It is thought to have been in Aceh where Islam was first established in Southeast Asia. In the early seventeenth century the Sultanate of Aceh was the most wealthy, powerful and cultivated state in the Malacca Straits region. Aceh has a history of political independence and fierce resistance to control by outsiders, including the former Dutch colonists and the Indonesian government. Aceh has substantial natural resources, including oil and gas - some estimates put Aceh gas reserves as being the largest in the world. 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 part of the capital of Banda Aceh. 167,736 Indonesians, the overwhelming majority in Aceh, were killed or missing and 500,000 made homeless. This event helped trigger the peace agreement between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), mediated by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, with the signing of a MoU on August 15, 2005. With the assistance of the European Union through the Aceh monitoring mission as of December 2005, the peace has held.
The Portuguese apothecary Tome Pires reported in his early sixteenth century book Suma Oriental that most of the kings of Sumatra from Aceh through to Palembang were Muslim. At Pasai, in what is now the North Aceh Regency, there was a thriving international port. Pires attributed the establishment of Islam in Pasai to the 'cunning' of the Muslim merchants. The ruler of Pasai, however, had not been able to convert the people of the people of the interior.
In the tomb of Ratu Acheh, a tombstone dated 1380, engraved with the wording, "Gusta barubasa empu Kedah Pasai Ma", meaning the families who embraced Islam governs Kedah and Pasai. This is so because Acheh is part of the Main Kingdom of Raja Siam (Müsli) Beruas Melayu Tua Gangga, Negara Kedah Pasai Ma Empire whom appointed Sultans from its siblings to rule its territory and waters. Rulers of this Empire is known as Shyah Alam Yang Maha Mulia, descendants from the Persians and Siamese Muslim Empire.
Because of the Portuguese occupation of Malacca in 1511, many Islamic traders passing Malacca straits shift their trade to Banda Aceh and increases wealth of Acehnese rulers. During the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda in 17th century, Aceh influence extended to most of Sumatra and Malay Peninsula. Aceh allied itself with the Ottoman Empire and the Dutch East India Company in their struggle against the Portuguese and the Johor Sultanate. Aceh military power waned gradually thereafter, and Aceh was separated from its territory of Kedah and Pinang on the Malay Peninsula to the British, and Pariaman in Sumatra to the Dutch in 18th century.
By the early nineteenth century, however, Aceh had become an increasingly influential power due to its strategic location for controlling regional trade. In the 1820s it was the producer of over half the world's supply of black pepper. The pepper trade produced new wealth for the sultanate, but also for the rulers of many smaller nearby ports that had been under Aceh's control, but were now able to assert more independence. These changes initially threatened Aceh's integrity, but a new sultan Tuanku Ibrahim, who controlled the kingdom from 1838 to 1870, aggressively, and successfully, reasserted power over nearby ports.
Under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 the British ceded their colonial possessions on Sumatra to the Dutch. In the treaty, the British described Aceh as one of their possessions, although they had no actual control over the sultanate. Initially, under the agreement the Dutch agreed to respect Aceh's independence. In 1871, however, the British dropped previous opposition to a Dutch invasion of Aceh, possibly to prevent France or the United States from gaining a foothold in the region. Although neither the Dutch nor the British knew the specifics, there had been rumors since the 1850s that Aceh had been in communication with rulers of France and of the Ottoman Empire.
A second expedition 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, and rather than continuing the war, they now concentrated on defending areas they already controlled, which were mostly limited to the capital city (modern Banda Aceh), and the harbour town of Ulee Lheue. On 13 October 1880 the colonial government declared the war as over, but continued spending heavily to maintain control over the areas it occupied.
War began again in 1883, when the British ship Nisero was stranded in Aceh, in an area where the Dutch had little influence. A local leader asked for ransom from both the Dutch and the British, and under British 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 British 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 Aceh remained independent, despite the Dutch efforts. Major J.B. van Heutsz, a colonial military leader, then wrote a series of articles on Aceh. He was supported by Dr Snouck Hurgronje of the University of Leiden, then the leading Dutch expert on Islam. Hurgronje managed to get the confidence of many Aceh leaders and gathered valuable intelligence for the Dutch government. His works remained an official secret for many years. In Hurgronje's analysis of Acehnese society, he minimised the role of the Sultan and argued that attention should be paid to the hereditary chiefs, the Ulee Balang, who he felt could be trusted as local administrators. However, he argued, Aceh's religious leaders, the ulema, could not be trusted or persuaded to cooperate, and must be destroyed.
