Aceh (pronounced Ah-chay) is a special territory (daerah istimewa, or "special area") of Indonesia, located on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. Its full name is Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam; past spellings of its name include Acheh, Atjeh and Achin.
Aceh is known for its political independence and fierce resistance to control by outsiders, including the former Dutch colonists and the current Indonesian government. Since 2003, it has been the site of renewed conflict between the Indonesian military and local separatist movement, rooted in conflict over control over resources, and over cultural and religious issues. Aceh has substantial natural resources, particularly oil. Relative to most of Indonesia, it is a religiously conservative area.
Aceh was the closest point of land to the epicenter of the massive 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which triggered a tsunami that devastated much of the western coast of the region, including the capital of Banda Aceh.
The population of Aceh is estimated at 4.2 million (2000), almost two percent of the Indonesian population.
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It is believed that Islam first entered Southeast Asia through Aceh in the 8th century. In the 18th century, the Islamic kingdom of Aceh was involved in a power struggle between British and Dutch colonial interests.
In 1824 the Anglo-Dutch treaty was signed, under which the British ceded their colonial possessions on Sumatra to the Dutch. The British claimed Aceh as part of their colonies, although they had little actual control over the kingdom. Initially, under the agreement the Dutch agreed to respect the Acehnese kingdom's independence. In 1871, however, the British dropped previous opposition to a Dutch invasion of Aceh, possibly to prevent the French from gaining a foothold in the region.
The Aceh war
The Dutch colonial government declared war on Aceh on 26 March 1873. An expedition under general-major Köhler was sent out in 1874, which was able to occupy most of the coastal areas, but never gained full control over the mountainous interior. The Sultan requested and possibly received military aid from Italy and the United States in Singapore: in any case the Aceh army was rapidly modernized, and Aceh soldiers managed to kill Köhler. A second expediton 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: rather than continuing the war, they now concentrated on defending areas already under control, which were the central region (modern day Banda Aceh), and the harbour town of Olehleh. On 13 October 1880 the colonial government declared the war as over.
War began again in 1883, when the British ship Nisero was stranded in Aceh, in an area not controlled by the Dutch. A local leader asked for ransom from both the Dutch and the English, and under English 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 English 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 the subjugation of Aceh was considered to have failed. Major J.B. van Heutsz, a colonial military leader, then wrote a series of articles on Aceh, proclaiming the use of excessive force to subjugate the province. This advice was followed: in 1898 Van Heutsz was proclaimed governor of Aceh, and with his lieutenant, later Dutch Prime Minister Hendrikus Colijn, most of Aceh was (nominally) brought under Dutch control. They charged colonel Van Daalen with breaking remaining resistance. Van Daalen destroyed several villages, killing at least 2,900 Acehnese, among which 1,150 women and children. Dutch losses numbered just 26, and Van Daalen was promoted. By 1904 Aceh was fully under Dutch control. Estimated total casualties on the Aceh side range from 50,000 to 100,000 dead, and over a million wounded.
Upon independence, Indonesian troops were dispatched to annex Aceh, causing resentment over what some Acehnese view as foreign occupation. Since then, there have been periodic armed conflicts between the Indonesian military and local forces fighing for greater separation from the central government.
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. 
The western coastal areas of Aceh, including the cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, were among the areas hardest-hit by the tsunami resulting from the 2004 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 400,000 were left homeless.
While parts of Banda Aceh, the capital, were unscathed, the areas closest to the water were completely destroyed. Most of the rest of the western coast, and outlying islands, were severely damaged, and many towns were said to have completely disappeared. Other towns hit by the disaster include Leupung, Gleebruk, Calang, Teunom, Meulaboh, and Tapaktuan.
As the area is rebuilt after the disaster, the government has proposed the creation of a two-kilometer buffer zone along low-lying coastal areas, within which permanent construction is not permitted. This proposal is unpopular among some local inhabitants, especially fishing families that are dependent on living near to the sea.
Aceh has a long history of resistance to control by outside forces; since Indonesian independence, this has meant resistance to control by the national government in Jakarta. This resistance has both economic and cultural roots.
