Political history of Aceh

At first glance, the reasons behind the Acehnese struggle for independence and their assertion of refugee status are not self-evident. Aceh is, after all, overwhelmingly Muslim, like the rest of Indonesia, and the Acehnese make no claim to a distinct ethnicity or, necessarily, political ideology. A brief exploration of Aceh's history, however, explains the mix of factors that led Aceh into a "war of national liberation" and turned thousands of its people into exiles.

According to some historians, Islam first entered the Indonesian archipelago, and possibly all of Southeast Asia, through Aceh sometime around the year 700. The first Islamic kingdom, Perlak (a prosperous trading port in what is now Aceh), was established in the year 804. Much later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the port of Aceh became entangled, along with the rest of what is now Indonesia, in the European colonial powers' competition for worldwide political and economic dominance Interested parties included the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and British.

Paul Wolfowitz, Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, says that for many centuries Aceh was a very distinct and influential political entity. "The Sultan of Aceh," he says, "along with the Sultan of Malacca, was a major controller of trade through the straits."

The profitable spice trade led the Dutch to establish the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602. The 1641 death of Aceh's Sultan-Sultan Iskandar Thani-began Aceh's decline and sparked Dutch and British efforts to dominate the region. In nationalizing the VOC in 1799, the Dutch government began to assert firm control over various Indonesian territories, ushering in the region's Dutch colonial era.

One of the most significant events in Aceh's history came in 1824 with the signing of the London Treaty (also referred to as the Anglo-Dutch treaty). Through this instrument, the Dutch gained control of all British possessions on the island of Sumatra (including Aceh, at the island's northern tip). In exchange, the Dutch surrendered their possessions in India and withdrew all claims in Singapore. In the same treaty, however, the Dutch agreed to allow independence for Aceh. Nevertheless, in 1871, the British authorized the Dutch to invade Aceh, possibly to prevent French annexation. As one writer explains it,

The situation was rather confused, with the Netherlands asserting a general sphere of influence over the entire archipelago yet formally acknowledging the independence of 'native states in amity with the Netherlands government' .... From the mid-19th century, and especially after 1870, the colonial state began to fill out the territorial boundaries of modern Indonesia by conquering or incorporating these independent states.

Thus, in 1873 the Netherlands issued a formal declaration of war and invaded Aceh. They found gaining control of the territory more difficult than expected. The Acehnese resisted occupation, touching off the Aceh War, which lasted intermittently from 1873 to 1942. The war was the longest ever fought by the Dutch, costing them more than 10,000 lives.

Although sources differ as to when the war actually ended (some say 1903), it appears that guerrilla activity continued until at least 1914 and that the Dutch did not abandon their occupation of Aceh until 1942, shortly before the Japanese invaded Indonesia. After their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese turned south to conquer several Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore. The colonial army in the Dutch East Indies surrendered in March 1942. In August 1945, just days after the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, the Republic of Indonesia proclaimed its independence. Soon, however, both the British and Dutch were back in the region, for various political and economic reasons.

The next major development was the Linggarjati Agreement, mediated by Great Britain and signed by Indonesia and the Netherlands in March 1947. In the agreement, the Dutch recognized Indonesian sovereignty over the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Madura. But, many Indonesians viewed the deal as "a violation of Indonesia's independence proclamation of August 1945, which implied sovereignty over the whole territory of the Republic." The agreement sparked more guerrilla fighting and led to another four years of violence and territorial disputes between the Netherlands and Indonesia.

Perhaps the most critical event in explaining the attitude of many Acehnese is the signing of the 1949 Round Table Conference Agreements. Brokered under the auspices of the United Nations, the agreements provided for a transfer of sovereignty between the territory of the Dutch East Indies and a fully independent Indonesia. On December 27, 1949, the Dutch East Indies ceased to exist and became the sovereign Federal Republic of Indonesia, which in 1950 once again became the Republic of Indonesia when it joined the United Nations. The Kingdom of Aceh was included in the agreements despite not having been formally incorporated into the Dutch colonial possession. Subsequently, the Java-based Indonesian government used armed troops to annex Aceh. Since annexation, the Acehnese have continued to resent what they consider foreign occupation.

Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh)

The precursor to Aceh's independence movement began in the 1950s when Indonesia experienced the Darul Islam ("House of Islam") rebellion, in which rebels on the major Indonesian island of Java tried to establish an Islamic state. The Acehnese lent support to this rebellion, which took years to crush.

In 1959, the government responded by giving Aceh the status of "special territory," which ostensibly confers an unusually high degree of autonomy in religious, educational, and cultural matters.

Although many Acehnese say the status is virtually meaningless, other observers say it led to greater prosperity and helped "bring Aceh into the Indonesian mainstream."

Despite some economic improvements and acceptance by some Acehnese of the Indonesian government, the desire for an independent Islamic state did not die. In 1976, Aceh Merdeka ("Free Aceh") was founded as an armed resistance group. The movement is headed by Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, who has been in exile in Sweden since 1980. The Indonesian military refers to this group as the Gerombolan Pengacau Keamananan (GPK), which means "gang of security disturbers."

In the late 1970s, Indonesian authorities conducted mass arrests of Aceh Merdeka members and shut down their activities until 1989. In that year, the group, now also calling itself the Aceh-Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF), came out of hibernation and vigorously renewed its quest for independence, often through attacks on police and military installations.

According to one writer who was in Aceh during the lead-up to the violence, the 1989 attacks began when a religious leader from Malaysia came to Aceh and "used several economic and social arguments to whip the young men into a state of eager anticipation at the prospect of a glorious holy war to liberate Aceh." The leader told the young men, many of them students, that Jakarta was siphoning off Aceh's natural resources without putting money back into the region.

Many Acehnese say they are disadvantaged by Indonesia's major industrial development projects in Aceh, which provide employment opportunities for outsiders, especially from Java.20 If Aceh were independent, the reasoning goes, its people could reap the economic benefit of its own resources. Aceh is rich in natural liquid gas and petroleum, providing 15 percent of Indonesia's exports. However, critics state that Jakarta "plunders the westernmost territory's wealth and leaves it impoverished." Acehnese in Malaysia told USCR, "Aceh's resources are taken by Jakarta, while the Acehnese live in poverty."

Another sore point for Acehnese is Indonesia's "transmigration" policy. Two-thirds of Indonesia's population of 180 million is concentrated on the fifth-largest island, Java. Transmigration, by which Jakarta helps residents of overcrowded Java to migrate to outlying islands in the Indonesian archipelago, partly addresses the issue of population density. According to Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, an Acehnese human rights lawyer currently living in New York:

In Aceh's industrial zones on the coast, and in the mountains of Aceh, the people are primarily Javanese transmigrants and workers. So the Acehnese have no access to the coast or to the mountains. We can't get to the fish and the rice, which are the basis for our existence. We're suffocating in the middle and are starving.

Another motivation for the Free Aceh movement is religion. Although Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country (87 percent of the 180 million inhabitants are Muslim), it is not an Islamic state. Many inhabitants mix their faith with Hindu, Buddhist, or other beliefs.23 The Acehnese, however, are devoutly Muslim and are considered to "take their religion, their manners, and their morals very seriously." According to a 1993 book on Indonesian history, "the more than 3.4 million Acehnese are most famous throughout the archipelago for their devotion to Islam and their militant resistance to colonial and republican rule....[Aceh is] the part of Indonesia where the Islamic character of the population is the most pronounced." Acehnese, however, take issue with being called "Muslim fundamentalists." According to Hamzah:

The rest of Indonesia is very secular. Acehnese are Islamic, but we are not fundamentalist. You can see the difference, for example, with fundamentalist Islamic countries like Iran and Sudan, which don't give a role to women. Women have a high place in Aceh.

Hamzah's wife is Jacqueline Siapno, a Filipino professor who wrote her doctoral thesis on "The Politics of Gender, Islam, and Nation-State in Aceh, Indonesia." According to Siapno:

Islam in Aceh is fundamentally different from and even antagonistic to the way Islam is practiced in most of Indonesia. In [Indonesian] Islam, there's a complete disregard for economic or social justice, which is really the foundation of Islam.

The Acehnese also view themselves as culturally different from other Indonesians, a view supported by former Ambassador Wolfowitz. As he explains:

The Acehnese language, unlike most other languages of Indonesia, is not a Malay language and is very different from the other languages in the region. And Acehnese culture is very distinctive-they have oral traditions, poems, and a unique tradition of dance.

