Another province soaked in blood
Acheh, a province in northern Sumatra, may hold a world record for conducting the longest war for independence from an occupying government, in this case, Indonesia. The struggle of Acheh has been going on for more than a century, first against the Netherlands, the original colonizer, and then when the Dutch were ousted in 1949, a struggle against Javanese imperialism, as Hasan M. Tiro, the self-exiled Achenese rebel leader describes it.
In 1951, the Achenese proclaimed an independent republic and thereby became the target first of the pro-communist Soekarno government and then of the recently ousted Suharto regime whose corruption is both ritualistically condemned and effectively ignored. Rebellious Acheh remains a military target under the successor Jakarta government headed by President Abdurrahman Wahid, who must answer to the powerful and genocidal Indonesian military. Indonesia’s generals, headed by Security Minister Gen. Wiranto, have just demonstrated who runs the country. Asked by Mr. Wahid to resign because of human rights violations in East Timor, Gen. Wiranto refused and Mr. Wahid backed down. Javanese imperialism wins again.
One of the iniquities of Western colonizers was that before surrendering their colonial hold, they coerced into so-called nation-states different peoples who at best were suspicious of and at worst hated each other for any number of ethnic, religious, or cultural reasons. The colonial powers in the 19th century set the official boundaries of these territorial possessions. With decolonization in the aftermath of World War II, these boundaries became sacrosanct for the new ruling elites, whether in Africa or Asia. Nation-building in such circumstances is difficult, sometimes impossible.
In 1949, the Dutch East Indies became “Indonesia,” an independent country whose islands stretch the equivalent distance of London to Teheran. But in actual fact there is no “Indonesia” in history or tradition any more than there is a “Nigeria,” or a “Ghana.” A heavy price was paid for this would-be nation-building. For several years until 1970, the Biafran civil war which took a million lives raged in Nigeria between Yorubas and Ibos. In Indonesia, many of these islanders resent what they called “Javanese imperialism,” since the Javanese elites dominate the government.
Acheh, an established state since the 16th century, claims to be the oldest sovereign state of Southeast Asia. It is a richly endowed region (especially in unexploited natural gas reserves) with over 4 million people and a long history of successful military resistance to the earlier Dutch occupation. Acheh is located on the northern tip of Sumatra, an island province of Indonesia. The central government in Djakarta has imposed on Acheh, whose people are devout Moslems, what the longtime leader of the Achenese rebellion, Tengku Hasan Mohammed Tiro, has called a reign of terror and what the Indonesian government calls a counterinsurgency campaign. Mr. Tiro, who founded the “Free Acheh” movement in 1976, makes his exile headquarters in Sweden. He is, formally, president of the Acheh/Sumatra National Liberation Front which claims to have a 100,000-strong guerrilla army.
The world knows about the near-genocidal massacre of the people of East Timor, some 600,000 killed since 1975 when Indonesia invaded and annexed the former Portuguese colony. What is little known in the West are the killings of the people of Acheh. In the last eight years alone, more than 50,000 Achenese have been killed and more than 100,000 wounded by Indonesian troops and the killings are still going on. Add to that death toll some 50,000 West Papuans and some 10,000 Moluccans and we have here a government which should be an abomination to the world.
The Achehense insurrection is strongly supported financially by the Moslem world and in the case of Libya with military training for the Achenese rebels. While it would appear that one solution for the Achehnese insurgency would be membership in a loose Indonesian confederation, Mr. Tiro has another idea: an independent Acheh joining The Commonwealth, or what used to be called the British Commonwealth. Historically, the Sultanate of Acheh had a long, friendly commercial and diplomatic relationship with England and Mr. Tiro would seek to revive that relationship.
And in the meantime the war between Jakarta and Acheh goes on.