Acehnese are mainly found in Aceh, in the northernmost region of the island of Sumatra. They make up 1.4 per cent of the population according to the 2010 census and their language is a member of the Aceh-Chamic group of languages, part of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family, more closely related to Malay than it is to Javanese.
They are most famous for their devout adherence to Islam and their militant resistance to external rule. The Acehnese family system is based on a separation of male and female spheres of activity. Males are directed outward towards the world of trade through the practice of merantau – going away from one’s birthplace to seek one’s fortune and gain new knowledge and experience. Females are encouraged to stay at home and perform the traditional family roles. However, this practice has meant that increasing numbers of men have failed to return to the Acehnese homeland, but have instead married and settled elsewhere.
The Acehnese minority’s history explains their distinctive traits and their separateness from Indonesia. This ethnic group has long been established in this part of South-East Asia, probably part of the Malay wave of migrants which began to settle there some 3,000 years ago. They developed their distinct language and culture, first as part of the creation of Hindu political entities in the region. The arrival of Islam, sometime in the twelfth or thirteenth century, led to the emergence of the Sultanate of Aceh which became a powerful independent state, expanding at one point as far as southern Thailand and Johor in the Malay Peninsula. By the sixteenth century, it was the strongest power in the Malacca Straits region. It remained unconquered by the Dutch colonial administration which ruled the rest of the Indonesian archipelago until the early years of the twentieth century. Acehnese rebels resisted the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and then sided with the new Indonesian republic that fought the return of the Dutch between 1945 and 1949.
However the replacement in 1950 of the federal system negotiated with the Dutch as a condition for Indonesian independence, with a centralized state that was dominated by Java, helped increase demands in Aceh for outright independence. In 1953, under the leadership of Daud Beureueh, Aceh declared itself an independent state governed by Islamic law, part of a wider Islamic movement against the secular central government known as Darul Islam. A 1959 truce by which Aceh – and the Acehnese minority – were granted a ‘special status’ 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.
The tensions came to a head in the 1970s, when the 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.
Over the next two decades Aceh was subjected to operations by the Indonesian security forces which weakened the GAM, but also provoked strong anti-Indonesian feeling among many Acehnese who bore the brunt of the military’s repression. From 1989 Aceh was categorized as a Daerah Operasi Militer (DOM), a Special Military Region. Access to the province by outsiders was restricted, allowing the military to conduct a campaign of murder and abductions which cost an estimated 2,000 lives by 1998. At the same time, an increasing influx of non-Acehnese brought in through the government’s transmigrasi (transmigration) programme also increased the level of discontent.
The fall of the Suharto regime in May 1998 allowed the Acehnese to express their anger over the military’s abuses openly for the first time. The secret graves of the victims were exhumed, and large demonstrations took place demanding a referendum on independence. Unlike East Timor, the Acehnese enjoyed considerable sympathy among the wider Indonesian Muslim population, and the army was forced to apologize in September 1998, and withdraw some units. However, also unlike East Timor, Aceh was an internationally recognized part of Indonesia, and few politicians in Jakarta were willing 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.
In 2001, the Indonesian government agreed to extend some additional autonomy powers to the province (though mainly in the application of Shari’a law and the right to receive direct foreign investment). This opening was accompanied by continued military repression, and a state of emergency was declared in 2003 in another attempt to crush the separatist movement. The scale of the tsunami disaster that struck Aceh in December 2004 changed everything. Much of the coastal region, where most of the population lives, was devastated, and 168,000 people lost their lives. Indonesia and GAM signed a peace deal on 15 August 2005, which again greatly expanded Aceh’s autonomy status, and in the December 2006 elections for governor and the March 2007 elections for the provincial and district levels, most of the successful candidates were supporters of the Acehnese rebel movement or their cause.
The peace agreement brokered in the aftermath of the tsunami has held, bolstered by the substantive autonomy ceded to the province and the greater share of revenue it now receives from its natural resources. These concessions appear to have reduced violent separatism within the region. The Aceh Party – the political wing of the Free Aceh Movement, which fought for independence before signing a peace agreement – gained a majority in the 9 April 2009 parliamentary elections. During the run-up to voting, at least five Aceh Party leaders were killed, its offices were bombed, and Indonesian soldiers removed some of the party’s flags. Nevertheless, it was able to formally hold power and went on to win the 2014 elections as well, though with a significantly lower share of the popular vote.
However, devolution of power has also seen an increasingly rigid application of Shari’a law in the province, impacting particularly on women and minorities. Since 2014, the Aceh Party has enforced Shari’a law for all its residents, implementing a range of strict provisions and penalties on activities as varied as drinking alcohol, adultery or homosexual acts. More than 300 similar by-laws already exist in the Muslim-majority country, with 79 by-laws requiring women to wear the hijab. This can have a serious impact on minority women’s right to education and cultural freedoms: non-Muslims have been periodically detained for ‘improper attire’.
In particular, the ‘seclusion’ law in effect in Aceh, which is meant to punish adultery, has been used to criminalize even casual associations between unmarried individuals of the opposite sex. Furthermore, an Islamic dress law also places more restrictions on women than it does on men and is used by law enforcement agencies to disproportionately to target the poor, as Shari’a police were rarely seen reprimanding people with obvious signs of wealth.
The extreme vulnerability of Acehnese LGBTQ persons was highlighted in May 2017 when two men were attacked by vigilantes and then taken to a police station. They were subsequently sentenced to 85 lashes in public. It was the first case of people being punished for homosexuality following the banning of homosexuality in Aceh in 2014. The punishment was carried out in front of a crowd of 2,000 onlookers in Banda Aceh later that month; they were ultimately lashed 83 times after a remission for the time spent in prison. Human rights groups denounced the punishment as torture.
Updated January 2018
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