Part X: What We Talk About When We Talk About the Acehnese
I think one of the hardest things to understand about demographics in Aceh has to do with the definitions of terms used. IDPs are “internally displaced persons,” but sometimes the meaning of “internally” is a little unclear, and the “displacement” can be voluntary or forced or have happened hundreds of years ago. So for my own clarification, since I’m not a migration and refugee expert, I asked myself who is living in Aceh Timur now, especially around Simpang Jernih, and would I and people like me call them “locals,” “residents,” “long-time community members”—as opposed to “refugees from another province,” “transients,” “squatters,” “prospectors,” etc. The term “indigenous,” I think, isn’t helpful here. The Acehnese themselves are considered an indigenous group, the majority having migrated to the province from Malaysia more than 3,000 years ago.. http://www.minorityrights.org/?lid=4441
So let’s just drop the word “indigenous” from our conversations about who has a right to work and farm and raise a family here, shall we?
But looking at who is and has been here is helpful to understanding Aceh Timur’s current precarious position as a potential provider of enormous wealth to the outside world while simultaneously having the quality of life of its “indigenous” population undermined.
The World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Populations provides an interesting overview of Aceh’s history and traditions, as well as the repeated attempts by many world powers to capitalize on its resources without consideration for those who lived there. Prior to the establishment of the (Islamic) Sultanate of Aceh in around the 1300s the area was Hindu. While the Dutch conquered all of Indonesia, Aceh remained a powerful and independent state until the 1940s when Acehnese rebels, who had resisted the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, then sided with the new Indonesian republic that fought the return of the Dutch between 1945 and 1949. But the negotiation with the Dutch for Indonesian independence called for a centralized state that was dominated by Java. Aceh continued to work (and fight) for its own independence, and in 1959 a truce that “special status” to Aceh ended the conflict, “but resentment over the limited nature of Aceh’s ‘special status’ persisted, especially after the authoritarian General Suharto sidelined, and eventually replaced, President Sukarno in 1966.”
Does this sound eerily familiar?
Oh, it gets even more so.
“The tensions came to a head in the 1970s, when Indonesian central government authorized the exploitation of Aceh’s natural resources by multinational oil and gas companies, with the profits going mainly to Jakarta, and not Aceh, which remained one of the least developed provinces in Indonesia. In addition to losing land – and often being inadequately compensated – the Acehnese saw most of the employment and other benefits linked to the exploitation of ‘their’ resources going to the Javanese and other non-Acehnese. A new rebel movement (GAM – the Free Aceh Movement) arose in that decade, and proclaimed Aceh Independence in 1976.” And we all know how well that worked out.
Can you now see why the transmigration movement was (and remains) so bitterly unpopular???
Suharto’s fall in 1998 resulted in Aceh’s ability to provide evidence of mass war crimes and demand a referendum on independence. Few politicians in Jakarta were willing, however, to consider Acehnese demands for independence “for fear it would encourage similar demands in other parts of the archipelago. Clashes between well-armed GAM fighters and the army and police escalated, and successive governments in Jakarta authorized more military operations that resulted in further civilian casualties, and large-scale displacement of the population into camps.”
Although there were token displays of pacification in the early 2000’s the Indonesian military (TNI) practiced continued repression. Fighting happened in the mountains and remote areas where GAM fighters knew the area, could resupply their forces, and could practice ambushes. But those areas were the locations of the most fertile coffee and cocoa plantations, and home to the most fragile of plant and animal species. Thousands of families saw the fighting happen literally in their back yards, and it destroyed everything in its path. A great majority of the destruction happened in—you guessed it—Aceh Timur. I remember hearing about the separatist movement being brutalized right up to the tsunami, and ever after it. Aceh was all over the news then. Jakarta had pulled out the stops; Acehnese were dying by the hundreds, just like what had happened in East Timor. Then came the tsunami, killing 168,000, and forgive me for saying this but you could practically hear the champagne corks popping in Jakarta—at last, nature has taken care of our problem.
Acehnese are now the minority in Aceh, comprising less than 50% of the population. “In theory, they should also be able to have access to the wealth created by the exploitation of the province’s oil and gas resources, as the 2005 peace agreement is supposed to result in Aceh’s authorities keeping 70 per cent of that wealth.”
As we have seen, this has not been the case. It is unclear whether the “autonomy powers of the Acehnese minority will allow them to resist Jakarta’s constitutional powers in areas where their interests conflict, such as with regard to logging, mining or palm oil plantations, or even the transmigrasi programme, which has been maintained on a smaller scale by the central government.” Probably not.
This is why when well-meaning outside entities talk about removal of people from their homes in Aceh Timur because they are damaging to the protected forest, and allowing “cooperatives” and corporations to reap all the grants, projects, and benefits of the area and its resources, I wish there was an enormous, powerful celestial megaphone that could just scream at them until they all shut up and understood what exactly it was they were saying.
Next: Back to the Aceh Village Survey, last part