Aceh; Atjeh (Dutch); or Acheh is a special region of Indonesia. The province is located at the northern end of Sumatra. Its capital is Banda Aceh and its population is approximately 5,046,000. It is close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India and separated from them by the Andaman Sea.
Aceh is thought to have been the place where the spread of Islam in Indonesia started, and was a key part of the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia. In the early seventeenth century the Sultanate of Aceh was the most wealthy, powerful and cultivated state in the Malacca Straits region. Aceh has a history of political independence and resistance to control by outsiders, including the former Dutch colonists and the Indonesian government.
Aceh has substantial natural resources, including oil and natural gas—some estimates put Aceh gas reserves as being the largest in the world. Relative to most of Indonesia, it is a religiously conservative area. It has the highest proportion of Muslims in Indonesia, mainly living according to Sharia customs and laws.
Aceh was the closest point of land to the epicenter of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which devastated much of the western coast of the province. Approximately 170,000 Indonesians were killed or went missing in the disaster. The disaster helped reach the peace agreement between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
Aceh was first known as Aceh Darussalam (1511–1959) and then later as the Daerah Istimewa Aceh (1959–2001), Nanggroë Aceh Darussalam (2001–2009) and Aceh (2009–present). Past spellings of Aceh include Acheh, Atjeh and Achin.
The first evidence of human habitation in Aceh is from a site near the Tamiang River where shell middens are present. Stone tools and faunal remains were also found on the site. Archeologists believe the site was first occupied around 10,000 BC.
Not much is known about the pre-Islamic history of Aceh, but is known to have historically had kingdoms of Hinduism and Buddhism, such as the Kingdom of Indra Purba, Indra purwa kingdom, the kingdom of Indra Patra, and the Kingdom Indrapura (Indrapuri).
The beginnings of Islam in Southeast Asia
Evidence concerning the initial coming and subsequent establishment of Islam in Southeast Asia is thin and inconclusive. The historian Anthony Reid has argued that the region of the Cham people on the south-central coast of Vietnam was one of the earliest Islamic centers in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, as the Cham people fled the Vietnamese, one of the earliest locations that they established a relationship with was Aceh. Furthermore, it is thought that one of the earliest centers of Islam was in the Aceh region. When Venetian traveller Marco Polo passed by Sumatra on his way home from China in 1292 he found that Perlak was a Muslim town while nearby 'Basma(n)' and 'Samara' were not. 'Basma(n)' and 'Samara' are often said to be Pasai and Samudra but evidence is inconclusive. The gravestone of Sultan Malik as-Salih, the first Muslim ruler of Samudra, has been found and is dated AH 696 (AD 1297). This is the earliest clear evidence of a Muslim dynasty in the Indonesia-Malay area and more gravestones from the thirteenth century show that this region continued under Muslim rule. Ibn Batutah, a Moroccan traveller, passing through on his way to China in 1345 and 1346, found that the ruler of Samudra was a follower of the Shafi'i school of Islam.
The Portuguese apothecary Tome Pires reported in his early sixteenth century book Suma Oriental that most of the kings of Sumatra from Aceh through to Palembang were Muslim. At Pasai, in what is now the North Aceh Regency, there was a thriving international port. Pires attributed the establishment of Islam in Pasai to the 'cunning' of the Muslim merchants. The ruler of Pasai, however, had not been able to convert the people of the interior.
Sultanate of Aceh
The Sultanate of Aceh was established by Sultan Ali Mughayatsyah in 1511. Then, During its golden era) in the 15th century, its and political influence expanded as far as Satun in southern Thailand, Johor in Malay Peninsula, and Siak in what is today the province of Riau. As was the case with most non-Javan pre-colonial states, Acehnese power expanded outward by sea rather than inland. As it expanded down the Sumatran coast, its main competitors were Johor and Portuguese Malacca on the other side of the Straits of Malacca. It was this seaborne trade focus that saw Aceh rely on rice imports from north Java rather than develop self sufficiency in rice production.
