Review: Edward Aspinall’s ambitious study of the Acehnese rebellion provides valuable insights into this complex conflict
I always invite my students of Southeast Asian politics to reflect upon the similarities and differences between the rebellions in Aceh, Patani, and Mindanao. Protracted conflicts involving rebellions against central governments by Muslims, they involve complex concepts and questions, including those of identity (nationalism, ethnicity, and religion) and state-building in the wake of the decolonisation process. Brighter students become intrigued by the starkly different trajectory of the Aceh case, including the ‘puzzling situation’ of ‘how a society famed for its Islamic piety gave rise to a guerrilla movement that ended up rejecting the Islamic goals of its forebears’, as the cover blurb of this new classic puts it. My future students will find in Aspinall’s excellent study many of the answers to the questions raised during their reflection on the rebellions. They will find much else besides.
Although expressed with characteristic modesty, this is an ambitious study. Aspinall has set out to provide a balanced and thorough historical narrative of the Aceh conflict, while simultaneously discussing the Acehnese case in relation to a broad array of theoretical debates and comparative studies associated with Islam, nationalism, civil wars, and internal conflict. The objective is not merely to employ these theoretical perspectives as analytical tools to facilitate his study of Aceh, which he does to great effect. The aim is also to contribute - through his treatment of the Acehnese case - to the broader comparative debates. Based on years of painstaking research, including several hundred interviews conducted in Aceh as well as in other countries such as Sweden and Malaysia, this study succeeds in attaining its lofty aims. In the process Aspinall has delivered an abundance of important insights, packaged into a sustained and subtle series of interconnected arguments elegantly presented which add greatly to our understanding of the conflict in Aceh and to its apparent resolution.
My future students will find in Aspinall’s excellent study many of the answers to the questions raised during their reflection on the rebellions. They will find much else besides
Amongst his key findings, Aspinall shows how a series of contingent circumstances and some specific decisions by key individuals led logically (but certainly not inexorably) to the re-emergence of an Acehnese rebellion in 1976 in a separatist and nationalist form as GAM (the Free Aceh Movement); rather than reviving as something along the lines of its earlier Islamist form (despite the strong family links between Darul Islam and GAM participants). He goes on to persuasively explain how the intrinsic logic of GAM’s goal of an independent nation state compelled the construction of a nationalist narrative and an Acehnese identity sharply differentiated from Indonesia. Combined with other factors, including its internationalist strategy and certain sociological changes, this propelled GAM further in a nationalist and secularist direction. Later the same factors, combined with shifts in the political context, notably the collapse of the Suharto regime, propelled GAM towards adopting a democracy and human rights discourse. Paradoxically, at first glance, Aspinall goes on to show how ‘some of the ingredients that had helped GAM’s growth as a nationalist insurgency also proved critical to its decision to abandon the independence goal’.
Based on years of painstaking research, including several hundred interviews conducted in Aceh as well as in other countries such as Sweden and Malaysia, this study succeeds in attaining its lofty aims
There is much more for those interested in the Aceh conflict, including sophisticated and unromanticised analyses of GAM’s (relative) success as an insurgency, and of its multi-dimensional nature including its sometimes ambiguous relationships with the state apparatus. The book also succeeds admirably on its comparative studies level, sustaining a rich and fruitful dynamic between the particulars of the Acehnese context and ‘wider theories about nationalism, its relations with religion and about civil war’. Those interested in these wider questions rather than in Aceh per se will surely find this work equally rewarding.
I took (only) this book with me to read on a recent short visit to Aceh, my first since 1978. Quite apart from the book’s intellectual worth, I am immensely grateful to its author for providing such a ‘page turner’ for the flights and airport waiting - not a comment that can often be made about academic studies. ii
Edward Aspinall. Islam and Nation: Separatist Rebellion in Aceh, Indonesia. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009. 312 pp.
Steven Drakeley (S.Drakeley@uws.edu.au) is a senior lecturer in Asian and Islamic Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney.