Sumatra is the western-most island in the Indonesian archipelago. It is also Indonesia’s second-largest island, covering an area of 473,481 square kilometers. Its west coast lies on the Indian Ocean and the northeast portion of the island borders on the Straits of Malacca, historically an important route for shipping and trade and also a channel that has traditionally been plagued by piracy.
Sumatra’s geography is varied. A volcanic mountain range, known as Bukit Barisan, covers the province from east to west. Two of its mountains, Mt. Leuser and Mt. Kerinci are over 9,000 feet. Although its forests have been greatly depleted by the harvesting of timber, the island is still heavily forested.
Swampy lowlands dominate the east side of Sumatra and in this area the land is largely unsuitable for agriculture. Sumatra has several broad, navigable rivers along its east side. Originally part of the Eurasian landmass, Sumatra is known for its great diversity of flora and fauna (notably several rare species including the Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros).
Sumatra is divided into eight administrative provinces: Aceh, Bengkulu, Jambi, Lampung, Riau, North Sumatra, and West Sumatra. Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra, with approximately 2 million inhabitants, is the largest city in Sumatra. Palembang, located in the province of South Sumatra with a population of around 1 million, is Sumatra’s second largest city.
The province of Aceh is found at the northern tip of Sumatra, bordering on the province of North Sumatra in the south, the Straits of Malacca on the north and east, and the Indian Ocean in the west. Its 119 islands cover a territory of 55,392 square kilometers. Its capital is Bandah Aceh.
There are approximately 37 million people in Sumatra, most living in rural areas. The population is composed of several different ethnic groups. The Minangkabau, a matrilineal, Islamic people, inhabit the coasts of North Sumatra, West Sumatra, interior Riau, and northern Bengkulu. The Batak, a term for groups including Angkola, Karo, Mandailing, Pakpak, Simelungen, and Toga, have settled in the North Sumatra province, mainly around Lake Toba.
The Lampung are located in the south of the island. Smaller populations live in the south, Nias, and on the Mentawai islands, including the Sakai (in Riau Daratan), the Kubu, the Sakkudai. The Orang Laut are located on the shores of East Sumatra and on the Riau Archipelago. Acehnese comprise the major ethnic group in the province of Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra.
The population of Aceh is estimated at 4.2 million (2000), or 3% of the Indonesian population and nearly a quarter of the population of Sumatra as a whole. The predominant language spoken in Aceh is Acehnese, a language related to Malay, although in Aceh, as in all of Sumatra, Bahasa Indonesia is the official language.
Sumatra has been a major destination for transmigration. Most Javanese migrants have settled in rural eastern areas and have engaged in agriculture, mainly in the cultivation of rice, rubber and coffee.
Sumatra, like the rest of Indonesia, is primarily Moslem. Two-thirds of the Batak ethnic group in northern Sumatra are considered Christian – either Catholic or Protestant. Many Bataks have combined their religion with indigenous religious beliefs. The Batak religion involved an extensive local kinship system based on marriage alliances linking lineages of patrilineal clans called marga.
Throughout most of Indonesia, a unique form of Islam – a blend of Sufism, Hinduism and indigenous spiritual beliefs – is practiced. Acehnese, however, are considered more strictly religious than the rest of Indonesia’s Muslim population and practice a traditional form of Islam. Aceh is often referred to as the “Front Porch of Mecca”.
This title refers both to its geographic location on the trade route between China and the Moslem/Arab world and its early adoption of Islam. Islam most likely reached Aceh between the 7th and 8th centuries, where it began its spread throughout modern-day Indonesia over the generations.
Sumatra has a long history as a trading area and was likely the first island of Indonesia to be in contact with the rest of the world. Marco Polo visited Sumatra in 1292 and reported that there were as many as six trading ports. Around the 7th and 8th centuries, Islam came to Aceh when Moslem traders arrived in northern Sumatra.
Colonial powers began to arrive in the region in the late 16th century. In 1873 the Netherlands annexed Aceh, an action that sparked the Aceh War, the longest war in Dutch history. Although the sultan of Aceh surrendered his throne to the Dutch in 1903, sporadic armed resistance continued for the next several years. Many Acehenese maintain the belief that Aceh was never fully incorporated into the colonial empire.
When Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1945, Aceh was incorporated into the new state as a province. However, there were problems almost from the outset. The strictly Muslim population in Aceh opposed the created of Indonesia as a secular state and in 1953, Darul Islam, an Aceh-based rebel group, began a campaign to transform Indonesia into a state governed by Islamic law.
Although the bid was unsuccessful, in 1959 President Sukarno agreed to make Aceh a “special region”, a status which gave it increased autonomy, especially in the areas of religion and education. In practice, however, the autonomy was never implemented and many felt that the government had failed to follow through with its promise.
In 1976, a rebel movement seeking independence from Indonesia emerged in Aceh. The Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM) was poorly coordinated at its inception and lacked the resources needed for a successful rebellion and consequently, by 1979, had faded into the background. In 1989, GAM re-emerged and the central government responded forcefully. Aceh was declared an area of military operation (DOM), giving the military wide authority to destroy the movement.
By all accounts, throughout the 1990s, the Acehnese population was severely and violently repressed by the Indonesian military and numerous human rights abuses were committed. In 1998, following the resignation of President Suharto the DOM status was lifted. Although the military and all Indonesian presidents since Suharto have formally apologized for crimes committed by the military, the population remains highly disillusioned with the central government.
The province has been given greater autonomy in recent years in an attempt to stem the conflict. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and aftermath caused the GAM to lay down their weapons in favor of a political battle for further autonomy, since independence from Indonesia is politically seen as impossible, though the dreams persist.
Sumatra is one of the most resource-rich islands in Indonesia, producing about 70% of the country’s income. Oil and natural gas are two of its most important exports and are found mainly in Aceh. Other resources include coal, gold, silver, rubber, pepper, coffee, tea, sugarcane, oil palms, tin, bauxite and tobacco. Key exports include timber, from Sumatra’s large forest regions, and plywood. In fertile areas, rice, corn and root crops are raised for domestic consumption. Fishing is an important industry in the coastal areas.
The Sumatran province of Aceh is Indonesia’s most important producer of natural gas, the biggest supplies of which are located at the P.T. Arun fields near the city of Lhokseumawe. The fields and the production facilities for transforming the gas into liquid natural gas (LNG) are owned jointly by ExxonMobil and the state oil company, Pertamina. The ExxonMobil facilities employ around 2,000 local workers.