and insists the Free Aceh Movement has rejected all offers of help from militant Islamic groups.

Mahmud acknowledges, however, that 5,000 Acehnese fighters -- including the exiled leaders -- received military training in Libya in 1986. Di Tiro lectured at the Libyan camp on Acehnese history -- including the “heroic” deaths of his ancestors in battle against the Dutch and the justification for a war that would install him as Aceh’s sultan.

Now Mahmud says the Free Aceh Movement has no ties to Libya and sees the United States as a friend. The rebels favor democratic elections to gain independence, he says, and decide how Aceh should be governed.

Washington, a backer of the peace talks, has urged the two sides to resume negotiations but supports Indonesia’s right to fight separatism.

Di Tiro hardly looks the part of a guerrilla leader. Diminutive, even pixieish, he wears a blue pinstripe suit, a red silk tie and a matching handkerchief in his breast pocket.

He meets with visitors in his two-bedroom apartment that doubles as the headquarters of the government-in-exile. On the wall are charcoal portraits of his grandfather and grandmother, who died leading their people in battle against the Dutch.

The living room is the Acehnese Embassy. There are pictures of aging foreign dignitaries and a diploma indicating that Di Tiro graduated from Columbia University in New York in 1956.

His inner circle includes Foreign Minister Zaini Abdullah, a physician who works days treating patients at a local clinic, and spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah, who works nights sorting packages at the post office. Both are Swedish citizens.

They are among 50 Acehnese refugees in Alby, a working-class suburb southwest of Stockholm. They attract little attention in the neighborhood -- so many immigrants have moved here from all over the world that locals call the subway line from Stockholm the Orient Express.

Di Tiro, energetic and friendly, shows no outward sign of his strokes. He sits patiently as his aides talk, occasionally pulling out relevant documents. He plays a video that shows him giving a lively interview to Dutch television in 1996.

But sadly for the man who once articulated the Acehnese cause, he can no longer put the words together. For all his glorifying of ancestors who died young fighting for freedom, he is growing old in exile.

Set on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Aceh is one of the country’s most beautiful and wealthiest regions. Lush rice paddies carved from the jungle extend across the coastal flatlands, and sharp peaks rise in the distance. The towns and villages are graced by thousands of well-kept mosques. A natural gas field on the north coast -- operated by the Mobil oil company, now Exxon-Mobil, since the 1970s -- is one of the largest in the world.

Arab merchants introduced Islam to the region 900 years ago, and from there it spread to the rest of what is now Indonesia. By the 16th century, the Islamic state of Aceh was the most powerful nation in the region.

A Sense of Mission

But the Acehnese have been fighting for their existence for 130 years. The Dutch invaded in 1873, touching off a war that lasted half a century. At least 10 of Di Tiro’s forebears -- six of them sultans -- died in combat. The last sultan to fall was his uncle Tengku Tjhik Maat di Tiro, who was 16 when he fought to the death rather than accept a deal with the Dutch, Di Tiro wrote. Another uncle was captured with a carbine in his hands when he was 6.

For Hasan, born in 1930, growing up as a Di Tiro wasn’t easy. As a boy, he complained to his mother that he was always late to school because so many people stopped him on the street to kiss his hand.

As a youth, he was expected to lead men in prayer. Some still remember the time he was asked to pray for rain during a prolonged drought. Before he finished, the skies opened up, drenching everyone and enhancing his image as a maker of miracles.

After World War II, the Netherlands handed over its former colonies to Indonesia, a new nation centered on the island of Java, Aceh’s historic rival. Acehnese nationalists say the action was illegal: The Netherlands could not give away what it did not own. War with Indonesia began in 1953 and continued through the rest of the decade.

Di Tiro missed that conflict. He left Aceh as a young man and moved to New York. After graduating from Columbia, he went into business representing major American companies overseas and negotiating deals involving oil, cattle and shipping. By his own account, he became wealthy and lived in luxury.

Aceh’s independence movement had been dormant for 15 years when Di Tiro happened to pick up a book by Friedrich Nietzsche in a Fifth Avenue bookstore. Inspired by the philosopher’s writings, he decided it was time to fulfill his destiny.

On the day he turned 46, Di Tiro left his wife and son in New York and returned to his homeland. He slipped into Aceh, met up with loyal supporters, hid in the jungle and began building a rebel organization.

In his “unfinished diary,” which covers the 2 1/2 years he spent in Aceh, Di Tiro recounts his adventures living among the monkeys, fleeing from soldiers, avoiding snakes and spiders and listening to his favorite cassettes of Bach and Vivaldi.

When soldiers attacked his camp, he was grazed on the leg by a bullet. When supplies were cut off, he went for days without food. But much of the time, leading the revolution consisted of sitting in the jungle and pounding out nationalist propaganda on his typewriter.

“We have not been born to be anybody’s slaves,” he wrote. “We want to live as free men or not to live at all.”

The man who would be sultan revealed he has no small ego. He compared his return to Aceh with Caesar crossing the Rubicon and likened himself to Prometheus, the Greek god who gave fire to humans and was punished for eternity. The title he values most, he said, is Wali Negara -- Guardian of the State.

By 1979, Di Tiro had organized a nationalist movement, created a shadow government and appointed rebel governors for much of the province. But he was slow to get guns, and his rebellion lacked international support. He left Aceh to find both.

Di Tiro moved to Sweden, which offered asylum to a small group of Acehnese refugees, and became a Swedish citizen in 1985.

The decision to accept help from Libya did not win the movement any foreign friends. But by 1989, the success of the newly trained rebel army prompted President Suharto, Indonesia’s military ruler, to mount a ruthless campaign that lasted until he stepped down nearly a decade later.

After Suharto’s fall, many Acehnese hoped Indonesia would collapse and the province would gain independence, but the government insists it will not allow the country to break up.

Support for the rebels is strongest in Aceh’s countryside, where some families have passed down a tradition of resistance from generation to generation.

“The people of Aceh want Hasan di Tiro to be the leader of Aceh,” a man in one village said. “We know him from the history.” Di Tiro’s followers are not concerned that he lives in prosperous Sweden. “He is the leader of Aceh,” said a man in another village. “He is the hero of Aceh.”

Mahmud says the rebels are prepared to fight indefinitely, but if a fair election was held on the question of independence, the Free Aceh Movement would end the war whatever the outcome.

Like many Acehnese, Mahmud says he is following his family’s destiny. “My great-grandfather was close to the sultan,” he says. “We have always preserved that reputation, that honor.”

Today Mahmud guides the liberation movement, taking a steady barrage of telephone calls from journalists and an occasional message from a commander in the field. In between, he helps the Tengku finish his thoughts. “We miss Aceh. We miss our people. We wish to be together with them,” he says as Di Tiro nods in agreement.

“Our heart is with our people.” The Guardian of the State nods again.


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