After the Portuguese occupation of Malacca in 1511, many Islamic traders passing the Malacca Straits shifted their trade to Banda Aceh and increased Acehnese rulers' wealth. During the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda in 17th century, Aceh's influence extended to most of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Aceh allied itself with the Ottoman Empire and the Dutch East India Company in their struggle against the Portuguese and the Johor Sultanate. Acehnese military power waned gradually thereafter, and Aceh ceded its territory of Pariaman in Sumatra to the Dutch in 18th century.
By the early nineteenth century, however, Aceh had become an increasingly influential power due to its strategic location for controlling regional trade. In the 1820s it was the producer of over half the world's supply of black pepper. The pepper trade produced new wealth for the Sultanate and for the rulers of many smaller nearby ports that had been under Aceh's control, but were now able to assert more independence. These changes initially threatened Aceh's integrity, but a new sultan Tuanku Ibrahim, who controlled the kingdom from 1838 to 1870, reasserted power over nearby ports.
Under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 the British ceded their colonial possessions on Sumatra to the Dutch. In the treaty, the British described Aceh as one of their possessions, although they had no actual control over the Sultanate. Initially, under the agreement the Dutch agreed to respect Aceh's independence. In 1871, however, the British dropped previous opposition to a Dutch invasion of Aceh, possibly to prevent France or the United States from gaining a foothold in the region. Although neither the Dutch nor the British knew the specifics, there had been rumors since the 1850s that Aceh had been in communication with rulers of France and of the Ottoman Empire.
Pirates operating out of Aceh threatened commerce in the Strait of Malacca; the sultan was unable to control them. Britain was a protector of Aceh and gave the Netherlands permission to eradicate the pirates. The campaign quickly drove out the sultan but the local leaders mobilized and fought the Dutch in four decades of guerrilla war, with high levels of atrocities. The Dutch colonial government declared war on Aceh on 26 March 1873. Aceh sought American help but was rejected by Washington.
The Dutch tried one strategy after another over the course of four decades. An expedition under Major General Johan Harmen Rudolf Köhler in 1873 occupied most of the coastal areas. It was his strategy to attack and take the Sultan's palace. It failed. They then tried a naval blockade, reconciliation, concentration within a line of forts, then passive containment. They had scant success. Reaching 15 to 20 million guilders a year, the heavy spending for failed strategies nearly bankrupted the colonial government.
The Aceh army was rapidly modernized, and Aceh soldiers managed to kill Köhler (a monument to this achievement has been built inside Grand Mosque of Banda Aceh). Köhler made some grave tactical errors and the reputation of the Dutch was severely harmed. In addition, in recent years in line with expanding international attention to human rights issues and atrocities in war zones, there has been increasing discussion about some of the recorded acts of cruelty and slaughter committed by Dutch troops during the period of warfare in Aceh.
Hasan Mustafa (1852–1930) was a chief 'penghulu,' or judge, for the colonial government and was stationed in Aceh. He had to balance traditional Muslim justice with Dutch law. To stop the Aceh rebellion, Hasan Mustafa issued a fatwa, telling the Muslims there in 1894, "It is Incumbent upon the Indonesian Muslims to be loyal to the Dutch East Indies Government".
During World War II, Japanese troops occupied Aceh. Religious ulama party gained ascendancy to replace district warlords (uleebalang) party formerly collaborating with the Dutch. Concrete bunkers still line the northern-most beaches.
After World War II, civil war erupted in 1945 between district warlords party, supporting the return of Dutch government and religious ulama party, supporting newly proclaimed Indonesia State. The latter party won, and the area remained free during Indonesian War of Independence. The Dutch military itself never attempted to invade Aceh. The civil war put the religious ulama party leader, Daud Bereueh, as military governor of Aceh.
The Acehnese revolted soon after its inclusion into an independent Indonesia, a situation created by a complex mix of what the Acehnese fairly regarded as transgressions against and betrayals of their rights.
