Vol. 7, No. 1
A Brief History of Aceh
by Ben Terrall (with thanks to Sylvia Tiwon for valuable feedback and research assistance)
In the wake of East Timor's August 1999 referendum, hundreds of thousands have marched in support of a similar act of self-determination in the Indonesian region of Aceh, a region which also has endured decades of brutal military operations. Aceh is a province in Northern Sumatra, which, like most of Indonesia, is overwhelmingly Muslim. It has a population of around five million, and a long tradition of resistance to outside powers.
Islam likely first entered the Indonesian archipelago through Aceh sometime around the 12th century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the port of Aceh became entangled, along with the rest of what now comprises Indonesia, in the European colonial powers' competition for worldwide political and economic dominance.
The British and Dutch were in competition for spices produced in Eastern Indonesia, for which Aceh was an international trading center. In an attempt to undermine Aceh's hold on the international spice trade, the British and Dutch carried their business (and rivalry) to West Java. After many parliamentary debates on the wisdom of attacking a sovereign state, in 1873 the Netherlands issued a formal declaration of war and invaded Aceh. One of their primary rationalizations for this aggression was to counter what they perceived as Acehnese piracy, especially attacks on trading ships. The Acehnese resisted occupation and fought a war of resistance which lasted intermittently from 1873 to 1942. The conflict was the longest the Dutch ever fought, costing them more than 10,000 lives.
In March 1942 Japan conquered the colonial forces in the Dutch East Indies. 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, though the Dutch did not return to Aceh.
Under the Linggarjati Agreement, mediated by Great Britain and signed by Indonesia and the Netherlands in March 1947, the Dutch recognized Indonesian sovereignty over the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Madura. 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 guerrilla fighting and led to another four years of violence and territorial disputes between the Netherlands and Indonesia.
Many Acehnese see the 1949 Round Table Conference Agreements as the first serious betrayal of their homeland. Brokered through 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 turn became the Republic of Indonesia when it joined the United Nations in 1950. The Kingdom of Aceh was included in the agreements despite not having been formally incorporated into the Dutch colonial possession. The Indonesian government then used armed troops to annex Aceh.
Although Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country, it is not an Islamic state. Most Acehnese have a less secular vision of Islam than Indonesians elsewhere in the archipelago, but compared to Iran, Afghanistan, and other more fundamentalist countries, Acehnese Islam tends to be relatively respectful of the rights of women. Its focus on community also stresses the importance of social and economic justice to an extent that runs contrary to Indonesian military hegemony.
The precursor to Aceh's independence movement began in the 1950s when the Darul Islam ("House of Islam") 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, Jakarta gave Aceh "special territory" status, which ostensibly conferred autonomy in religious, educational, and cultural matters. In practice this policy ignored the two major complaints of the region's indigenous population: Javanese and foreign control of natural resources and a repressive military presence.
Resentment over those cruel realities contributed to the 1976 creation of the armed resistance group Gerekan Aceh Merdeka (GAM-Free Aceh Movement), which the TNI refers to as Gerombolan Pengacau Keamananan (GPK), or "gang of security disturbers." In the late 1970s, Indonesian authorities conducted mass arrests of Aceh Merdeka members and killed many of its leaders. The movement's leader, Hasan di Tiro, fled to Sweden in 1979 and created a government in exile.
After GAM re-emerged with broad popular support in the late 1980s, Jakarta officially declared the province a Military Operational Area (Daerah Operasi Militer, or DOM) and launched a counter-insurgency campaign code-named Red Net. The regional commander at the time spelled out his military's basic policies by saying, "I have told the community, if you find a terrorist, kill him. There's no need to investigate him ... if they don't do as you order them, shoot them on the spot, or butcher them." Amnesty International reported that between 1989 and 1992 about 2,000 people were killed by military operations in Aceh.
After international capitalism's "Asian financial crisis" and Suharto's downfall, Acehnese had high hopes for a new era of demilitarization and true democracy. Unfortunately the military proved unwilling to do much beyond make cosmetic changes: announcing an end to DOM status for Aceh on August 7, 1998, then Armed Forces Chief Wiranto said "although human rights violations took place, the soldiers were only doing their job of annihilating the armed security disturbers," and General Feisal Tanjung told reporters that accusations of TNI abuses were merely folk-tales.
Since Suharto's rise to power in the 1960s Aceh has been one of the archipelago's most profitable areas for international investment. The province includes most of Indonesia's liquid natural gas; Mobil Oil Indonesia heads the country's largest liquefied natural gas production project in Arun, North Aceh. In its report "A Reign of Terror, Human Rights Violations in Aceh 1998-2000," the U.K.-based Indonesia Human Rights Campaign TAPOL notes that "the extent to which DOM in Aceh provided government officials and military personnel with limitless opportunities to profit financially from this economically fertile region cannot be underestimated." Such vested interests will not be easily swayed by the soothing rhetoric of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, who has repeatedly promised more than he can deliver to the Acehnese people. On December 18, Wahid visited Aceh and called on military commanders not to be "an enemy of the people," but resistance activist Amni Achmad Marzuki responded, "We have heard him say this many times. Where is the implementation of those words? His military makes no effort to obey his orders."
The TAPOL report also notes that "The response of the security forces to the withdrawal for DOM can be divided into four phases, which more or less coincide with the different security operations launched." These are "intimidation, overt massacres, war of attrition and the return to shock therapy, and targeting of civilian activists."
That last phase is unfortunately still ongoing. In one of the more disturbing recent examples, Munarman, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) accused three policemen of being responsible for the December 6 murders of three activists from Rehabilitation Action for Torture Victims in Aceh (RATA). The three humanitarian workers were killed while helping victims of military violence in North Aceh.
As in West Papua, where a massive crackdown on a liberation movement and many thousands of civilians is also underway, the TNI and police seem to have learned one essential lesson from last year's vote in East Timor: keep out the international observers. Few reporters or international human rights activists have been allowed access to either area, making the plight of those under siege even graver. Such conditions are yet another reason the emergence of the Indonesia Human Rights Network is timely and necessary; please see related story on page 4 and contact IHRN for more information.
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