BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- It has become a hauntingly familiar drama in Indonesia: families huddling on a wind-swept pier or in a crowded bus station, fleeing a home that has become too dangerous as old grievances give rise to explosive separatist passions.
Last time it was East Timor, which voted for independence from Indonesia in August only to be plunged into bloodshed that an Australian-led international military force was sent in to quell.
Now it is Aceh (pronounced ah-CHAY), a lush, devoutly Islamic province that lies on the extreme western edge of the Indonesian archipelago. Its people would like nothing more than to break away from the central government in Jakarta.
Their hopes stoked by the secession of East Timor and by remarks by Indonesia's new president that Aceh, too, should be given the chance to decide its future, a half-million people rallied recently in front of the luminous white mosque in this provincial capital to demand a referendum on independence.
For Indonesia, Aceh is a crisis that, even more than East Timor, could determine whether the central government can hold this diverse and far-flung nation together. Unlike East Timor's, Aceh's status as an Indonesian possession has never been challenged by foreign governments.
"This could lead to the disintegration of Indonesia," said Eugene K. Galbraith, an expert on Indonesia and the former head of Asian research at ABN Amro Bank. "There are several other restive provinces, from Sulawesi to Irian Jaya, which would take their cue from Aceh."
Senior military leaders began calling last week for martial law to be declared in parts of Aceh, where they claim that rising separatist activity is leading to violence and civil unrest. Thousands of non-Acehnese are fleeing the province, fearful that they could become targets of groups that want to purge outsiders.
They huddled under a merciless morning sun here, their belongings packed into boxes that form lonely encampments across a sprawling pier. The families grabbed food, clothing and television sets. A faded teddy bear was lashed to one of the boxes with an electric cord. The ferry did not leave for five hours, but these people were desperate to get out.
"We want to escape what's going to happen here," said Yetti Samsul, 45, who has lived in the province for nine years but is fleeing to the Sumatran city of Medan. "No one can guarantee our safety. There is a feeling of fear in the air."
While Aceh is only one of several centrifugal forces tugging at Indonesia, experts believe its secession would be particularly corrosive to Indonesian national unity.
In contrast to East Timor, which was a Portuguese colony that Jakarta invaded and subjugated in 1975, Aceh played a vigorous role in the establishment of the Indonesian republic in 1945. Its soldiers are renowned for their bravery in the struggle against the Dutch colonists.
A Muslim sultanate since the 16th century, Aceh has a long history of rebellion. The Acehnese consider themselves culturally and to some extent ethnically different from other Indonesians. In the years after World War II they began to resist control from Jakarta, and in 1961, Aceh was designated a special territory with autonomy in religion, culture and education.
Aceh's loyalty was frayed during decades of shabby treatment by the government. The province has some of Indonesia's richest natural resources, including vast oil and natural-gas fields, which people here say Jakarta has plundered. The Indonesian military moved into Aceh in 1989 to quell the growing unrest over economic issues. Human rights groups say the troops have committed abuses, ranging from intimidation and abduction to rape and killing.