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The mountainous province of Aceh consists of the entire northern tip of Sumatra, and guards the entrance to the most important sea-route of Asia: Malacca Strait. Almost all traffic over sea between West and East passes this sea-lane, and Aceh has been the first land for Arab and Indian merchants for centuries.

History of Aceh
Struggle for independence only beaten by giant tsunami

Evidence concerning the initial coming and subsequent establishment of Islam is thin and inconclusive, however, it is thought that it was through 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 tombstone 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 district, 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 people of the interior.

Sultanate of Aceh

The Sultanate of Aceh was established initially as a small Islamic kingdom in what is today Banda Aceh during the 12th century AD. During its golden era, its territory and political influence expanded as far as Satun in southern Thailand, Johor in Malay Peninsula, and Siak in what is today Riau province. As was the case with most non-Javan pre-colonial states, Acehnese power expanded outward by sea rather than focus inland.

As it expanded down the Sumatran coast, it was not another Sumatran state, but Johor and Portuguese Malacca on the other side of the Straits of Malacca that were to become its main competitors. It was this seaborne trade focus that saw Aceh rely on rice imports from north Java rather than develop self sufficiency in rice production.

In the tomb of Ratu Acheh, a tombstone dated 1380, engraved with the wording, "Gusta barubasa empu Kedah Pasai Ma", meaning the families who embracd Islam governs Kedah and Pasai. This is so because Acheh is part of the Main Kingdom of Raja Siam (Müsli) Beruas Melayu Tua Gangga, Negara Kedah Pasai Ma Empire whom appointed Sultans from its siblings to rule its territory and waters. Rulers of this Empire is known as Shyah Alam Yang Maha Mulia, descendants from the Persians and Siamese Muslim Empire.

Because of the Portuguese occupation of Malacca in 1511, many Islamic traders passing Malacca straits shift their trade to Banda Aceh and increases wealth of Acehnese rulers. During the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda in 17th century, Aceh influence extended to most of Sumatra and 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. Aceh military power waned gradually thereafter, and Aceh was separated from its territory of Kedah and Pinang on the Malay Peninsula to the British, and 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, but also 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, aggressively, and successfully, 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.

The Aceh War

The Dutch colonial government declared war on Aceh on 26 March 1873; the apparent immediate trigger for their invasion was discussions between representatives of Aceh and the U.S. in Singapore during early 1873. An expedition under Major General Köhler was sent out in 1874, which was able to occupy most of the coastal areas. It was the intention of the Dutch to attack and take the Sultan's palace, which would also lead to the occupation of the entire country.

The Sultan requested and possibly received military aid from Italy and the United Kingdom in Singapore: in any case the Aceh army was rapidly modernized, and Aceh soldiers managed to kill Köhler (a monument of 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.

A second expedition led by General Van Swieten managed to capture the kraton (sultan's palace): the Sultan had however been warned, and had escaped capture. Intermittent guerrilla warfare continued in the region for ten years, with many victims on both sides. Around 1880 the Dutch strategy changed, and rather than continuing the war, they now concentrated on defending areas they already controlled, which were mostly limited to the capital city (modern Banda Aceh), and the harbour town of Ulee Lheue. On 13 October 1880 the colonial government declared the war as over, but continued spending heavily to maintain control over the areas it occupied.

War began again in 1883, when the British ship Nisero was stranded in Aceh, in an area where the Dutch had little influence. A local leader asked for ransom from both the Dutch and the British, and under British pressure the Dutch were forced to attempt to liberate the sailors. After a failed Dutch attempt to rescue the hostages, where the local leader Teuku Umar was asked for help but he refused, the Dutch together with the British invaded the territory. The Sultan gave up the hostages, and received a large amount in cash in exchange.

The Dutch Minister of Warfare Weitzel now again declared open war on Aceh, and warfare continued, with little success, as before. The Dutch now also tried to enlist local leaders: the aforementioned Umar was bought with cash, opium, and weapons. Umar received the title panglima prang besar (upper warlord of the government).

Umar called himself rather Teuku Djohan Pahlawan (Johan the heroic). On 1 January 1894 Umar even received Dutch aid to build an army. However, two years later Umar attacked the Dutch with his new army, rather than aiding the Dutch in subjugating inner Aceh. This is recorded in Dutch history as "Het verraad van Teukoe Oemar" (the treason of Teuku Umar).