Many Acehnese people feel that most of the economic benefits of the region's great natural resources, especially oil, leave the region and benefit the Jakarta government and foreign corporations instead of the local area. Aceh possesses one of Indonesia's largest reserves of oil and natural gas. A number of multinational corporations, such as Exxon Mobil, maintain a presence in Aceh.
There is a cultural and religious divide between Aceh and the rest of Indonesia as well. A more conservative form of Islam than is mainstream in most of Indonesia is widely practiced in Aceh. The broadly secular policies of Suharto's New Order regime (1965–1998) were especially unpopular in Aceh, where many resented the central government's policy of promoting a unified 'Indonesian culture'.
In 2002 the separatists and the Indonesian government agreed on a peace plan. However it collapsed in early 2003 and the government imposed martial law and began a large-scale offensive in the region. In November 2003 the martial law was extended for a further six months. According to a Human Rights Watch report , the Indonesian military committed widespread human rights abuses during the invasion and occupation, with more than 100,000 people being displaced in the first seven months of martial law and extra-judicial killings being common.
After the devastating tsunami in December 2004, both sides declared a cease-fire and reiterated the need to resolve the conflict. Because of the separatist movement in the area, the Indonesian government has had access restrictions in place on the press and aid workers. The Indonesian government has, however, opened the region up to international relief efforts and retasked troops which were tracking separatists to relief activity.
The administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, inaugurated in late 2004, has also expressed a somewhat greater willingness to negotiate with rebel forces in the aftermath of the disaster. Yudhoyono has suggested the possibility of further increased autonomy for the region, and of amnesty for former rebels.
Within the Republic of Indonesia, Aceh is governed not as a province but as a special territory (daerah istimewa), an administrative designation intended to give the area increased autonomy from the central government in Jakarta.
The capital and largest city in Aceh is Banda Aceh, located on the coast near the northern tip of Sumatra. Other major cities include Sabang, Lhokseumawe, and Langsa. Administratively, the province is subdivided into seventeen regencies and four municipalities.
These local political subdivisions are Aceh Barat (West Aceh), Aceh Barat Daya, Aceh Besar, Aceh Jaya, Aceh Singkil, Aceh Selatan (South Aceh), Aceh Tenggara (Southeast Aceh), Aceh Timur (East Aceh), Aceh Tengah (Central Aceh), Aceh Utara (North Aceh), Bireun, Banda Aceh, Gayo Lues, Langsa, Lhokseumawe, Pidie, Sabang, Simeulue Island (formerly part of Aceh Barat), Nagan Raya, Aceh Tamiang, and Bener Meriah.
Some local areas are pushing to create new autonomous areas, usually with the stated goal of enhancing local control over politics and development. In Aceh Singkil regency, there is a demand to establish the municipality of Subulussalam and in the town of Pidie, around eight districts are seeking to develop a new regency which will be named Meuredu or Pidie Jaya.
Ethnic and cultural groups
Aceh is a diverse region occupied by several ethnic and language groups. The major ethnic groups are the Acehnese (who are distributed throughout Aceh), Gayo (in Aceh Tengah and some parts of Aceh Timur, Bener Meriah and Gayo Lues); Alas (in Aceh Tenggara); Tamiang (in Aceh Tamiang); Aneuk Jamee (concentrated in Aceh Selatan and Aceh Barat Daya); Kluet (in Aceh Selatan) and Simeulue (on Simeulue Island).
The region also has a substantial population of Arab descent. There is small group of European descendants who live in Kecamatan Jaya, Aceh Jaya. Many of them have blonde hair, white skin and blue eyes. They are believed to be the Islamicized descendants of Portuguese soldiers. They live with Acehnese traditions and only speak Achinese and Indonesian.
Further reading and external links
- Official website (In Indonesian)
- Free Aceh Movement @ globalsecurity.org
- Siegel, James T. 2000. The rope of God. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472086820
- A classic ethnographic and historical study of Aceh, and Islam in the region. Originally published in 1969.
- Building Human Security in Indonesia—Overview of the conflict from the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Harvard University, USA.
- Aceh Sample Language at Language Museum.
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