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Aceh’s Case: Possible Solution to a Festering Conflict
Lukman Thaib (Universiti Kebangsaan, Malaysia)

Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2000, p. 105-110.


The New World Order that is supplanting the bipolarism of the old Cold War is not just distinguished by the appearance of new economic forces, the breaking up of old empires, and the tearing down of communism, but also by the rebirth of ethnic nationalism such as the movement for the Independence of South Moluccas (RMS), the Organization for the Independence of West Papua (OPM) and the Aceh/Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF).

Political scientists have often noted that a sustaining identity on the part of ethnic minorities is perceived as a deviant political culture which strikes at the very roots of national existence, its perpetuation representing a challenge to the solidarity which is fundamental to the nationalist idea. Although there is no automatic connection be tween minority ethnic identity and the obstruction of political integration, if the character of the new state is promoted in such a way as to indicate that there is no place other than for the major ethnic group and those willing to assimilate its values, ethnic estrangement is to be expected. Where nationalist success becomes equated with majority dominance then political alienation will follow and the prospect for integration will be abstracted as ethnic particularism is reinforced through the actions of those who seek to deny it. Such an experience has not been uncommon in the region of Southeast Asia.

The ethnic community has long been a sociocultural pattern for human organization and communication. It holds in common a set of traditions unique to itself and not shared by others. Such traditions include common language real or a myth of common descent or place of origin, distinct cultural practices, and a sense of historical continuity. These primordial ties produce a strong sense of ethnic identity and solidarity and pave the way for the emergence of ethnic nationalism. 

There are many categories of ethnic minority communities; one of them is where a sovereign state or an autonomous community has been incorporated into a country as a result of the unification and centralization policies of the official or departing regimes. An excellent example would be the case of Aceh/Sumatra which has been forcibly incorporated with the smaller island of Java-Indonesia.

Historical Background of Aceh/Sumatra

Aceh/Sumatra is a region in the island of Sumatra which covers an area of 182,828 square miles, including more than a hundred small islands stretching along its western coast. Sumatra as a whole is the sixth longest island in the world. At present Aceh’s population is 5 million, and the population of Sumatra is approximately 25 million. Here flourished the once powerful Sultanate of Aceh Dar al-Salam.(n.1)

Aceh/Sumatra is one of the oldest independent nations in Southeast Asian history, and according to a history of modern Indonesia Aceh was emerging as a major power, the most powerful, wealthy and cultivated state of the area. Three hundred years after the Dutch occupied Java, Aceh/Sumatra was still an internationally recognized independent sovereign state with diplomatic and treaty relations with the rest of the world, including Great Britain.(n.2) However, on 26 March 1873, after three centuries of colonizing Jakarta, the Dutch government issued a formal declaration of war against the independent state of Aceh, thus acknowledging Aceh’ s status as an independent sovereign state.(n.3) The world reacted with universal declarations of neutrality, including the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Austro-Hungary and many others. These declarations of neutrality also underlined Aceh’ s status as an internationally recognized independent sovereign state.(n.4) The American President at the time, General Ulysses S. Grant, rejected Holland’s request for the United States to take the Dutch side in the conflict. Instead, Washington issued an official and formal Proclamation of `Impartial Neutrality’ in the war between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Aceh Dar-al-Salam. Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire expressed solidarity with Aceh with preparations made for possible Turkish intervention on the Acehnese side. All this constituted sufficient proof of Aceh’s status as a bonafide independent sovereign state that was universally recognized among nations.

Formation of Indonesia

Indonesia actually is a geographic anomaly, a product of Dutch colonization bringing together more than 13,000 islands with disparate histories, civilization, cultures and languages.(n.5) Indonesia gained a national identity in the fight against Dutch colonialism. Soeharto, to a much greater extent than his predecessor, Soekarno, was careful to shape this national identity. As those memories of shared struggle fade, however, more parochial identities in the form of ethnic nationalism have come to the fore, as we observed today with the existence of Aceh/Sumatra National Liberation Front, the movement of the Republic of South Moluccas (RMS), the Independence movement of West Papua (OM), and the Freteelin of East Timor. The Indonesian administrative `unity’ or `nationality’ has no legal validity under the law of decolonization and the colonialist administrations based on the island of Java cannot legally deny the rights to self-determination and separate legal existence of the people of Aceh/Sumatra, as well as to any other peoples of the former Dutch colonial territories. If this concept and method of decolonization had been applied to all other colonial territories in the world, there would be no Third World majorities at the UN today and no UN Resolution 2625 that guarantees separate judicial status for all colonial territories.

