Saturday, September 30, 2006

A small step forward for Aceh

Aceh’s independence movement Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM: Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) doesn’t expect to make serious inroads in the region’s first election since they signed a peace deal with the Indonesian government. The accord allows for limited self-rule of Sumatra’s northern most province. GAM do not expect to win seats in this election but are preparing instead for the following elections in 2009 when they will be better set up as a political party.

GAM are the former rebel movement who fought the government for 29 years until the cataclysmic effect of the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake. The earthquake measured over 9 on the Richter scale and its epicentre was 800km off the west coast of Aceh. Conservative estimates of the death toll in Aceh were 130,000 though some have said as many as 230,000 have died. A further half million Acehnese were made homeless.

Aceh, which occupies the northernmost 12% of Sumatra, is a religiously conservative Islamic society and has had no tourism or any Western presence in recent years due to armed conflict between the military and the separatists. Islam came early to Aceh. The Islamic Kingdom of Peureulak was established around 850 AD in East Aceh. Aceh played an important role in Islamising many parts of Indonesia, including Java. Marco Polo passed through the province of North Aceh on his travels in the 13th century. The Kingdom of Aceh became a significant player also around this time and its influence stretched to southern Thailand. When the Portuguese took Malaka in 1511, they sailed across the strait to Sumatra. They built a fort in Pasai too close to the Achenese for comfort. In 1523, the Acehnese Sultan Ali attacked the Portuguese in Pasai and drove them out. After this defeat, Portugal attempted to conquer Aceh several times, but to no avail.

The Dutch arrived in the following century and had better success in subduing the locals. However the Acehnese continued to resist strongly. In 1824, the Dutch signed the London Treaty in which Britain surrendered the island of Sumatra to the Dutch. However Aceh was allowed to remain independent. Its power was its strategic location at the tip of Sumatra and also its control of the black pepper trade. However their independence was finally killed off by the 1871 Sumatra Treaty in which the British authorised the Dutch to take Aceh to prevent the French from moving in. The Dutch attacked in 1873 and controlled most of the province within the year. Acehnese guerrillas resisted for another 20 years. They even wrested control of the province back for two years in 1892. The Dutch finally realised they could never win militarily so took a different strategy and bribed the regional chieftains to regain control.

However the Dutch never fully conquered the rugged mountainous regions which remained independent right up to the fall of Sumatra to Japan in 1942. The Acehnese welcomed the Japanese as they promised to free them from colonisation. But Japan’s promises were worthless and they were soon despised as much as the Dutch. Several rebellions broke out against their rule. When the war was ended, Indonesia declared its independence and Aceh was broadly in favour of the new country. Aceh gained “special territory” status in 1959. This decree conferred an unusually high degree of autonomy in religious, educational and cultural matters. This allowed Aceh to declare “sharia law” in 2003.

However the autonomy was not enough to satisfy those looking for full independence. On Dec. 4, 1976, Teungku Hasan di Tiro founded the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Indonesia reacted harshly. The authorities conducted mass arrests of GAM members and kept a lid on their activities until 1989 when the group attacked police and military installations. Jakarta declared Aceh a Military Operation Zone (DOM) which led to massive human rights violations by military and police personnel. Though the DOM status was lifted in 1998 matters did not improve much until the intervention of the tsunami. 12,000 people had died in the 29 year campaign.

The peace deal gave the province control over its affairs except external defence, foreign relations and fiscal policy. It allowed Aceh to retain 70% of its significant natural resources, allows them to field independent candidates in elections for provincial governor and district chiefs and finally to establish local political parties to run in future elections. The 4.3 million population Aceh remains an important province for Indonesia. It is rich in oil and gas. Its future remains cloudy but while GAM holds firm to the agreement, this fiercely independent proto-nation has a chance to establish a lasting peace and a bright future.

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