Aceh's History of No Surrender

Acehnese children try to rebuild their school after it was torched in fighting between the Acehnese rebels and the Indonesian military
Acehnese children begin rebuilding their school after it was torched in fighting between separatist rebels and the Indonesian military (Photo: AFP).

The rebel leader’s voice rose to a half-shout: “We never surrendered to the Dutch, never. And we will never surrender to the Javanese.”

Aceh’s secessionist rebel movement will quote chunks of history at any sceptic who doubts the validity of their independence claims.

The resource-rich northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island was once a wealthy and powerful independent sultanate, with its own navy and standing army and, in the early 17th century, ambassadors in Europe.

It was not to last. The Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 ­ under which the Dutch gave up all claims to India and Singapore and the British signed away Sumatra ­ recognized Acehnese independence. In 1871, however, the agreement was amended to allow a Dutch invasion. In 1873, the Dutch set out to colonize Aceh. The first battle was written up in The New York Times as particularly bloody: “The attack was repulsed with great slaughter. The Dutch general was killed, and his army put to disastrous flight. It appears, indeed, to have been literally decimated.”

U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant later issued a famous “Proclamation of Impartial Neutrality in the war between Holland and Aceh,” much cited by the separatists.

Yet the Dutch refused to give up and 30 years later, in 1903, Sultan Muhammed Daud Syah surrendered. He later initiated a guerrilla insurgency and the Aceh-Dutch war dragged on intermittently until 1942, when the Japanese arrived in the Dutch East Indies.

Indonesia declared independence in 1945 and, with some Acehnese help, began to beat back the Dutch, who had returned to reclaim their possessions after World War II ended. Yet, say the Acehnese, they were repaid with a betrayal. Despite never having been formally incorporated into Dutch colonial possession, Aceh was forced to become part of the new nation of Indonesia.

Dutch colonialism was followed by Javanese colonialism, they say. In 1976 the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was founded,­ and the secessionist guerrilla war has been fought sporadically ever since, costing thousands of lives.

Independence is GAM’s raison d’être, which is why few hold out much hope for peace talks due to start in Tokyo today. A last-minute upset, in which five GAM negotiators were arrested at Banda Aceh airport yesterday on their way to Tokyo, threatened to derail the process. [Talks broke down on May 19. Hours later, Jakarta began its military campaign against the Acehnese rebels—WPR].

Indonesia has been extremely touchy about separatism since the East Timor disaster, and it will brook no rebellion. It continues to prepare for an all-out military crackdown in Aceh, saying GAM must renounce independence before talks can begin. Since the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre brokered a “cessation of hostilities” agreement last December, the Acehnese have enjoyed a brief respite from the daily run of shootings, death, and assaults. But now the diametrically opposed aims of Indonesia and the rebel leaders have again ripped the peace into tatters, and the Acehnese are again braced for war.