May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Aceh homebound?

Aceh homebound?

Antje Missbach

Celebrating the Prophet’s birthday in Kuala Lumpur
Antje Missbach

Sunday afternoon in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. I’ve been invited to join a Maulid celebration to commemorate the birth of the Prophet Mohammad with the one of the numerous Acehnese community groups in Malaysia. While eating kuah pli u (a rich coconut goat curry), I am talking to Masrah, an Acehnese woman in her forties. She’s been living in Malaysia for nine years, along with her husband - a strong supporter of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) - and their four children.

Does Masrah want to return to Aceh now that there is peace? She’d very much like to, she says, but on one condition: she’d go alone. ‘All my children are in school and they will get a better education here’, she explains. So it might take a while longer for them to return. This is for the best. They’ll have more time to observe the peace from afar and make sure everything remains secure: ‘They can always visit their relatives back in Aceh every Idul Fitri.’

Sulaiman and Masrah (not their real names) face a dilemma that is typical for the majority of Acehnese still living on the eastern side of the Malacca Straits. Since GAM and the Indonesian government brought peace to Aceh by signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Helsinki in August 2005, several thousand Acehnese have decided for themselves that it is safe enough to go home and they’ve done so under their own initiative. Many thousands more are still in Malaysia, mulling over whether to stay or to leave.

Sulaiman, also a GAM supporter, has been living in Kuala Lumpur for 27 years. He has a different plan. Although he has built up a flourishing mini-market business and his two oldest children have just entered primary school, he has decided to go back to Aceh for good. Even though he doesn’t know what the future will hold, his longing for his homeland is stronger than the feeling of security he enjoys in Malaysia.

Acehnese in Malaysia

It’s hard to know exactly how many are making these choices. The number of Acehnese living outside Aceh is perhaps equivalent to one or two percent of the current total population of Aceh of 4.2 million. After the Indonesian government declared martial law in Aceh in May 2003, more than 100, 000 Acehnese fled the territory. Many sought refuge elsewhere in Indonesia, especially in the big cities. Probably a majority headed for Malaysia, where there was already a large and diverse Acehnese diaspora consisting of economic migrants, students, former Acehnese refugees with permanent residency, and Malaysian citizens of Acehnese descent. It’s only about 60 kilometres across the Straits, and economic, political and cultural links between Aceh and Malaysia go back centuries.

But nobody knows quite how many Acehnese refugees came to Malaysia. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says that between 2003 and 2005 a total of 39,981 Acehnese refugees registered with them. Only several hundred of these were relocated to third countries, mainly Canada, Norway and Denmark. In any case, insiders say the real number of Acehnese refugees is likely to be twice as high, because most did not register with the UNHCR.

Before the recent conflict increased their numbers, thousands of Acehnese had already been living in Malaysia, many of them arriving long ago. They were mostly businesspeople and traders. But due to the long history of conflict in Aceh, those previous émigrés also include refugees from the anti-Dutch war in the late nineteenth century, the civil war of the 1940s and the Darul Islam rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s. Later on, economic migrants followed. The Acehnese have a cultural concept of ‘merantau’, which means leaving one’s homeland temporarily to look for better economic opportunities and gain new skills. Until 1990, it was relatively easy for Acehnese to gain permanent residency in Malaysia. After that, as more and more people poured in, the Malaysian government became more restrictive.

Most Acehnese who came to Malaysia during the last 10 years entered the country illegally by boat and lived ‘underground’. One man, Mahmud, explains that this was not difficult. He arrived in the early 1990s: ‘No one knew that we were not Malays, we never spoke Acehnese on the street, we avoided meeting other Acehnese, we never did anything which would make people call the police in. That is why we could live for many years without documents and without being caught.’

Even so, the risk of being arrested, thrown in detention centres and deported was very real for refugees who were not registered with the UNHCR. Malaysia hosts a huge population of illegal migrants from around the region, and the authorities have a well-earned reputation for treating them roughly.

Acehnese who have been arrested and put in these immigration detention centres report abuses, unbearable hygiene conditions and no access to legal aid. Others, who were caught without any papers, have been punished by caning.

Now things are becoming uncertain even for those Acehnese who did secure temporary protection. Since the Helsinki peace agreement was signed, the UNHCR has stopped providing protection documents. The residence permit (IMM13) granted by the Malaysian government to Acehnese refugees, and which is generally known as the kartu tsunami or ‘tsunami card’ because it was handed out some months after the tsunami, is only temporary. It will run out at the end of 2007. Due to lobbying from influential Acehnese, it seems the Malaysian government might extend these permits, but nothing is certain.

What prevents return?

Many Acehnese in Malaysia are much more sceptical about the peace process than people who remain in Aceh. More the half of the Acehnese I’ve met while in Malaysia say they strongly wish to go home, but have opted for a ‘wait and see’ attitude because they don’t trust that peace is going to hold.

Before the gubernatorial elections last December, such people tended to say they wanted to await the outcome and see whether the aftermath remained peaceful. Nowadays, they tend to push the date for making up their minds back to 2009, when local political parties will compete in legislative elections in Aceh and when the former separatists could gain control of the province’s parliament.

