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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Why You've Never Heard of Aceh

you don’t already live in Indonesia or Malaysia, you’ve probably only heard of Aceh before now if you have some idiosyncratic interest in the region. There are reasons for that. And the primary one is that Aceh’s last hundred years of history have been consumed with the struggle for independence. Aceh is the current home of one of the longest running civil wars on the planet. The Dutch, who colonized most of the rest of Indonesia, moved into Aceh in 1873. It took 41 years before the proud Sultanate of Aceh could finally be considered completely subjugated in 1914. Estimates of the number of Acehnese who died in the conflict range to about 100,000 - with another full million Acehnese men being wounded fighting against the Dutch. By 1942 the Acehnese were bargaining with the invading Japanese for independence from Dutch Indonesia. In 1950 the Dutch ceded sovereignty over Indonesia to the Jakarta government and the Republic of Indonesia was born; the response in Aceh was that sovereignty over Aceh did not belong to the Dutch for them to cede. Indonesia became a secular republic populated with Muslims, much like Turkey. Those Indonesians who wanted to see the country become an Islamic republic rebelled in the 1950’s; the war was called the Darul Islam, or “House of Islam” rebellion. Aceh was part of it. The rebellion failed. Between 1959 and 1976 the Jakarta government tried to make concessions to Aceh. It is a special administrative district, the only place in Indonesia where Islamic law applies. But Aceh, with its rich natural resources, oil reserves, and history was never pacified. In 1976 Aceh Merdeka, or "Free Aceh," was founded as an armed resistance group and Islamist forces (under that and other names) and the government have been shooting at each other ever since. They try to avoid hitting tourists, and the fact that not many come makes that task easier. Whether you want to reckon the war as being in its 28th year or having lasted 131 years now is really academic: the Acehenese see themselves as having been fighting to regain their independence now for portions of three centuries. It is not always clear which side is winning. That is only the recent history of the region. If you think of Sumatra as a mosquito infested backwater peopled by functional illiterates who till the land behind their water buffalo, consider this: for 640 years the royal family of one of Asia’s greatest empires, Sri Vijaya, was based in Sumatra, in Palembang. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim I-Ching arrived in the city in 671 AD and found 35 ships from Persia in the harbor. And I-Ching stayed to study Buddhism there with that city’s thousand or so Buddhist monks in part because Sumatra was one of the few centers of learning when the Sanskrit and Pali of the ancient manuscripts could be translated into I-Ching’s Chinese. Those translations became the basis of Buddhism in China. Aceh itself was the doorway through which Islam entered the region less than 100 years after the death of Muhammad. The Islamic Kingdom of Perlak was established in modern Aceh in 804 AD. And Arab merchants set up the first Sultanate of Aceh in about 1000 AD. Marco Polo visited the Sultanate in 1292 and was suitably impressed. At its high point in the 17th Century the Sultanate of Aceh controlled most of Sumatra. And it is from the old Islamic kingdom called Samudra, once located in modern Aceh, that the island of Sumatra gets its name.

1 comment:

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