This advice was followed: in 1898 Van Heutsz was proclaimed governor of Aceh, and with his lieutenant, later Dutch Prime Minister Hendrikus Colijn, would finally conquer most of Aceh. They followed Hurgronje's suggestions, finding cooperative uleebelang that would support them in the countryside. Van Heutsz charged Colonel Van Daalen with breaking remaining resistance. Van Daalen destroyed several villages, killing at least 2,900 Acehnese, among which were 1,150 women and children. Dutch losses numbered just 26, and Van Daalen was promoted.
By 1904 most of Aceh was under Dutch control, and had an indigenous government that cooperated with the colonial state. Estimated total casualties on the Aceh side range from 50,000 to 100,000 dead, and over a million wounded.
In the Netherlands at the time, van Heutsz was considered a hero, named the 'Pacificator of Aceh' and was promoted to become governor-general of the entire Dutch Indies in 1904. A still-existent statue of him was erected in central Amsterdam.
Colonial influence in the remote highland areas of Aceh was never substantial, however, and limited guerrilla resistance remained. Led mostly by the religious ulema, intermittent fighting continued until about 1910, and parts of the province were still not pacified when the Dutch Indies became independent Indonesia following the end of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia.
The movement had a small number of followers initially, and Hasan di Tiro himself had to live in exile in Sweden. Meanwhile, the province followed Suharto's policy of economic development and industrialization. During late 80s several security incidents prompted the Indonesian central government to take repressive measures and to send troops to Aceh. Human rights abuse was rampant for the next decade, resulting in many grievances on the part of the Acehnese toward the Indonesian central government.
During late 90s, chaos in Java and an ineffective central government gave an advantage to Free Aceh Movement and resulted in the second phase of the rebellion, this time with large support from the Acehnese people. This support was demonstrated during the 2000 plebiscite in Banda Aceh which was attended by nearly half million people (of four million population of the province). Indonesian central government responded in 2001 by broadening Aceh's autonomy by giving its government the right to apply sharia law more broadly and the right to receive direct foreign investment. This was again accompanied by repressive measures, however and in 2003 an offensive began and a state of emergency was proclaimed in the Province. The war was still going on when the Tsunami Disaster of 2004 struck the province.
The western coastal areas of Aceh, including the cities of Banda Aceh, Calang, and Meulaboh, were among the areas hardest-hit by the tsunami resulting from the 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 500,000 were left homeless. The tragedy of the tsunami was further compounded on March 26th when a second off-shore earthquake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale struck the sea bed between the islands of Simeulue Island in Aceh and Nias in North Sumatra. This second quake killed a further 905 people on Nias and Simeulue, displaced tens of thousands more and caused the tsunami response to be expanded to include Nias.
The population of Aceh before the December, 2004 tsunami was 4,271,000 (2004). The population as of 15 September 2005 was 4,031,589, almost 2% of the Indonesian population.
As of February 2006, more than a year after the tsunami, a large number of people are still living in barrack-style temporary living centers (TLC) or tents. Reconstruction is visible everywhere, but due to the sheer scale of the disaster, and logistical issues, progress is slow.
The ramifications of the tsunami went beyond the immediate impact to the lives and infrastructure of the Acehnese living on the coast. Since the disaster, the Acehnese rebel movement GAM, which had been fighting for independence against the Indonesian authorities for 29 years, has signed a peace deal (August 15th 2005). The perception that the tsunami was punishment for insufficient piety in this proudly Muslim province is partly behind the increased emphasis on the importance of religion post-tsunami. This has been most obvious in the increased implementation of Syariah law, including the introduction of the controversial 'WH' or Syariah police. As homes are being built and people's basic needs are met, the people are also looking to improve the quality of education, increase tourism, and develop responsible, sustainable industry. Well-qualified educators are in high demand in Aceh.
