The Rise

Flag of Aceh Sultanate from

Flag of the Sultanate of Aceh

Aceh was initially a vassal state of Sultan Ma’arif Shah of Pedir but one day Sultan Ali Mughayat Shah of Aceh defied his overlord. As Pedir was too weak to regain control, so from that day Aceh become an independent Sultanate. Aceh’s fortune changed with a meteoric rise when Malacca fell to the Portuguese in 1511. Portuguese persecution of Muslims forced wealthy Muslims traders such as Arab and Gujarati merchants to move away from Malacca to Aceh, even some non-Muslims traders from China or India also shifted their trading posts from Malacca to Aceh. This circumstance brought considerable wealth to Aceh, strengthened the Sultanate, enabled her to grow from a country of no importance to major military and economical power in the Strait. With power significant enough to deter other competing powers in the area.

One aspect of Aceh military strength was it close relationship with Ottoman Empire. As early as 1564, during the reign of Sultan Hussain Ali Riayat Syah, Aceh had sent embassy to Istanbul to visit the court of Suleiman the Magnificent.

After the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, his son Selim II ordered that a fleet be sent to Aceh. A number of soldiers, gunsmiths and engineers were sent in this Ottoman fleet, together with ample supplies of weapons and ammunition. A first fleet was sent consisting in 15 galleys equipped with artillery, but had to be diverted to fight an uprising in Yemen. Finally only two ships arrived in 1566–67, but numerous other fleets and shipments would follow. The first expedition was led by Kurtoğlu Hızır Reis. The Acehnese paid for the shipments in pearls, diamonds and rubies. In 1568, the Acehnese attacked Malacca in the Siege of Malacca, although the Ottomans do not seem to have participated directly. It seems however that the Ottomans were able to supply cannonneers to the campaign, but were unable to provide more due to the ongoing invasion of Cyprus and an uprising in Aden.

The Ottomans taught the Acehnese how to found their own cannons, some of which reached considerable size, and the craft of making cannons had spread throughout the Maritime Southeast Asia; famous cannons were made in Makassar, Mataram, Minangkabau, Malacca and Brunei. Many of these rare cannons were captured by the European colonialists, and the bells of several Dutch churches in Aceh were made from melted Ottoman cannons. Some of these bells still carry the Ottoman crest which were originally casted on those cannons. By the beginning of the 17th century, Aceh boasted about 1200 medium-sized bronze cannons, and about 800 other weapons such as breech-loading swivel guns and arquebuses.

Aceh Naval Attack from

Aceh Navy

Aceh’s wars of conquest to gain more control of the Strait were ultimately successful (Aceh even conquered Pedir, its former overlord) and also brought into its possession several territories rich in pepper and gold in Sumatra and Malay peninsula. Aceh military prowess even able to keep the Portuguese in checked, halted Portuguese attempts to dominate trade in the Strait. This situation effectively made Portuguese conquest of Malacca mostly useless.

By 1820, Aceh supplied half the world’s pepper. A powerful and wealthy kingdom, it maintained relations with foreign powers including the Ottoman Empire, France, Great Britain, and the United States.

This level of power and Aceh relationship with various countries soon attracted danger. The Dutch trading company, VOC, soon felt its effort to monopolized trade in this archipelago was threatened by Aceh.

The War with Netherlands

Aceh has a history of political independence and fierce resistance to control by outsiders, including the former Dutch colonists and the Indonesian government. Aceh is the last region subdued by the Dutch.

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Image of General Kohler Got Shot from Troepen Museum Amsterdam

The Aceh War began on March 26, 1873 when Citadel van Antwerpen, the Dutch fleet command ship released its canon shots to Acehnese coasts. On April 8, 1873, Dutch invasion forces led by Major General Major General Johan Harmen Rudolf Köhler landed on Acehnese soil. This invading army managed to capture coastal areas and stormed the capital, Banda Aceh. However, the Dutch underestimated Aceh military power, they could not went further, Acehnese finally repulsed Köhler troops back to the sea, even Köhler himself was killed in the process.

The Dutch did came back in November 1873, led by General Jan van Swieten with troops four times larger than what Köhler brought few months back. Learned from previous mistakes, the Dutch successfully overcame Acehnese resistance and captured Banda Aceh in January 1874. On January 30th, 1874 van Swieten declared the annexation of Sultanate of Aceh into Dutch crown.