1 - Soekarno the first president of Indonesia had reneged on his promise made on 16 June 1948 that Aceh would be allowed to rule itself in accordance with its religious values which had been in place for centuries.
2 - Aceh was politically dismantled and incorporated into the province of North Sumatra in 1950. This resulted in the Acehnese Rebellion of 1953-59 which was led by Daud Bereueh who on 20 September 1953 declared a free independent Aceh under the leadership of Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosoewirjo.
3 - In 1959, the Indonesian government attempted to placate the Acehnese by offering wide-ranging freedom in matters relating to religion, education and culture
Free Aceh Movement
During the 1970s, under agreement with Indonesian central government, American oil and gas companies began exploitation of Aceh natural resources. Alleged unequal distribution of profit between central government and native people of Aceh induced Hasan di Tiro, former ambassador of Darul Islam, to call for Independent Aceh. He proclaimed Aceh Independence in 1976.
The movement had a small number of followers initially, and Hasan di Tiro himself had to live in exile in Sweden. Meanwhile, the province followed Suharto's policy of economic development and industrialization. During late 80s several security incidents prompted the Indonesian central government to take repressive measures and to send troops to Aceh. Human rights abuse was rampant for the next decade, resulting in many grievances on the part of the Acehnese toward the Indonesian central government. In 1990, the Indonesian government initiated a military operations against GAM by deploying more than 12.000 Indonesian army in the region.
During late 90s, chaos in Java and an ineffective central government gave an advantage to Free Aceh Movement and resulted in the second phase of the rebellion, this time with large support from the Acehnese people. This support was demonstrated during the 1999 plebiscite in Banda Aceh which was attended by nearly half million people (of four million population of the province). Indonesian central government responded in 2001 by broadening Aceh's autonomy by giving its government the right to apply sharia law more broadly and the right to receive direct foreign investment. This was again accompanied by repressive measures, however and in 2003 an offensive began and a state of emergency was proclaimed in the Province. The war was still going on when the Tsunami Disaster of 2004 struck the province.
Exxon Mobil human rights abuse lawsuit
On June 21, 2001 11 villagers from an Acehnese village in the North Aceh Regency used the Alien Tort Claims Act to sue Exxon Mobil in United States federal court for human rights abuses at the Arun natural gas field. The villagers claim they were tortured, raped, or murdered by soldiers from the Indonesian military. They claimed that Exxon Mobil created barracks to be used for torture of detainees and gave the Indonesian military unit which guarded the Exxon-Mobil natural gas field heavy equipment to cover mass burials after a clash with separatists. Exxon Mobil reportedly shut down the site because of escalating violence. The villagers need to reveal their identities in order to receive Indonesian government protection, but are reluctant to do so for fear of reprisals from the Indonesian military.
The western coastal areas of Aceh, including the cities of Banda Aceh, Calang, and Meulaboh, were among the areas hardest-hit by the tsunami resulting from the Indian Ocean earthquake on 26 December 2004. While estimates vary, over 170,000 people were killed by tsunami in Aceh and about 500,000 were left homeless. The tragedy of the tsunami was further compounded several months later on 26 March 2005 when a second off-shore earthquake measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale struck the sea bed between the islands of Simeulue Island in Aceh and Nias in North Sumatra. This second quake killed a further 905 people on Nias and Simeulue, displaced tens of thousands more, and caused the tsunami response to be expanded to include Nias.
The population of Aceh before the December 2004 tsunami was 4,271,000 (2004). The population as of 15 September 2005 was 4,031,589.
As of February 2006, more than a year after the tsunami, a large number of people were still living in barrack-style temporary living centers (TLC) or tents. Reconstruction was visible everywhere, but due to the sheer scale of the disaster, and logistical issues, progress was slow.