While parts of Banda Aceh, the capital, were unscathed, the areas closest to the water, especially the areas of Kampung Jawa and Meuraxa, were completely destroyed. Most of the rest of the western coast was severely damaged, and many towns completely disappeared. Other towns on Aceh's west coast hit by the disaster include Lhoknga, Leupung, Lamno, Patek, Calang, Teunom, and the island of Simeulue. Affected or destroyed towns on the region's north & east coast include Pidie Regency, Samalanga, and Lhokseumawe.
The area is slowly being rebuilt after the disaster. The government initially proposed the creation of a two-kilometer buffer zone along low-lying coastal areas, within which permanent construction is not permitted. This proposal was unpopular among some local inhabitants and proved impractical in most situations, especially fishing families that are dependent on living near to the sea.
Indonesian government has built special agency for Aceh reconstruction, called Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR/Agency of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction) headed by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, former Indonesian Minister. This agency has ministry level of authority and incorporating officials, professionals and community leaders from all background.
Most of the reconstruction work is being performed by local people using a mix of traditional methods and partial prefabricated structures, with funding coming from many international organizations and individuals, governments, and the people themselves.
The Government of Indonesia estimated in their Preliminary Damage and Losses Assessment that damages amounted to US$4.5 billion (before inflation, and US$6.2 billion including inflation). Three years after the tsunami, reconstruction was still ongoing. The World Bank monitors funding for reconstruction in Aceh and reports that US$7.7 billion was earmarked for the reconstruction, whilst at June 2007, US$5.8 billion had been allocated to specific reconstruction projects, of which US$3.4 billion had actually been spent (58%).
The 2004 tsunami helped trigger a peace agreement between the GAM and the Indonesian government (PDF format). It drew a lot of international attention to the conflict, wiped out many supplies, and killed many personnel from both sides. Earlier efforts had failed, but for a number of reasons, including the tsunami, peace prevailed in 2005 after 29 years of war. Post-Suharto Indonesia and the liberal-democratic reform period, as well as changes in the Indonesian military, helped create an environment more favorable to peace talks. The roles of newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla were highly significant. At the same time, the GAM leadership was undergoing changes, and the Indonesian military had arguably inflicted so much damage on the rebel movement that it had no choice but to negotiate with the central government. The peace talks were facilitated by a Finland-based NGO, the Crisis Management Initiative, and led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. The resulting peace agreement (PDF format) was signed on August 15, 2005. Under the agreement, Aceh would receive special autonomy and government troops would be withdrawn from the province in exchange for GAM's disarmament. As part of the agreement, the European Union dispatched 300 monitors. Their mission expired on December 15, 2006, following local elections.
Aceh has been granted broader autonomy through Aceh Government Legislation covering special rights agreed upon in 2002 as well as the right of the Acehnese to establish local political parties to represent their interests. Human rights advocates protested that previous human rights violations in the province needed to be addressed, however.
During elections for the provincial governor held in December 2006, the former GAM and national parties participated. The election was won by Irwandi Yusuf, whose base of support consists largely of ex-GAM members.
Administratively, the province is subdivided into 18 regencies (kabupaten) and 5 cities (kota). The capital and the largest city is Banda Aceh, located on the coast near the northern tip of Sumatra. Some local areas are pushing to create new autonomous areas, usually with the stated goal of enhancing local control over politics and development.