Van Heutz in Aceh War

However, the Sultan escaped and Acehnese army although had been driven out of the capital was still a coherent fighting force. Soon, the Dutch found themselves plunged into a long and exhausting guerrilla warfare. It’s a total war, nobilities and common people, men and women joined the rank of resistance forces all over Aceh. The Dutch had to continue launching military operations until 1880, they tried to pacify Acehnese with various efforts, military or non-military approaches. They even built a Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh to win the heart of Acehnese and as gesture of reconciliation. This move did appeased some of the people, the result shown on the condition of confrontation

Aceh Soldiers

which slowly diminished into minor skirmishes in jungles. However, it was not long before major conflict broke again in 1883, the Dutch responded with harsh tactics involving scorched earth tactics and massacre but it could not stop Acehnese push to expel the Dutch out of Aceh’s interior. Entering 1894, practically there was no Dutch presence all over Aceh except for a small fortified area inside the capital only. It had been 20 years since van Swieten declared the annexation of Sultanate of Aceh into the Netherlands Kingdom, but now it was the Dutchmen who cannot live in peace within Aceh soil.

Masjid Raya from

Masjid Raya at Banda Aceh from Fotolibre, A Token of Reconciliation from the Dutch

The Dutch finally changed its overall tactics when an expert of Islam, Dr. Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, arrived in Aceh. He was employed as adviser by Major J.B. van Heutsz, a colonial military leader, to help him solved his problems in Aceh. An expert of Islamic teaching and culture, fluent in several languages including Arabic, Turkish, Malay and Acehnese, Hurgronje quickly understood van Heutsz problems. He could grasped varying aspects of Acehnese society and each of their roles in Acehnese resistances to Dutch control. Hurgronje also finally understood that the spirit of Acehnese resistance was not only religious-based but also cultural-based so it could so widely embraced by all Acehnese. Especially one of the literature, a thrilling rhymes called Hikayat Prang Sabi which narratively told its readers about the noble status of everyone who fought in the war against infidel who attacked their homeland. He advised van Heutsz not to continue to launch frontal and open war against the Acehnese, because although technologically inferior, almost all Acehnese will surely fight to the death, down to last man in every battle. This attitude already proved to inflict bloody and costly war to the Dutch. So, he proposed a well-organized covert operations to win the heart of Acehnese, especially its aristocratic elites and muslim leaders who considered “soft”. Hurgronje still approved harsh military operations but it had to be highly concentrated and isolated operation to subdue few hardline muslim leaders. Hurgronje also urged the Dutch leadership to widen the existing gulf between the Acehnese nobility and traditional religious leaders. These tactics proved successful, slowly Acehnese resistance lost their base of supports. With Hurgronje advices, the Dutch began to install more and more Acehnese aristocrats within Dutch’s administration and more and more concentrated military actions from the new military unit, the lightly-armed but highly trained and highly mobile, the Marechaussee units. The Dutch continued to practice this tactic to embrace all parties showing acceptance to Dutch rules and sent out concentrated military operations with this special force to quickly massacre and scorched anyone and anyplace detected as emerging resistance stronghold.

End of the Sultanate

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The Last Sultan of Aceh Capitulated

In 1898 finally most Aceh can be pacified and Van Heutsz was proclaimed governor of Aceh and by following Hurgronje advises, he continued to gain more territories under Dutch control. In 1903, the last Sultan of Aceh, Muhammad Daud Syah, finally capitulated, effectively ended Acehnese resistance as coordinated fighting forces. By 1904 most of Aceh was under Dutch control, and had an indigenous government that cooperated with the colonial state. The Dutch consolidated their control over Aceh by practising a policy of religious tolerance as a means of dissuading the Acehnese from taking up an armed struggle. Nevertheless, episodes of marked Dutch military cruelty still occurred during this period.

Aceh was entering new chapter of it’s history. Aceh as a state was practically dissolved. However, colonial influence in the remote highland areas of Aceh such as Gayo was never substantial, and limited guerrilla resistance led by religious ulema persisted as late as 1914. Even Dutch citizens and personnel still were targeted by sporadic suicidal attacks by Acehnese patriots. This phenomenon was popular among the Dutch as the “Atjeh-moord” or “Aceh murder” and forced the Dutch government to maintain substantial forces within the province.