A lot of these people, including those who have snuck in and out of Aceh since the peace began in order to check out the economic prospects back home, take a gloomy view of the occasional violent incidents which have occurred in Aceh in recent months. They generally interpret news reports of these incidents in a way that shows a lack of confidence in the political good will of the Indonesian government.

The Acehnese settled in Penang back in the 1890s
Antje Missbach

The stories that make their way abroad change and become exaggerated, with the number of victims almost always being much higher by the time they reach Malaysia. Such stories fuel all kind of conspiracy theories about hidden government agendas, military-sponsored militias and plans to reignite the conflict.

Some Acehnese back in Aceh say that those who remain overseas who don’t want to come back feel ashamed (malu) for having left Aceh during the conflict years, because those who they left behind continued to suffer from military and GAM atrocities. In Malaysia itself, nobody ever gives this reason. It’s often exactly the opposite: people who stay imply that they are the most militant. As Taufik, who is a part of a group in Malaysia which opposes the Helsinki peace agreement, puts it: ‘I will not return to Aceh before it is fully independent.’

Economic promise

Probably the most important issue which prevents people from returning is their economic prospects back in Aceh. Over recent years, Aceh has experienced a mini economic boom caused by the post-tsunami reconstruction. But not everybody can participate in this recovery. People who are not well educated find it difficult to find employment. For them, it pays better to be a construction worker in Malaysia than to go home. Even manual labourers who seldom get paid more than 50 ringgit (US$14.50 or Rp130,000) a day can still afford to send remittances to their families in Aceh.

Generally, despite the legal difficulties that Acehnese face in Malaysia, they enjoy a more comfortable life there than in their homeland. Many Acehnese who came here started as construction workers or in factories, but after a few years managed to save enough money to open their own convenience stores. Selling jamu (traditional medicine) or fruit, and running barbershops are other very common occupations. Acehnese are known as clever businesspeople and are feared by local small traders who are afraid they will be pushed aside. This has already happened in the thriving market district of Chowkit in Kuala Lumpur, which is dominated by Acehnese.

Some of the elite in the diaspora are returning to Aceh to participate in economic reconstruction. Right now, there is a flurry of effort going into attracting investment into Aceh from abroad. Acehnese businesspeople who have lived a long time in Malaysia are natural intermediaries in this process. There’s a rush on to set up import-export businesses. Agricultural products such as coffee, copra, cocoa and betel nuts are shipped from Aceh to Malaysia to be processed, whereas mostly electronic goods and clothes are brought from Malaysia to Aceh. In Penang, former PhD students from Aceh initiated an ‘Aceh Trading Center’, which aims to bring together investors from Malaysia and businesspeople from Aceh. In Kuala Lumpur, there is the even more grandly titled ‘Aceh World Trading Center’, a consortium of Malaysia-based Acehnese entrepreneurs who want to do business back home.

Then, of course, there is a whole category of former GAM leaders and other dissidents who have returned to Aceh to take on political leadership roles. To mention just one example, Nur Djuli, who has lived in Malaysia for decades and was a member of the GAM negotiating team in Helsinki, was recently appointed the head of the Aceh Reintegration Agency (BRA), the body in charge of distributing economic support to former combatants and conflict victims.

Working on a plantation in Malaysia does not qualify you to run your own plantation now in Aceh. 

Even so, many Acehnese have returned home to try to take advantage of the new opportunities. For example, in Samalanga on the east coast of Aceh, I met Arifuddin, who had been working in Malaysia for years. He explained that he got married after the peace agreement and since then has been returning to his village for short-term stays every now and then for as long as his savings will allow. One reason he came back was to witness the birth of his first child, but a second was to apply for a rumah tsunami (a ‘tsunami house’ – meaning one built by the government or an aid agency). Though he himself did not lose property during the tsunami, he wants to get such a house to rent it out when he goes back to work in Malaysia.

Hard realities

But these people are the exceptions. Many of the refugees in Malaysia lack formal education, professional skills and financial capital. They find it hard to get jobs back home or to otherwise take advantage of the new opportunities. Only those who are able to communicate fluently in English and have medium-level computer skills find it easy to get well-paying work in international NGOs or government bodies such as the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR). As Ismail, a NGO worker from Tapaktuan explains: ‘Working on a plantation in Malaysia, even for years, does not qualify you to run your own plantation now in Aceh.’

In Bireuen, I met four Acehnese who had returned home from Denmark, Norway and Malaysia several months earlier. Two told me that they were still looking for jobs. Their savings had run out, and they were dependent on the support of friends and families. One had founded a cooperative a month earlier, but it was too early to say whether that would provide him with enough income. The fourth had started to work for a local NGO, but he said, in a roundabout way, that this paid far less than he needed to support his family.

Acehnese living in Malaysia almost invariably have a very strong desire to return to the homeland. Everybody I ask tells me about how much they miss their home village, their family members and Acehnese food.

Nevertheless, returning is not that easy, especially for people who lack money, know-how and elite connections. When people know that they won’t prosper back home, they learn to live with their feelings of longing. Peace is not going to bring about the end of the Acehnese diaspora.   ii

Antje Missbach ( is writing her PhD on the Acehnese diaspora at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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