By Anjali Mitter Duva
Aceh occupies the northernmost part of the island of Sumatra, with a population of 5 million that is culturally distinct from the majority Javanese population of Indonesia. Thought to be the area through which Islam originally penetrated South Asia, Aceh practices a far more conservative form of Islam than does any other part of Indonesia. Aceh’s fight for independence has at times paralleled and at times merged with its fight for Indonesia to become an Islamic state.
The roots of Aceh’s separatist movement go back to the 1870s, during which time the Acehnese fought a particularly fierce war of resistance against Indonesia’s Dutch colonizers. Feeling that they had never fully given into Dutch control, the Acehnese managed to retain a fair amount of autonomy from the central government that took over at Indonesia’s independence in 1949.
In 1950, however, Indonesia’s President Sukarno, seeking a unified and secular state, merged Aceh into the province of North Sumatra. This angered the Acehnese, who began lending their support to Darul Islam, an armed rebellion on the main island of Java intent on establishing an Islamic state. In order to placate the Acehnese, Sukarno promised greater autonomy and the possibility of establishing Sharia law in Aceh. In 1959, president returned Aceh to a more autonomous status, but a repressive military presence, along with Javanese and foreign control of Aceh’s rich natural resources, continued to fuel Acehnese resentment of the Indonesian government.
The emergence in 1976 of a resistance group named the Free Aceh Movement (or GAM) lent new vigor to Aceh’s fight for autonomy. Although the Indonesian military claimed to have put down the movement, GAM survived, even though its top leader, Hasan di Tiro, was living in exile in Sweden.
Over time, GAM built up support and weaponry and re-emerged to clash violently with the Indonesian military. Although GAM rebels were outnumbered and out-gunned, they did enjoy widespread support in villages, where an increasing military presence was leading to a rise in human rights abuses.
During the Suharto years, Aceh was placed under martial law -- an emergency measure that stayed in place for more than a year until the former Indonesian dictator was ousted in 1998. Jakarta’s imposition of martial law in Aceh only increased the number of civilian murders, disappearances and cases of torture.
With the fall of Suharto came louder calls in some parts of Indonesia for greater autonomy and even independence from the central government. East Timor had broken away and gained independence following violent military action and a United Nations-sponsored referendum. There were fears that Aceh would be next.
While the rest of Indonesia enjoyed new freedoms after Suharto stepped down, the armed forces tightened its grip on the province.
In May1999, Indonesian troops fired on a crowd of people demonstrating against the military’s presence in their villages. At least 46 people were killed and more than 100 were injured.
During the same year, demands for Acehnese independence intensified once again with people calling for a referendum on Aceh's future. More than 600,000 Acehnese demonstrated in the streets, calling for an end to Indonesian rule.
In order to stop the Acehnese from rebelling, the central government in Jakarta granted Sharia law to Aceh, believing that it would end the rebellion. It was a miscalculation on Jakarta's part—the government assumed the Acehnese grievances were still the same ones they aired during the Darul Islam rebellion in the 1950s. But Sharia law was never on GAM’s agenda. The rebels' grievances were related to other, more pressing issues, such as repression under Indonesian military rule, poverty, and the unequal division of Aceh’s rich natural gas resources.
A 2002 cease-fire agreement between GAM and the Indonesian government fell apart when neither side could agree on the basic terms of peace. Fighting broke out once again, but this time the Indonesian government launched a full-scale military operation and sent in more than 130,000 troops, the largest deployment since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. The Indonesian government once again established martial law in Aceh in 2003.
The real turning point came in December 2004, when a massive tsunami swept over Aceh, killing 170,000 people and leaving another 500,000 homeless. The extent of the tragedy, the destruction of military facilities and the dire need for international support prompted GAM and the Indonesian government to negotiate and sign a peace treaty in Helsinki in August 2005. Since then, peace has prevailed in Aceh. The rebel group has turned in its weapons and dropped its demand for Aceh independence in exchange for partial autonomy and the right to participate fully in democratic elections. Aceh is now the only province of Indonesia in which local parties are permitted to stand in national elections. In December 2006, former GAM spokesman Irwandi Yusuf won Aceh's gubernatorial elections, and in 2009, GAM will participate in Indonesia’s parliamentary elections.
Anjali Mitter Duva is a writer, editor and content developer. With a Master’s in City Planning from MIT, she specializes in urban development, international affairs, history, geography, public health and arts and culture.