That First Airplane Displayed on Aceh Pavillion at Taman Mini Indonesia Indah

And even without the Sultan’s flag, in the mid 1920, Aceh again fell into a big guerrilla war against the Dutch, which only ceased briefly when the Dutch in this archipelago suddenly surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. The Japanese enjoyed brief welcome as liberator but soon several policies from Japanese imperial administration (especially Japanese belief that their emperor is God’s descendant) came into conflict with Acehnese strict adherent to Islamic values. In no time, the Japanese had to experience what the Dutch had experienced years before. A mass and fierce rebellion broke out and devastated Japanese forces stationed there. In October 1945, news reach Acehnese fighters that a new state on previously territory known as Dutch East Indies had been proclaimed in Jakarta and the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Powers. Acehnese fighters swept across Aceh, disarmed almost all Japanese troops by themselves without waiting Allied troops to come. Acehnese guerrilla declared themselves were part of the whole Indonesian revolutionary forces, especially after Indonesian first president, Soekarno, promised that even Indonesia will not become an Islamic Republic, Aceh will be granted special autonomy, Islamic law will govern Aceh. Aceh resistance leader at that time, Teungku Daud Beureueh, was pleased with that promise. Aceh now became revolutionary stronghold, even the Dutch bypassed Aceh when they launched contra-revolutionary actions between 1947 to 1948 to bring back this archipelago under Dutch control. During this Indonesian War of Independence, the Acehnese again showed that they are people who put dignity above all else. Despite their difficulties, they were able to collect money, gold and various valuable things to purchase Indonesian first transport airplane to overcome Dutch Naval blockade. This airplane registered as RI-001 was also the first airplane owned by then the national air-carrier of Indonesia, Garuda Indonesia.

The Indonesian Era

Teungku Daud Beureueh

As Indonesia consolidate control over its territory, Daud Beureuh was appointed as Military Governor of Aceh, the ruler of Aceh. However, although longer than the Japanese, the new nation of Indonesia that Acehnese willingly joined and even strongly supported finally met with the firmness of Acehnese attitude, maybe, partly because Indonesian goverment was not sensitive with Acehnese strong self-esteem. After the Dutch formally surrendered its authority over this archipelago in 1949, Indonesian government dissolved Aceh province and amalgamated into North Sumatra. Acehnese were dissatisfied, the central government began to be seen as traitor because now the prospect of Islamic law implementation was dim.

In 1953, when Kartosuwiryo from West Java declared the creation of Indonesia Islamic State (Darul Islam), Daud Beureueh issued his endorsement to the rebellion and Aceh was declared part of that Islamic state. Aceh again fell into state of war, the central government launched miitary operation to quell this rebellion. Though there was no big open battle just like in Dutch era, but none could deny that it was a cruel and bloody conflict. However, both parties finally came into peace agreement in 1963. Daud Beureueh and his people agreed to lay down arms and in return the government agreed to reestablish the province of Aceh including it’s special autonomy status.

Aceh is quiet for some time until the 70s when under agreement with Indonesian central government, American oil and gas companies began exploitation of Aceh natural resources. Alleged unequal distribution of profit between central government and people of Aceh induced Hasan di Tiro, former ambassador of Darul Islam, to call for Independent Aceh. He proclaimed Aceh Independence in 1976.

The movement had a small number of followers initially, and Hasan di Tiro himself had to live in exile in Sweden. Meanwhile, the province followed Suharto’s policy of economic development and industrialization. During late 80s several security incidents prompted the Indonesian central government to take repressive measures and to send troops to Aceh. Aceh was declared as Daerah Operasi Militer (Military Operation Area) and human rights abuse was rampant until the next decade. This was resulting in many grievances on the part of the Acehnese toward the Indonesian central government.