The ramifications of the tsunami went beyond the immediate impact to the lives and infrastructure of the Acehnese living on the coast. Since the disaster, the Acehnese rebel movement GAM, which had been fighting for independence against the Indonesian authorities for 29 years, has signed a peace deal (August 15, 2005). The perception that the tsunami was punishment for insufficient piety in this proudly Muslim province is partly behind the increased emphasis on the importance of religion post-tsunami. This has been most obvious in the increased implementation of Sharia law, including the introduction of the controversial 'WH' or Syariah police. As homes are being built and people's basic needs are met, the people are also looking to improve the quality of education, increase tourism, and develop responsible, sustainable industry. Well-qualified educators are in high demand in Aceh.
While parts of the capital Banda Aceh were unscathed, the areas closest to the water, especially the areas of Kampung Jawa and Meuraxa, were completely destroyed. Most of the rest of the western coast of Aceh was severely damaged. Many towns completely disappeared. Other towns on Aceh's west coast hit by the disaster included Lhoknga, Leupung, Lamno, Patek, Calang, Teunom, and the island of Simeulue. Affected or destroyed towns on the region's north & east coast were Pidie Regency, Samalanga, and Lhokseumawe.
The area was slowly rebuilt after the disaster. The government initially proposed the creation of a two-kilometer buffer zone along low-lying coastal areas within which permanent construction was not permitted. This proposal was unpopular among some local inhabitants and proved impractical in most situations, especially fishing families that are dependent on living near to the sea.
The Indonesian government set up a special agency for Aceh reconstruction, the Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR) headed by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a former Indonesian Minister. This agency had ministry level of authority and incorporated officials, professionals and community leaders from all backgrounds. Most of the reconstruction work was performed by local people using a mix of traditional methods and partial prefabricated structures, with funding coming from many international organizations and individuals, governments, and the people themselves.
The Government of Indonesia estimated in their Preliminary Damage and Losses Assessment that damages amounted to US$4.5 billion (before inflation, and US$6.2 billion including inflation). Three years after the tsunami, reconstruction was still ongoing. The World Bank monitored funding for reconstruction in Aceh and reported that US$7.7 billion had been earmarked for the reconstruction whilst at June 2007 US$5.8 billion had been allocated to specific reconstruction projects, of which US$3.4 billion had actually been spent (58%).
In 2009, the government opened a US$5.6 million museum to commemorate the tsunami with photographs, stories, and a simulation of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami.
On April 11, 2012. a Magnitude 8.7 earthquake struck in the Aceh, and tsunami warnings were issued to 28 countries.
The peace agreement and first local elections
The 2004 tsunami helped trigger a peace agreement between the GAM and the Indonesian government. The tsunami drew international attention to the conflict, wiped out many supplies, and killed many personnel from both sides. Earlier efforts at peace negotiations had failed but, for a number of reasons including the tsunami, there was a renewed willingness to try to negotiate a peace accord in 2005 after 29 years of war. The mood in post-Suharto Indonesia in the liberal-democratic reform period, as well as changes in the Indonesian military, helped create an environment more favorable to peace talks. The roles of newly elected president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and vice president Jusuf Kalla were highly significant. At the same time, the GAM leadership was undergoing changes, and the Indonesian military had arguably inflicted so much damage on the rebel movement that it had little choice but to negotiate with the central government. The peace talks were facilitated by a Finland-based NGO, the Crisis Management Initiative, and led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. The resulting peace agreement, generally known as the Helsinki MOU, was signed on August 15, 2005. Under the agreement Aceh would receive special autonomy and government troops would be withdrawn from the province in exchange for GAM's disarmament. As part of the agreement, the European Union dispatched 300 monitors. Their mission expired on December 15, 2006, following local elections.
Aceh has been granted broader autonomy through Aceh Government Legislation covering special rights agreed upon in 2002 as well as the right of the Acehnese to establish local political parties to represent their interests. Human rights advocates protested that previous human rights violations in the province needed to be addressed, however.
During elections for the provincial governor held in December 2006, the former GAM and national parties participated. The election was won by Irwandi Yusuf, whose base of support consisted largely of ex-GAM members.