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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Understanding Aceh

Tourism, Oil, and Islam in Aceh
What purpose does tourism serve? It generates revenue, economic development. It provides jobs and income. The Acehnese don’t see the point. If they were independent, Aceh’s oil reserves would make it a wealthy nation of a few million people. As it is, the ethnic Acehnese see both tourism and oil as providing jobs mostly for Javanese who migrate to the region to work. The revenue, as they see it, is taken and spent by Jakarta in more impoverished (and less Islamic) portions of the country while their own needs remain neglected. For over ten centuries the Acehnese have had the region’s strongest ties with the Arab world. The Acehnese are far more influenced by Arab thought than any of the Malay peoples that surround them. The radical Wahhabi view of Islam held by many of the Bedouins of Saudi Arabia is the Islam of Aceh.
Their neighbors hold more liberal views. Tourism is also problematic in other ways to the Acehnese. Acehnese women do actually swim at the beach, but they do so fully clothed. The idea of foreign women lounging around half clothed on a beach in Aceh (where Islamic laws about modesty apply) is culturally and religiously offensive. And the people of Aceh do not see tourism as a possible economic boon. Who needs it? If they simply got rid of their Javanese colonizers they would need tourism revenue only slightly more desperately than Bahrain or Brunei. And as long as Jakarta’s people run the province, tourism dollars get spent elsewhere. Don’t misunderstand. The Acehnese are among the friendliest, most cordial people in Asia. They are more than welcoming toward outsiders who don’t violate their cultural norms. But Aceh is not like the rest of Indonesia. Pulau Weh will never be Phuket. And Aceh is unlikely to ever become the tourist playground that is Thailand, or even Bali. That possibility is gladly sacrificed by the Acehnese on the alter of their own history and heritage. It will be interesting to see how the international relief effort and the response of the government to this disaster changes life in Aceh – if at all…

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