Women Soldiers of Free Aceh Movement

During late 90s, chaos in Java and weakened central government due to the Asian Economic Crisis gave advantage to Free Aceh Movement and resulted in the second phase of the rebellion, this time with large support from the Acehnese people. This support was demonstrated during the 2000 plebiscite in Banda Aceh which was attended by nearly half million people (out of its four million population). Indonesian central government responded in 2001 by broadening Aceh’s autonomy by giving its government the right to apply Islamic law more broadly and the right to receive direct foreign investment. However, this was again accompanied by repressive measures, and in 2003 an offensive began and a state of emergency was proclaimed in the Province. The security crackdowns during this time resulted in several thousand civilian deaths. The government launched a large 2003-2004 Indonesian offensive in Aceh against the Free Aceh Movement in 2003 with some success. the Free Aceh Movement was severely hit by these series of offensives, in which the organisation lost approximately 50% of its fighters, including its military Chief Commander Abdullah Syafei’i Dimatang who was killed in a military ambush on January 2002.

Blessing in Disguise within Greatest Tsunami

On December 26th, 2004, a great disaster of this century happened. An earthquake with a magnitude of between 9.1 and 9.3, the third largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph, devastated several area around Indian Ocean. This earthquake had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between 8.3 and 10 minutes. It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 centimetre (0.4 inches) and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska. Its epicentre was between Simeulue island and Sumatra island, Indonesia. And the area of Aceh was taking the hardest hit. This earthquake triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing over 230,000 people in fourteen countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 meters high. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

U.S. Geological Survey Web Site wrote that the earthquake that generated the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 is estimated to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

On Tuesday, 28 December 2004, in the aftermath of the devastation caused by a massive tsunami, GAM declared a ceasefire of hostilities to allow for aid to reach within the disputed area. In turn, the Indonesian government temporarily removed its security restrictions to allow for rescue efforts in that area.

On 27 February 2005, the Free Aceh Movement and the delegation of the Indonesian government started another round of peace talks in Vantaa, Finland, moderated by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. On 16 July 2005, the Indonesian Minister of Communication and Free Aceh Movement announced a peace deal to end the thirty-year insurgency. The peace agreement was officially signed on 15 August by chief Indonesian negotiator Hamid Awaluddin and Free Aceh Movement leader Malik Mahmud.

Under the terms of the agreement, both sides agreed to cease all hostilities immediately. Free Aceh Movement also agreed to disarm, while the Government pledged to withdraw all non-local military and police by the end of 2005. An Aceh Monitoring Mission was set up by the EU and ASEAN to oversee the process of disarmament and the reintegration into society of all Free Aceh Movement members. A presidential decree granted amnesty to about five hundred former Free Aceh Movement members who were in exile in other countries, and unconditionally released about 1,400 members who had been jailed by the Government.

The Government agreed to facilitate greater degree of autonomy in Aceh such as establishment of Aceh-based political parties and implementation of Islamic law; these had been some of the most contentious issues in previous negotiations. A “truth and reconciliation commission” will be organized. On the question of the uneven distribution of income, it was settled that 70% of the income from local natural resources will stay within Aceh.

On 27 December 2005, the leaders of the Free Aceh Movement announced that they had disbanded their military wing. The action, which took effect immediately, follows from earlier peace talks and the destruction of 840 weapons by international observers, Free Aceh movement commander Sofyan Daud told reporters, “The Aceh national army is now part of civil society, and will work to make the peace deal a success.”

During the election of December 11, 2006, Free Aceh Movement finally participated in Indonesian election for governorship. They temporarily split into two factions, each supporting its own candidate for governorship. One side, supported Zaini Abdullah’s brother, and the other supported Irwandi Yusuf, former Free Aceh Movement negotiator. Irwandi Yusuf got more support from grass root level however, and won the election.

On October 11, 2008, leader of the now dissolved Free Aceh Movement, Hasan Tiro, returned to Aceh after 30 years of exile. Although he was not in good health condition as a consequence of previous strokes, he was too frail to deliver his own speech at his welcome rally which attract thousand of people. Since then, he did not play an active role in Aceh’s ongoing political process. He stayed for two weeks before returning to Sweden. On October 17, 2009 he returned again to Aceh for the second time and stayed there ever since. On June 2010, he obtained his Indonesian citizenship back after living years with a Swedish passport. Shortly afterwards, he died on June 3, 2010 of multiple organ dysfunction syndrome in a Banda Aceh hospital after two weeks in intensive care. A lot of people pray for him at Masjid Raya and thousand took his body to final resting place at Tengku Cik Di Tiro National Hero Cemetery where Hasan’s grandfather Tengku Cik Di Tiro also been buried there. He’s living most of his life as a rebel but he died as a hero.