Aceh? You’re going to Aceh? I would never want to work in Aceh – it is too dangerous and conservative.

Unattractive but functional map of Aceh (I live practically in Banda Aceh in Aceh Besar - 10 minute drive away)

That was the essence of the response from someone who had just come back to the US from working in Jakarta, which, by the way, is rather a different world from Aceh. This was before we had left for Indonesia, so you can imagine how reassuring that was though I had heard that things had calmed down.

This post contains information on the hot button topics of: Islam, marijuana, the US and Iraq, and Libya. Intrigued?

It would probably behoove me to give some historical and cultural context to things here, and to also dispel some misconceptions that I recently learned. As a disclaimer, the information presented here is as accurate as my  knowledge, which consists of conversations with people from or living in Aceh and a few historical texts. I am not really going out of my way to compile multiple sources and citations. I wouldn’t do it in an email, and this blog is basically like a running email with better formatting.

The person from Jakarta of course was responding to the fact that Aceh relatively recently resolved a 30-year separatist conflict and has instituted Sharia Law. The two are seen as going hand-in-hand, that people in Aceh did not want to be part of the licentious and haram world of the rest of Indonesia and just wanted to be left in piece to worship Allah in the ultra-conservative Sharia way they saw fit. But this is not really the case.

VOC (Dutch East India Company) - this makes them seem so civilized as opposed to what they really were: brutal, government-endorsed pirates

It should come as no surprise that Indonesia as a country did not exist until the Dutch East India Company, or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), came into the region and conglomerated it for the purposes of resource extraction.

Aceh was its own political entity either before or since the 9th century and was internationally recognized since the 16th century. It was separate also from the other parts of Sumatra. Given its strategic location being so near India, it was easy access for Chinese and Arab traders coming down from the Asian subcontinent. Due to this large Arab influence, Aceh was a Sultanate comprised of regions ruled by local lords, and was and is known as the Veranda of Mecca. The resistance and conflict against occupation had its roots in the Dutch invasion of 1873. Even after being taken over in 1903, resistance continued until 1912. It is also claimed that the only reason Aceh participated in a unified resistance with the rest of Indonesia to get the Dutch out after WWII in 1949 was just to get the Dutch out – it was expected that they would return to pre-Dutch Sultanate status as their own separate entity. However, the Government of Indonesia (GoI) subsumed it with the rest of Sumatra in 1950.

Folks (uleebalang (local lords)?) from the time of the Sultanate

In response to this, the Muslim scholars (ulama) who had always exerted strong political influence in an area where the population is practically 100% Muslim were upset that Aceh would not be an Islamic state but even more upset by the fact that they were denied separate provincial status. Enter the 1953 alliance with the Darul Islam movement that was also going on in West Java and South Sulawesi that did aim to establish Islamic law throughout Indonesia (there is a lot of diversity in Indonesia, but it generally has a dominant Muslim population). Aceh dropped out of the movement in 1957  when it was granted special autonomy over culture and education.

GAM (Free Aceh Movement)

1977 a new conflict broke out over not religion, but resources: natural gas and timber. The Arun natural gas fields were discovered and the GoI was not ensuring that a fair share of the wealth was passed to the Acehnese. This birthed the Free Aceh Movement, or Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM). Their official stance towards Islam was not that separation = Sharia Law, but that Islam is so interwoven in the fabric of Acehnese life that it is really just people and their personal relationship with Allah. It was not part of their official mission to establish Sharia Law, but to just establish separation from the rest of Indonesia, which is why even though the GoI gave special status to Aceh to establish Sharia Law in 2002 the conflict still continued. The GoI, however, used the Islam issue as a smear tactic to discredit GAM as Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Interesting note: in 1986, the leader of the GAM movement di Tiro was able to interest Libya in their struggle and obtained military training for several hundred supporters, which explains why I have recently seen a few pro-Gaddafi signs and posters around town!

From then until the 2004 Tsunami, Aceh did become a state filled with terror with killing, raping and pillaging from various Indonesian military, or Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), campaigns throughout the decades. Just even from 1989-1998 it’s estimated that between 10,000 to 26,000 people were killed with at least 10 mass graves found. Something that really caught my attention was one campaign that apparently was inspired by the US’s “shock and awe” approach to the invasion of Iraq, and continued with human rights abuses, because the US and the rest of the international community was absorbed with Iraq. The cruelty of the TNI was further exacerbated by the TNI’s significant financial stake in Aceh. Like in the rest of Indonesia, the TNI supplemented their meager income by becoming the local mafia of lucrative businesses. In Aceh this meant control of illegal logging, smuggling, marijuana and then just plain old extortion. Of course even to this day there is a large TNI base outside of Banda Aceh (actually in Aceh Besar where I live; it’s about a 20 minute walk from our office), and throughout Aceh the people still in control of marijuana is the military, unofficially.

Of course, it is easy to see this as a Guevara-esque romantic liberation movement of GAM soldiers living in the forest and mountains of Aceh. But for the ordinary Acehnese, terror came on both sides, particularly for those that were Muslim. Both TNI and GAM targeted young Muslim men; the TNI thinking they could be potential GAM members, and GAM thinking they should be new recruits by choice or force. Also, GAM, seeing themselves as the rightful government of Aceh, expected citizens to pay them taxes; if not, retribution was exacted.

Three things led to the resolution of the Aceh conflict: 1) 1998 Suharto fell, and the GoI went from being a very centralized government to a very decentralized government with the new President Habibie and subsequent presidents being  more inclined to democracy and peace than Suharto who held the country in the iron first of Pancasila (the five pillars of Indonesian unity, which I’ll go more into later); 2) GAM made the decision during one of the rounds of peace “negotiations” in 2002 to transition from a military organization to a civil political party that created a space to move away from war and participate in legitimate political discourse and influence on Acehnese life;

2004 Tsunami damage - I spared you the photos of the bodies and body bags

and of course 3) the 2004 Tsunami where the conflict was quickly resolved as neither side wanted to be seen as using the utter devastation that wiped out so much of Aceh for political gains nor perpetuate an environment that would impede quick and effective aid deployment.

On 15 August 2005, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed  that established Aceh as a state with “special autonomy,” and then led to the creation a year later on March 2006 of the new Law on the Governance of Aceh regarding relations with the central government, political participation, the economy, the rule of law and human rights. After a lot of in-fighting between the exiled-GAM leaders in Stockholm and the GAM leaders still in Aceh on who would be the right men to lead the new Aceh government, peace does seem to be functioning in the region, and there does not seem to be much of a movement to reawaken the conflict.

Interestingly, NGOs (ok, at least we do) distinguish between their post-tsunami development projects and their post-conflict development projects. The tsunami being generally by the coast (of course) and the conflict being inland where the GAM hid in the mountains. Also, this isn’t the only conflict Indonesia has had; there is the Timor Leste separatist conflict, the Sulawesi conflict between indigenous Christian Dayaks against the migrant Muslim Madurese, and the Ambon conflict also between Christians and Muslims. Indonesia has some of the nicest people around, but can they ever turn on each other in the most violent of ways. All three of these are largely unconnected, which is lucky for me, because that means when the riot between Christians and Muslims broke out in Ambon this 11 Septemeber 2011 and Matt had to get evacuated, it does not spell trouble for Aceh. More on that soon with Matt’s guest post on his experiences!