Wolfowitz adds that the Acehnese are highland people and "they're clan-structured, like the Scots." Despite these sources of tension between Acehnese and the Indonesian government, not all Acehnese supported the resurgence of the Aceh Merdeka movement in the late 1980s. Many, however, felt compelled to appear in public as if they did.

In early 1990, responding to attacks by Aceh Merdeka, Indonesian security forces launched a counter-insurgency campaign code-named Red Net. The operation led to the deaths and disappearances of many civilians. Although some Acehnese felt the response was warranted, many believed the tactics went too far. The army would indiscriminately round up and detain local civilians after an incident attributed to Aceh Merdeka, and families of Aceh Merdeka supporters were often arrested without legal recourse. As one Acehnese described it:

The Indonesian military would come and accuse villagers of being involved in the liberation struggle, directly or indirectly, or of being sympathizers. Sometimes they burned the villages....The army took the men for interrogation and maybe put them in prison, and sometimes the women were raped and killed in front of the other villagers.

In 1991, Indonesia designated Aceh a military operations area, giving the army "a free rein to crush the separatists." Amnesty International reported that between 1989 and 1992 about 2,000 people were killed in military operations in Aceh. Independent Indonesian investigators have estimated that the number of people who were killed, missing, or physially abused between 1989 and 1998 runs into the thousands, with more than 1,000 still in military detention.

The human rights group FORUM, which oversees 78 nongovernmental organizations in Aceh, says it has compiled 668 reports of atrocities in Aceh during the height of the military operation. Many witnesses said they were kidnap victims who were forced to bury people whom the military had shot or tortured to death.

Indonesia's Fragile Unity

The final keys to understanding Aceh's fierce drive for independence are the larger culture and politics of Indonesia. The world's fifth most populous nation, Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands, of which 3,000 are inhabited. With 360 tribal and ethno-linguistic groups and more than 250 different languages and dialects in Indonesia, the country is far from homogenous. As noted, even the predominant Muslim religion is infused with other beliefs and is characterized by regional variations. Thirteen percent of Indonesians practice a different religion altogether.

Partly because of its size and disunity, Indonesia experienced great political turmoil following independence, including seven governments in eight years (1949 to 1957), the imposition of martial law in March 1957, attempted communist takeovers, and finally the military coup of 1965 that brought Suharto to power. Since then, rebellion has been sporadic and, until recently, unsuccessful. In May 1998, after ruling the country for more than 30 years, President Suharto was forced to step aside. The new president, B.J. Habibie, was a close Suharto associate.

Throughout all of this, Indonesia has promoted the goal of "unifying" the nation's various ethnic and religious groups, a goal not shared by all citizens. For this reason, the Acehnese, among others, view many government policies with suspicion. They see the transmigration policy, for example, as not only as an economic strategy but an attempt to "dissolve local cultures into the predominant Javanese culture." The government, in turn, considers the Acehnese separatist movement unacceptable. This movement, however, is far from the most serious threat to national unity. Since its 1975 annexation of East Timor, an action not recognized by the United Nations, the Indonesian government has experienced ongoing rebellion and international condemnation. In addition, a secessionist movement in the province of Irian Jaya, which shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea, has created thousands of refugees since the 1980s. (For a detailed background on this conflict, see USCR's 1985 report, "Refugees from Irian Jaya in Papua New Guinea.")

Complicating matters is the economic crisis engulfing many Asian countries in 1998. Indonesia has been particularly hard hit, resulting in unrest that is hard to distinguish from purely political dissatisfaction. The well-publicized riots that led to Suharto's downfall and sparked Habibie's promises of reform resulted from a mix of factors.

Given Indonesia's current problems and Aceh's complex history, the Aceh Merdeka movement can be seen as part political, part religious, and part economic. One Acehnese referred to it as "a struggle for independence against Javanese Indonesian neo-colonialist rule." Perhaps to make it more acceptable, the movement is now promoting the liberation of the entire island of Sumatra: "We want one independent country-'Aceh Sumatra'-which will be a confederation with rights for all ethnic groups."