In 1892 and 1893 Aceh remained independent, despite the Dutch efforts. Major J.B. van Heutsz, a colonial military leader, then wrote a series of articles on Aceh. He was supported by Dr Snouck Hurgronje of the University of Leiden, then the leading Dutch expert on Islam. Hurgronje managed to get the confidence of many Aceh leaders and gathered valuable intelligence for the Dutch government. His works remained an official secret for many years. In Hurgronje's analysis of Acehnese society, he minimised the role of the Sultan and argued that attention should be paid to the hereditary chiefs, the Ulee Balang, who he felt could be trusted as local administrators. However, he argued, Aceh's religious leaders, the ulema, could not be trusted or persuaded to cooperate, and must be destroyed.
This advice was followed: in 1898 Van Heutsz was proclaimed governor of Aceh, and with his lieutenant, later Dutch Prime Minister Hendrikus Colijn, would finally conquer most of Aceh. They followed Hurgronje's suggestions, finding cooperative uleebelang that would support them in the countryside. Van Heutsz charged Colonel Van Daalen with breaking remaining resistance. Van Daalen destroyed several villages, killing at least 2,900 Acehnese, among which were 1,150 women and children. Dutch losses numbered just 26, and Van Daalen was promoted.

By 1904 most of Aceh was under Dutch control, and had an indigenous government that cooperated with the colonial state. Estimated total casualties on the Aceh side range from 50,000 to 100,000 dead, and over a million wounded. In the Netherlands at the time, van Heutsz was considered a hero, named the 'Pacificator of Aceh' and was promoted to become governor-general of the entire Dutch Indies in 1904. A still-existent statue of him was erected in central Amsterdam.

Colonial influence in the remote highland areas of Aceh was never substantial, however, and limited guerrilla resistance remained. Led mostly by the religious ulema, intermittent fighting continued until about 1910, and parts of the province were still not pacified when the Dutch Indies became independent Indonesia following the end of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia.

Japanese Occupation

During World War II, Japanese troops occupied Aceh. Religious ulema party gained ascendancy to replace district warlords (uleebalang) party formerly collaborating with the Dutch. Concrete bunkers still line the northern-most beaches.

Indonesian Independence

After World War II, civil war erupted in 1945 between district warlords party, supporting the return of Dutch government and religious ulema party, supporting newly proclaimed Indonesia State. The latter party won, and the area remain free during Indonesian War of Independence. The Dutch military itself never attempt to invade Aceh. The civil war put the religious ulema party leader, Daud Bereueh, as Military Governor of Aceh.

Islamic Rebellion

After the transfer of authority from Dutch Government to Indonesian State in 1949, Aceh was amalgamated with nearby province of North Sumatra, leading to resentment from many Acehnese due to many ethnic-differences between themselves and the Batak people who dominate North Sumatra.

This Resentment resulted in a rebellion in 1953, under the banner of Islamic State (Darul Islam), led by Daud Bereueh. Putting down the rebellion took years to complete. In 1959 the Indonesian government yielded in part and gave Aceh a "special territory" (daerah istimewa) status, giving it a greater degree of autonomy from the central government in Jakarta than most other regions of Indonesia have.

For example, the regional government is empowered to construct a legal system independent of the national government. In 2003, a form of sharia, or Islamic law, was formally introduced in Aceh. In 1963, Daud Bereueh signed a peace agreement, marking the end of Islamic Rebellion.

Free Aceh Movement

During 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.

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 2000 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 inverstment. This was again accompanied by repressive measures, however and in 2003 Military Emergency Condition was proclaimed in the Province. The war was still going on when the Tsunami Disaster of 2004 struck the province.

Tsunami disaster

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 December 26, 2004. While estimates vary, approximately 230,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, and about 500,000 were left homeless.

The tragedy of the tsunami was further compounded on March 26th when a second off-shore earthquake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale struck the sea bed between the islands of Simeulue 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, almost 2% of the Indonesian population. As of February 2006, more than a year after the tsunami, a large number of people are still living in barrack-style temporary living centers (TLC) or tents. Reconstruction is visible everywhere, but due to the sheer scale of the disaster, logistical issues, and the lack of funding, progress is slow.
The ramifications of the tsunami went beyond the immediate impact 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 15th 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 Syariah 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 Banda Aceh, the capital, 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 was severely damaged, and many towns completely disappeared. Other towns on Aceh's west coast hit by the disaster include Leupung, Lamno, Patek, Calang, Teunom, and the island of Simeulue. Affected or destroyed towns on the region's north & east coast include Pidie, Samalanga, and Lhokseumawe.

The area is slowly being 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 is 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.

Indonesian government has built special agency for Aceh reconstruction, called Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR/Agency of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction) headed by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, former Indonesian Minister. This agency has ministry level of authority and incorporating officials, professionals and community leaders from all background.

Most of the reconstruction work is being 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.

After the peace agreement between Republic of Indonesia and Free Aceh Movement, Aceh has been granted broader autonomy through Aceh Government Legislation (Undang-undang Pemerintahan Aceh) which covers previous (2002) special rights plus the right for Acehnese to establish local political party. Human rights advocates however, protested for lack of resolution concerning previous human rights abuse inside the legislation.

During governor election in December 2006 former Free Aceh Movement as well as national parties participated. The election was won by Irwandi Yusuf, whose basis of support are largely from former Free Aceh Movement members.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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