Last week, Macam-Macam posted a wide-ranging update on the “Boxing Day Tsunami” that included a link to a long backgrounder on the history of Aceh in, of all places, Margo Kingston’s web diary at the Sydney Morning Herald. The backgrounder is entitled “The Aceh conflict: past, present and Quo Vadis?” by a “PF Journey” of Chinese Indonesian background. Here’s a sample of what it has to say. (I’ve corrected a few of the typos that seem to be a Margo Kingston speciality.)
From Sabang to Merauke – Can 225 millions Indonesians be wrong?
Another one of Sukarno’s famous catchcries was “From Sabang to Merauke”. Sabang is located on an island in Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra, the westernmost island in the Indonesian archipelago. (It was badly hit by the Tsunami). Merauke is located in West Papua near the border with PNG, and is the most easterly city of Indonesia.
It was the catchcry Sukarno and his nationalists of the 20s and 30s used to rally the people of Indonesia against the Dutch colonial power. It was also a nation building tool, for there was no Indonesia in those days. Indonesia, as the political entity as we know today, is a recent creature.
Every Indonesian student from Kindergarten to University has been constantly brainwashed and taught songs about “From Sabang to Merauke”. The Indonesians like to say that the sun rises at Meurake and sets in Sabang. To the average Indonesian, the unity of Indonesia from Sabang to Merauke is firmly etched in their consciousness. East Timor was more like an adopted son, whereas Aceh is like the number one son in the family.
Aceh is also known as Serambi Mekkah, the gateway to Mecca. Before the age of air transport, ships carrying Indonesian pilgrims on the way Mecca for the Haj had to stop at Sabang before crossing the Indian Ocean. Aceh has also been described as “the front porch of Mecca”. To a lot of Indonesian Muslims, Aceh is their holy land, so the spiritual and emotional attachment to Aceh is far far stronger than to East Timor.
Obviously this cut no ice with the Acehnese, especially with the Aceh Nationalists. Tengku Hasan Di Tiro, head of GAM (Free Aceh Movement), declared in 1976:
“There never was such a people, much less a nation, in our part of the world by that name (Indonesia). No such people existed in the Malay archipelago by definition of ethnology, philology, cultural anthropology, sociology or by any other scientific findings. Indonesia is a Javanese republic with a Greek pseudo-name.” (Indo- (combining form of India) + Greek nes(os): islands + -ia (suffix for country).
Indonesia’s total population is about 230 million. There are about 5 million Acehnese. Can 225 million Indonesians be wrong? …
The tsunami wildcard: curse or blessing?
A blessing? It puts Aceh on the front page. The world now knows where Aceh is and its problems. It exposes the incompetence of the Indonesia government and the military.
It provides a circuit breaker for GAM and the Indonesian Government, with a face saving opportunity to secure a peaceful deal. The AP reported recently:
“BANDA ACEH, Indonesia Rebels in Aceh Province said Monday that they were willing to put their demand for secession on hold if Indonesia accepted a “face-saving” formula that would allow the tsunami-hit region to hold an independence referendum within 5 to 10 years. Members of the Indonesian government and rebel leaders from Aceh Province held talks over the weekend in Helsinki to consider a possible cease-fire and to reopen a peace process that was broken in May 2003 by the Indonesian military.”
With the aid money that is pouring in, estimated to be US$5-10 billion, Aceh can be re-built, providing its long suffering people with better facilities and infrastructure. Aceh will not and cannot be closed again to the outside world by the military or the Islamic fundamentalists.
A curse? Conservative estimates put the tsunami’s death toll at about 5% of the population and it has affected about 40% of the population. The tsunami destroyed whatever basic infrastructure the region had. The Acehnese fear that after the initial shock and horror of the disaster the outside world will forget Aceh and things will go back to normal, out of sight and out of mind.
Influential Islamic clerics have declared that the tsunami that hit Aceh is Allah’s warning to the Acehnese against the influence of decadent western values and that they must more strictly observe their religion, including putting a stop to Muslims killing Muslims.
Another red flag needs to be raised here – the size of aid money that is pouring in for Aceh. Will this become the new honey pot for the corrupt officials from both sides? If so, the poor people of Aceh will be hit by a triple whammy: Firstly, the never ending war; secondly, the Tsunami; thirdly, another betrayal.