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Wahid visit spurs protest

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Musanna Tengku Abdul Wahab and his friend Musrial Muhammad have not been home for seven years.

And they may never go home.For the past six months, Salt Lake City has been their home and will be for the foreseeable future.

But the two political refugees from Aceh province, a former Dutch colony of 4 million on the northern part of the island of Sumatra, will not give up hope that they can one day return to their homeland.

The two men and most of the 25 or so Acehnese refugees who now live here were joined by a handful of their Utah friends and neighbors Sunday in a rally for peace and self-determination for Indonesia's minorities.

"We hope we can go home to our country, but every day they kill our people so we cannot go home," said Abdul Wahab, 31. "We need freedom."

The visit this weekend of new Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid to the University of Utah Medical Center sparked the impromptu gathering Sunday outside the hospital's Moran Eye Center.

The 59-year-old Wahid, elected in October, was seen by specialists for growing eye problems associated with glaucoma.

Wahid and his entourage of advisers and security personnel left the state Sunday, flying a private 747 jet out of Salt Lake City International Airport.

Those who gathered Sunday said they don't have a complaint with Wahid. It is too soon to know what he will do with regard to several Indonesian provinces seeking independence, they said.

Wahid has supported a referendum on independence for Aceh, but others in the Indonesian government have opposed it.

Abdul Wahab and Muhammad, 38, said their fathers, grandfathers and other family members were killed by the Indonesian military. Most were among 39,000 Acehnese killed by the Indonesian military between 1989-92, they said.

Abdul Wahab, Muhammad and the others who now live in Salt Lake City fled to Malaysia and spent about six years in prison camps there before escaping and earning political refugee status in the United States.

They spent about a year in Houston before coming to Salt Lake City, in part because the former leader of the Aceh province, Hasan M. di Tiro, earned a degree at the University of Utah in the 1950s and spoke highly of Salt Lake City. He has since been exiled to Sweden.

Several Utahns who work with or have befriended the Acehnese and have become aware of the political struggles there turned out to support them Sunday. About 3 dozen people gathered and held signs calling for the Indonesian government to recognize requests for independence by several states, including East Timor, Aceh and the West Papuans of Irian Jaya.

Judy Lord, a Salt Lake County librarian, said she has kept up with events in Indonesia through National Public Radio and suspects nearly 80,000 people who opposed the military government may now be "at the bottom of the sea."

"I know I can't help those people at the bottom of the sea, but I hope I can help the people who are not," she said.

Scott Cowley of Murray said he came out to protest the U.S. military assistance given to Indonesia. "I think we can, through our elected representatives, demand that the U.S. military assistance be dropped," he said.

Jonathan Hurd, a business student at the university, said the Acehnese are shut out of good jobs and are unable to take advantage of their homeland's rich natural resources. That is controlled by the Indonesian central government and its military, he said.

But martial law in Aceh was lifted in August and there are signs that things may be improving for the Acehnese.

"The changes that have happened in Indonesia the last two or three years have really been immense," Hurd said. "It does seem to be on the path toward a democratic government."

Sunday's rally was organized by the newly created Committee for Democratic Rights in Indonesia.