|Aceh Besar Regency||Jantho||1956||UU 24/1956|
|West Aceh Regency||Meulaboh||1956||UU 24/1956|
|Southwest Aceh Regency||Blangpidie||2002||UU 4/2002|
|Aceh Jaya Regency||Calang||2002||UU 4/2002|
|South Aceh Regency||Tapaktuan||1956||UU 24/1956|
|Aceh Singkil Regency||Singkil||1999||UU 14/1999|
|Aceh Tamiang Regency||Karang Baru||2002||UU 4/2002|
|Central Aceh Regency||Takengon||1956||UU 24/1956|
|Southeast Aceh Regency||Kutacane||1974||UU 7/1974|
|East Aceh Regency||Langsa||1956||UU 24/1956|
|North Aceh Regency||Lhokseumawe||1956||UU 24/1956|
|Bener Meriah Regency||Simpang Tiga Redelong||2003||UU 41/2003|
|Bireuen Regency||Bireuen||1999||UU 48/1999|
|Gayo Lues Regency||Blangkejeren||2002||UU 4/2002|
|Nagan Raya Regency||Suka Makmue||2002||UU 4/2002|
|Pidie Regency||Sigli||1956||UU 24/1956|
|Pidie Jaya Regency||Meureudu||2007||UU 7/2007|
|Simeulue Regency||Sinabang||1999||UU 48/1999|
|Banda Aceh||*||1956||UU 24/1956|
The ending of the conflict, and the reconstruction program has resulted in the structure of the economy changing significantly since 2003. Service sectors now play a more dominant role, whilst oil and gas production continues to decline. The economy continues to rely upon depleting oil and gas production and agriculture.
|Sector (% Aceh GDP)||2003||2004||2005||2006|
|Agriculture and fisheries||17.0||20.0||21.4||21.2|
|Oil, Gas and Mining||36.1||30.4||26.2||24.9|
|Electricity and Water Supply||0.1||0.1||0.2||0.2|
|Building / Construction||3.4||3.8||3.5||5.1|
|Trade, hotels and restaurants||11.2||12.0||14.3||15.0|
|Transport & Communication||3.3||3.8||4.8||5.2|
|Banking & other Financial||0.9||1.2||1.2||1.3|
After peaking at 41.5% in December 2005, inflation has continued to decline steadily and was 8.5% in June 2007, close to the national level in Indonesia of 5.7%. Persistent inflation means that Aceh’s consumer price index (CPI) remains the highest in Indonesia. As a result, Aceh’s cost competitiveness has declined as reflected in both inflation and wage data. Although inflation has slowed down, CPI has registered steady increases since the tsunami. Using 2002 as a base, Aceh’s CPI increased to 185.6 (June 2007) while the national CPI increased to 148.2. There have been relatively large nominal wage increases in particular sectors, such as construction where, on average, workers’ nominal wages have risen to almost Rp.60,000 per day, from Rp.29,000 pre-tsunami. This is also reflected in Aceh’s minimum regional wage (UMR, or Upah Minimum Regional), which increased by 55% from Rp.550,000 pre-tsunami to Rp.850,000 in 2007, compared with an increase of 42% in neighboring North Sumatra, from Rp.537,000 to Rp.761,000.
Poverty levels increased slightly in Aceh in 2005 after the tsunami, but by less than expected. The poverty level then fell in 2006 to below the pre-tsunami level, suggesting that the rise in tsunami-related poverty was short lived and reconstruction activities and the end of the conflict most probably facilitated this decline. However, poverty in Aceh remains significantly higher than in the rest of Indonesia and a large number of the Acehnese remain vulnerable, reinforcing the need for a smooth landing after the reconstruction boom ends.
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 central and eastern part), Alas (in southeastern), Tamiang (in Aceh Tamiang), Aneuk Jamee (concentrated in southern and southwestern), Kluet (in South Aceh), and Simeulue (on Simeulue Island). There is also a significant population of Chinese, who are influential in the business and financial communities.
The Acehnese language is widely spoken within the Acehnese population. This is a member of the Aceh-Chamic group of languages, whose other representatives are mostly found in Vietnam and Cambodia, and is also closely related to the Malay group of languages. Achenese has many words borrowed from Malay and Arabic and traditionally was written using Arabic script. Acehnese is also used as local language in Langkat and Asahan (North Sumatra), and Kedah (Malaysia), and once dominated Penang. Alas and Kluet are closely related languages within the Batak group. The Jamee language originated from Minang language in West Sumatra, with just a few variation and differences.
Aceh was once a meeting point for people from many nations, and among the present day Acehnese can be found some individuals of Arab, Turkish, and Indian descent. Before the tsunami, the region of Meureuhom Daya (Lamno) used to have an unusually high number of people with fair complexions, blue eyes and blond hair, and local traditions attributed to Turkish or Portuguese ancestry.