March 25, 2008
Status: Occupied territory
Population: 4.25 million
Area: 236,803 sq. km, consisting of 119 islands, 73 major rivers and 2 lakes
Capital city: Banda Aceh
Religion: Sunni Islam
Acheh-Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF)
ASNLF aims at restoring the sovereignty of the State of Acheh and of freeing its people from all types of foreign colonialism through a legal approach in accordance with Achehnese values and International Law. ASNLF wants to enable the Achenese to exercise their right to self-determination without interference from Indonesia on their political status and in pursuing their economic, social and cultural development. They strive towards gaining the support of the international community for Acheh’s decolonization in accordance with the principles and procedures of United Nations resolutions. As a result of the dangerous circumstances in Acheh most members of the re-established ASNLF are located outside of Acheh, many thereof as refugees e.g. in the US, Norway and the Netherlands.
Acheh is a ‘special territory’ in Indonesia, located at the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. The approximate area of Acheh is 236,803 km2, and consists of 119 islands, 73 major rivers and 2 lakes. It is strategically located on the Malaccan Strait, an important trade route and portal to Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean to the South. Banda Acheh, the capital of Acheh, lies at the mouth of the Krong Acheh and Krong Daroy rivers by the Indian Ocean, and is the administrative and trading center of this mountainous region. Petroleum and natural gas, of which Sumatra has extensive reserves, is exported through Banda Acheh.
Acheh has a population of approximately 4 million, representing two percent of the total Indonesian population. There are various ethnic groups residing in Acheh, with the largest ethnic group being the Achehnese. Other ethnic groups include the Gayo, Alas, Tamiang, Aneuk Jamee, Kluet and Simeulue. There is also a small population of Arab and European descent. Ethnic Achehnese form a majority in the regencies of Acheh Besar, Pidie, North Aceh and West Aceh, whereas they constitute a minority in Central and South Acheh.
From the beginning of 16th century, Acheh has been involved in an almost continuous power struggle for their self-determination and right to exist as a free nation. First with Portugal, then the British and Dutch in the 18th century and today, against the Indonesian government in Jakarta, Acheh has continued its struggle against colonial and alien rule with varying degrees of success.
In 1824 the Anglo-Dutch treaty was signed, under which the British ceded their colonial possessions on Sumatra to the Dutch. The British claimed Acheh as part of their colonies, although they had little actual control over the sultanate. Initially under the agreement, the Dutch agreed to respect the Achenese sultanate's independence. In 1871, however, the Dutch invaded Acheh, with no opposition from the British.
The Dutch colonial government declared war on Acheh on 26 March 1873, but they never fully gained control of the territory and declared their attempt at subjugating Acheh a failure in 1893. Instead of conceding, excessive force was used to command full control of Acheh, which was gained by 1904. Throughout Dutch rule, Acheh faced large numbers of casualties and continued guerilla warfare against the Dutch until the Dutch East Indies achievedindependence following occupation by the Japanese and the end of WWII.
On December 27, 1949, under heavy international pressure, the Netherlands finally acknowledged Indonesia's independence. Upon independence, Indonesian troops were dispatched to annex Acheh, causing resentment over what some Achenese viewed as foreign occupation. Since then, there have been periodic armed conflicts between the Indonesian military and local forces fighting for greater separation from the central government.
In 1959, the Indonesian government gave Acheh a "special territory" status, giving it a greater degree of autonomy from the central government in Jakarta than most other regions of Indonesia. The regional government is empowered to construct a legal system independent of the national government.
In 1976, Acheh declared its independence and since that time has struggled against the Indonesian government for recognition, resulting in the death of thousands of Achehnese, and severe crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Indonesian government.
In December 1976, the Free Acheh Movement (GAM) was founded, claiming that the Achenese people were not consulted about the decision to become part of Indonesia, and are therefore fighting for a return of the province's sovereignty. Aside from human rights violations against the people of Acheh, the struggle has been fuelled by Indonesian government’s control over the provinces considerable natural resources the revenue generated.
During the 1990’s thousands of troops entered Acheh to stop rebel force insurgency, resulting in more conflict and casualties. Finally in 2002, the government of Indonesia and GAM agreed to a peace deal. In this peace agreement, the Indonesian government said that Acheh could have free elections and a partially autonomous government and would also keep 70% of the revenue generated from the province’s oil resources.
They also claimed that they would gradually withdraw government troops, who had a strong presence in the territory. In return, the rebels were asked to abandon their claims for complete independence and hand in their weapons. Neither side held to their end of the agreement and peace negotiations broke down shortly after.