There cannot be a compromise between the concept of nation and the principle of decolonization, because the one goes directly against the other. Decolonization requires the liquidation of all colonial empires by specific steps and definite procedures, but nations emerge on the principle of preservation of the territorial integrity of the previous colonial empire; and that empire is not liquidated if its territorial integrity is to be preserved. In this respect, `Indonesia’ is still an un-liquidated and un-decolonized colonial empire with Javamen replacing Dutchmen as the new colonial masters.

The Acehnese totally reject the notion of the alleged existence of an `Indonesian nation’ on historical, cultural, sociological, anthropological, economic and political grounds as has been clearly stated in Dr. Tengku Hasan di Tiro' s Redeclaration of Independence of Aceh/Sumatra, in the spirit of the American Declaration of Independence. (n.6) Indonesia is nothing but an artificial nation fabricated to serve the collective interests of the Javanese under the management of its own mercenaries. Nowadays the difference between fact and action, between propaganda and truth, has been obliterated completely and it takes a special effort and great determination to find out the truth. The gap in information created by some of the world media is appalling. We cannot even speak about the most elementary matters concerning Aceh/Sumatra without misunderstanding each other, because what has been passed for `knowledge' is nothing but disinformation. For example, if you were in Africa, when you refer to `colonial boundaries' as defined by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), you will be referring to the colonial boundaries after decolonization. But in Southeast Asia, when we refer to `colonial boundaries,' we are referring to `colonial boundaries' before decolonization, as they existed in the nineteenth, eighteenth and seventeen centuries. No change has been made in colonial boundaries in the region of Southeast Asia since the seventeenth century! Until this information gap is filled even an intelligent conversation is impossible.

The Roots of Conflict and the Emergence of Aceh/Sumatra National Liberation Front

Aceh/Sumatra is one of the oldest independent nations in Southeast Asian history and, according to modern Indonesian history: `Aceh was emerging as a major power, the most powerful, wealthy, and cultivated state of the area.' (n.7) Today, Aceh/Sumatra is the world' s largest producer of natural gas, at over 1 million cubic meters a day, and petroleum at over 1.5 million barrels a day. In addition to these, Aceh/Sumatra also produces natural rubber, coffee, tobacco, timber, tin, gold, platinum, steel, paper, cement, bauxite, rice and sugar.(n.8) However, on 27 December 1949, the Dutch, while staying as far away from Aceh as possible, signed an illegal treaty with Javanese± Indonesia in which they claimed to have `sovereign' power over Aceh/Sumatra - a country they had failed to conquer and in which they had no presence and transferred their alleged `sovereignty' to the mercenary regime of Java. This treaty violated every principle of decolonization and all major UN General Assembly resolutions against colonialism. (n.9) 

No referendum was held with the Acehnese or Sumatrans, as well as with other separate colonial territories as to whether they wanted to join the `Indonesia Republic' or not. No decolonization took place in the Dutch East Indies. Only its name was changed to `Indonesia' with `Indonesia' being merely a geographic expression, neither the proper name of any people, nor of any country, nor of any island. 

The UN Charter absolutely prohibits the forcible acquisition of territory. For that reason the United States, the United Kingdom and some other countries rightly refused to recognize the legality of the former Soviet Union's annexations of the Baltic states in 1940. By exactly the same reasoning, the Dutch annexation of Aceh/Sumatra was unlawful, and the Dutch had no power to hand over to Indonesia territory which was not theirs.10 Therefore, Aceh/Sumatra is entitled to be recognized as an independent state again by the international community which already has granted recognition to the Baltic states and other newly emerged states.

