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Unpopular outsiders.

Aceh is a region on the northwestern tip of the island of Sumatra and part of Indonesia. It covers an area the same size as Nova Scotia. Its people are almost all Muslim, just as the population of Indonesia is. The Acehnese make no claim to a distinct ethnicity or, necessarily, political ideology. Mostly, they speak Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of the country.

So, if the people of Aceh are part of the ethnic, linguistic, political, and religious majority of their region why have they been at war with others, off and on, for almost 150 years? As with most of these things, there's a lot of history.

The people of Aceh adopted Islam very early. The first Islamic kingdom, Perlak (a prosperous trading port in what is now Aceh), was established in the year 804. Much later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the port of Aceh became entangled, along with the rest of what is now Indonesia, with the European colonial powers. The Dutch and the British were the major players in the region. As was the habit among these colonial powers, decisions were made in Europe about who owned what in the far-flung regions of the world. It didn't occur to the Europeans that the mostly brown-skinned people affected by these decisions might have a different point of view.

One of the most significant events in Aceh's history came in 1824. By the signing of the London Treaty (also referred to as the Anglo-Dutch Treaty), the Dutch gained control of All British possessions on the island of Sumatra. In that treaty, the Dutch agreed to grant independence to Aceh. But, in 1873, the Dutch thought better of it and invaded Aceh.

The Acehnese didn't like being pushed around and they resisted occupation. This touched 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.

World War II (1939-45) muddled up a lot of things, including the status of Aceh. But, the signing of the 1949 Round Table Conference Agreements was supposed to clear up any confusion. Under this United Nations pact, the Dutch gave up their colonial control of Indonesia. The sovereign nation of the Republic of Indonesia was created and became a member of the UN in 1950.

The Kingdom of Aceh was included in the agreements that created Indonesia. This was done despite the fact that the region had never been formally incorporated into the Dutch colonial possession. Once again, the Acehnese objected to being pushed around. The Indonesian government sent soldiers to subdue the locals and an independence movement was born.

In the 1950s, Indonesia experienced the Darul Islam (House of Islam) rebellion. This was an attempt by rebels on the major Indonesian island of Java to establish an Islamic state. The Acehnese lent support to this rebellion, which took years to crush.

However, in 1959 Aceh won an agreement from the central government that resulted in a degree of autonomy as a "special region."

In the second half of the 20th century, Indonesia promoted industrial development in Aceh, and the economy of the region improved. But, the popular belief grew that too much of the income from Aceh's new industries flowed out of the region or to outsiders who had migrated to Aceh. One major complaint is that Aceh sees little benefit from oil and gas revenue that goes to the central government. In addition, the Acehnese felt Indonesians lacked respect for their local customs and devout Islamic beliefs.

Some people in the region were ready to accept Indonesian rule. After all, this gave them greater prosperity and control over religious, educational, and cultural matters. Others didn't want to submit to the domination of outsiders under any terms.

In 1976, this hardcore of separatists formed Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh). It was an armed resistance group that declared Aceh to be an independent country.

Aceh is rich in natural gas and oil, providing 15 percent of Indonesia's exports. However, critics state that the central government in Jakarta plunders Aceh's wealth and leaves it in poverty. Another sore point for the Acehnese is Indonesia's population relocation policy. Two-thirds of Indonesia's population of 180 million is concentrated on the fifth-largest island, Java. The government helps residents of overcrowded Java to migrate to outlying islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The Acehnese claim that migrants from Java are given the best locations in which to live.

After an initial burst of violence the Free Aceh movement calmed down. Then, in the late 1980s, it started attacking police posts. In early 1990, the Indonesian military responded by launching 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. Families of Aceh Merdeka supporters were often arrested and their legal rights suspended. 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."

Amnesty International reported that between 1989 and 1992 about 2,000 people were killed in military operations in Aceh. The human rights group FORUM 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.

When a new government came to power in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, hopes were raised that the violence could be brought to an end. And, indeed, a peace agreement was reached in December 2002. Aceh was offered autonomy and free elections in 2004 in exchange for the rebels disarming. But, within six months, the deal collapsed; the rebels refused to give up their weapons, and the Indonesian military failed to withdraw to defensive positions. In the failed autonomy package, the future provincial government would have been allowed to keep 70 percent of oil and gas profits.

Indonesia then declared martial law and Munched an all-out military offensive. The Free Aceh movement has vowed to continue its fight for full independence. It now says its goal is the complete independence of the entire island of Sumatra. At least 10,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in the decades-long conflict.

John Sidel is a lecturer in South East Asian studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England. In 2003, he told the British Broadcasting Corporation that, "The people of Aceh are very frightened, and they have every reason to be."


Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands, of which 3,000 are inhabited; there are 360 tribal and ethnolinguistic groups, and more than 250 different languages and dialects.


The Indonesian military refers to the Free Aceh group as the Gerombolan Pengacau Keamananan, which means, "The gang of security disturbers."


Indonesia is also having to deal with separatism and other forms of unrest in Kalimantan (Borneo), Sulawesi, the Moluccan Islands, and Irian Jays (New Guinea).


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Title Annotation:Stateless Peoples--Aceh
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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