May 17, 2022 Last Updated 8:50 AM, May 6, 2022

From heroes to rebels

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Jakarta's Aceh policy suddenly looks remarkably colonial

Sylvia Tiwon

'From Sabang to Merauke the islands stretch, linking up to make one; that is Indonesia' proclaims a well-known patriotic song all Indonesian school children are taught to sing. In Jakarta, the names of important streets enumerate heroes from all over the islands, reinforcing the same symbolic claim: Jalan Tengku Cik Ditiro, Jalan Pattimura, Jalan Sisingamangaraja, Jalan Diponegoro.

The city seems constructed according to a historical masterplan revolving around its heart at Merdeka (Independence) Square, as though to teach all those travelling its congested roadways an object lesson in the national motto 'unity in diversity'. Yet today, events conspire to reveal that unity as a fiction maintained through often violent indoctrination. 'Merdeka' has become a rallying cry for provinces who experience Indonesian nationhood as a new form of colonial oppression. These movements for independent statehood have reached a crescendo in the wake of Suharto's fall from power. None has been as threatening to the state as Aceh's.

Aceh is important to the Indonesian national imagination in many ways. Spatially, it marks the northwestern boundary of the great archipelago. Historically, Aceh's long war against the Dutch - 1873-1903, a war the Dutch never really won - makes it a critical reference point for Indonesia's anti-colonial struggle.

The province is known as Tanah Rencong, a reference to the dagger that took the lives of many Dutchmen in the 'Aceh murders' that continued to plague the Dutch even after the war had ended. Out of the Aceh War comes the name Cut Nyak Dien, the only fighting woman Indonesia claims in its pantheon of national heroes. She is often contrasted with Kartini, the Javanese princess who engaged in a different battle from within the confines of her father's mansion.

After the fall of the Japanese in 1945, the Dutch did not bother to return to Aceh, knowing they would never be welcomed. Aceh's contributions to the nationalist cause during the years of revolution following World War II, most notably by donating Indonesia's first aircraft, made it a significant example of non-Javanese support for the Republic.

Aceh is also known as Serambi Mekkah, the doorway to Islam's holy land, partly because in the days before air transportation pilgrims from all points in the archipelago going to Mekkah on the haj by steamer had to stop at the Acehnese port of Sabang before crossing the Indian Ocean. Even more important is Aceh's own strong Islamic identity, rooted in the history of the spice trade and intellectual activity in the Acehnese courts. Darker

Strangely however, these same qualities of heroism, Islamic identity and strategic importance have also been refashioned by the central government in Jakarta to construct a darker image of Aceh. From Jakarta's perspective, Aceh's rebellious tradition and its strong adherence to an Islamic identity also constitute a threat to progress and national unity. In order to understand this paradoxical construct of Aceh, it is necessary to look at another factor that has made Aceh so crucial to the republic.

For in addition to its cultural and political value, Aceh also represents great economic value. Its vast natural resources include oil, gas, timber, coffee and palm oil. It is to protect its stakes in this wealth that Jakarta has deployed the spectre of separatism and Islamic radicalism, mounting a policy of control through military force and manipulation that ironically harks back to the callous 'Aceh policy' of the Dutch colonial government.

The greatest share of the revenue from Aceh's resources has been siphoned off by Jakarta-based interests. In the midst of all this natural wealth, the region has the highest percentage of poor villages in the island of Sumatra. Poor infrastructure leaves large portions of the hinterland inaccessible, while most public education and health services are located in the industrial cities and the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Only about 5% of total export revenue remains within Aceh, and most of that is in the hands of mid-sized enterprises owned mainly by non-indigenous Acehnese.

In the wake of economic expansion directed from Jakarta, indigenous peoples have been evicted from traditional land-holdings, while fisherfolk fight a losing battle against modern fishing concerns. The extractive nature of large enterprise coupled with a lack of public supervision has led to serious environmental degradation. Grassroots protests generally go unreported and do not register on the national consciousness.

A significant part of Aceh's current problems may be attributed to the fact that the New Order moved swiftly to co-opt traditional leadership, disrupt indigenous structures of community governance, and nurture a small group of the Acehnese elite. Through the laws on regional administration, the central government imposed a uniform structure on villages, using the Javanese model to replace Aceh's gampong, mukim and meunasah, and undermining the traditional authority of the keucik, the village head. The religious teachers (ulama) were similarly brought under centralised control through the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI).

Worse still, the armed forces' territorial command permeated all levels of Acehnese society, in effect creating a parallel structure of armed power in which the Acehnese had no say. The people thus saw their traditional community structures dismantled and replaced by an essentially alien bureaucracy controlled from a distant centre.

After the Aceh War, the Dutch colonial government sought to diminish the threat it perceived from the ulama who had led the war. They did this by co-opting the local chieftains (uleebalang), granting the latter rights to land and taxes in return for loyalty to the colonial masters.

In similar style, the New Order brought important members of the Acehnese elite under its influence by offering them a significant share in the wealth of the region. For example, George Aditjondro identifies Ibrahim Risyad, who is allied with Liem Sioe Liong and Suharto. Under a joint venture with Robby Sumampouw, a Benny Murdani financier, Risyad expanded his business to Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Another powerful Acehnese is Bustanil Arifin, former minister and head of the rice distribution agency Bulog, whose wife is related to the late Mrs Suharto. He has been a major player in the Bogasari flour mill Berdikari, a state enterprise that he managed to turn into a private company, and is involved in several Suharto foundations.

The central government has yet to learn the full lesson of the failure of Dutch colonial policy. In l946, Aceh witnessed a bloody social revolution against the uleebalang who were perceived to be deeply corrupt. Yet Jakarta continues to focus on Islamic radicalism as the root of the upheavals in Aceh. In a bid to neutralise calls for a referendum on independence or autonomy, the government has introduced legislation intended to enhance Aceh's autonomy by granting it the right to enact syari'ah law. This is clearly not enough.

A more equitable sharing of revenue is necessary. More crucial - and far more difficult - is to bring to justice the perpetrators of the most outrageous human rights violations. The people of Aceh have had to pay with their lives and the honour of women for the business interests of the few. It is time to right the moral balance.

Sylvia Tiwon ( is Associate Professor of Indonesian at the University of California at Berkeley. George Aditjondro, 'Tragedi Aceh' will shortly appear with Pijar, Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000

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