The Indonesian government immediately launched an all out military offensive, imposing martial law on the province and sending thousands of troops to keep control of Acheh.
On 28 December 2004, a massive tsunami, triggered by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, completely devastated the province, killing 120,000 people in Acheh alone and destroying homes, infrastructure and natural habitats. As international attention and aid poured in from the international community, renewed focus fell on the fate of Acheh.
In the immediate aftermath of the devastation, on 28 December 2004, GAM declared a ceasefire of hostilities to allow for aid to reach within the disputed area. In turn, the Indonesian government temporarily removed its security restrictions to allow for rescue efforts in the affected area. On 15 August 2005, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) brokered by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari was signed, whereby both sides agreed to cease all hostilities immediately, GAM agreed to disarm and the Government pledged to withdraw all non-local military and police by the end of 2005. In this context, the Government agreed to facilitate greater degree of autonomy in Acheh, including the establishment of Acheh-based political parties and implementation of Islamic law; these had been some of the most contentious issues in previous negotiations. On the question of the uneven distribution of income, it was settled that 70% of the income from local natural resources would stay within Acheh. The MoU also foresaw the establishment of a Human Rights Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Acheh, but nearly 9 years have now passed since the peace agreement was signed and little has been done in this regard.
A major reflection of the MoU was the 2006 regional election, where, for the first time, a regional candidate, including a member of GAM, could run for all positions – that of Governor included. Despite hopes for a new era of stability for the region following the aforementioned milestone elections, the run-up to the most recent elections in 2012 was marked by corruption, threats, and intimidation.
Currently, rivalries run deep among former GAM leaders and ASNLF is very concerned that strong discontent among the election candidates and GAM fractions could lead to instability and may even cause the conflict to relapse. While the peace agreement gave some increased autonomy to Aceh, ASNLF still aims at independence, believing that the demands for self-determination have not been sufficiently addressed by the 2005 peace agreement.
Approximately 3 million people in Northern Sumatra speak Achenese, a language belonging to the Austronesian/Malayo-Polynesian language family. Achenese has its closest links with Cham, a language spoken primarily in Vietnam, but there is little evidence to explain this close relationship. Other languages spoken in the province of Acheh include Bahasa Kluet, Bahasa Gayo, Bahasa Alas, and Bahasa Tamiang, which is a variety of Malay. Modern Achense has been strongly influenced by the Dutch language, stemming from the Dutch colonial control of Indonesia from the end of the 18th century to the mid-19th century. Achenese is formally written in Arabic script.
CULTURE AND RELIGION
The Achenese are mainly agriculturalists whose diet consists of rice with meat (except for pork, which is forbidden to Muslims), fish or vegetables. Traditional dress for men and women is a sarong, which is a colorful woven skirt. Houses are generally built out of bamboo or flattened wood, and are built on stilts to raise it off the ground. Much of the art, music, dance and culture of the Achenese is influenced by Islam, which is believed to have first entered Southeast Asia through Acheh in the 8th century. At a certain point, Banda Acheh, the capital of Acheh, was referred to as the 'doorway to Mecca' for it was a popular stopping place for Muslim travelers, scholars, and merchants. Weddings, circumcision celebrations, or the arrival of an important dignitary to the village require the presence of traditional dancers and musicians. About 99% of the population in Acheh is Muslim.
Acheh possesses one of Indonesia's largest reserves of oil and natural gas, as a consequence of which a number of multinational corporations maintain a presence in Acheh. Deforestation and land degradation as a result of oil and natural resource extraction remain a problem in Acheh. In addition, natural disasters plague Acheh, due primarily to its geographical location. Apart from the threat of tsunamis and earthquakes, natural hazards include periodic floods, severe droughts, volcanoes, and forest fires.
Acheh's main sources of income are petroleum and natural gas, fertilizer, and agriculture. Commercial crops include palm oil, rubber, coconut, coffee, and cacao. Acheh also has natural resources that have not yet been exploited. Since the end of the conflict, and the reconstruction program put in place after the 2004 tsunami, the structure of the economy has moved towards a more dominant role for service sectors, whilst the share of the oil and gas sectors continue to decline. Poverty in Acheh remains significantly higher than in the rest of Indonesia.
UNPO MEMBER PERSPECTIVE
ASNLF hopes UNPO can help them in achieving independence since other UNPO members have similar goals. They hope to cooperate with them. They would like UNPO to assist them in making their concerns heard in the international community and to help them through training programs to make ASNLF and their work more effective since the aim of ASNLF is to take a legal approach to free Acheh and to avoid violence or the breakout of another conflict.