There are five sets of objections that can be marshaled against the legality and the judicial values of the treaty on the transfer of sovereignty between Holland and Indonesia signed on 27 December 1949, especially concerning the transfer of sovereignty over Aceh/Sumatra to Indonesia. They are as follows:

1. the glaring incompatibility of the treaty with the decolonization principles of the United Nations that have been universally imposed except on the Dutch colony of `Indonesia' ;
2. the clear violation by this treaty of the right of self-determination of the people of Aceh/Sumatra;
3. the fact that the treaty was signed by two states (Holland and Indonesia) both without judicial right to dispose sovereignty over the territory of Aceh/Sumatra, and the fact that both parties, at the time of their signing of the treaty, had neither de jure, nor de facto control over Aceh/Sumatra;
4. the fact that Holland did not have sovereignty as an administering power over Aceh/Sumatra; secondly, Holland did not have the right to transfer that sovereignty at all; thirdly, Holland did not even have presence in Aceh/Sumatra at that time! Holland had no presence there from March 1942. She had never ruled, and instead had been ousted from Aceh/Sumatra for seven years when she signed the treaty with Java/Indonesia. Holland was not even qualified as an administering power when she, together with Javanese colonialist regime, perpetrated this legal and political crime; and
5. the fact that, despite all this, the Dutchmen and the Javamen, without consulting the people of Aceh/Sumatra by `referendum' or `direct ballot,' pretended to dispose the sovereignty over Aceh/Sumatra among themselves and did it outside all established procedures of the United Nations' decolonization law and precedents set up by International Court of Justice.(n.11)

It is important to understand that Aceh/Sumatra has not and cannot become independent through `Indonesia' s election' because, as clearly stipulated by the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 16 October 1975, and in line with the UN General Assembly Resolution 1514, on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, that for a colonized territory such as Aceh/Sumatra the choices are as follows: (a) become a sovereign, independent state; (b) associate by its own free will, with an existing independent state; and (c) integrate freely with an existing independent state.

Regarding points (b) and (c), there has been neither `free association' nor `free integration' between Aceh/Sumatra and Javanese `Indonesia.' The people of Aceh/Sumatra have never been given any free choice either by the Dutch or by the Javanese. Aceh/Sumatra was transferred by the Dutch to the Javanese without plebiscite, direct ballot, or any kind of referendum. Those who opposed the Javanese takeover were massacred in 1945 and during the 1950s,12 as well as in the 1980s and 1990s. Aceh/Sumatra has more right to independence than most former colonial territories, because it had always been an independent state before and during Dutch invasion, and its people had put up a hundred years' resistance against the colonialists in a manner unlike anyone else, which in itself is a form of vote against colonialism that is legally recognized by the International Court of Justice.

The emergence of the Aceh/Sumatra National Liberation Front which is led by Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro since 1976 is a genuine attempt to fulfill the historic and democratic quest of the Acehnese who have been colonized under the Indonesian hegemony. From the perspective of international law and conventions, the struggle of the Acehnese is in keeping with the right of self-determination, as the United Nations affirmed: `It is widely accepted that a group of people that is presently subjected to military occupation that traditionally has formed a nation of its own or has been a part of a different nation than the one which occupies it, is entitled to assert or to restore its self-determination. (n.13)

In line with reports of mass massacres and human rights violation in Aceh/Sumatra filed by different world press agencies, especially US based Asia Watch, and London based Amnesty International, on 12 and 18 June 1990, the President of ASNLF Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro submitted a report on the struggle of Acehnese for self-determination to the Special Committee of Decolonization of the United Nations.(n.14) On 29 January 1992 the president of ASNLF gave his second submission before the 48th session of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities under the title: `The Right of Peoples to Self-Determination and Its Application to People under Colonial or Alien Domination,' 15 and with the support of the sponsored governmental and the non-governmental organizations led the way for the first time to table a resolution on the struggle of the Acehnese for self-determination at the United Nations which took place on 17 August 1993, with the proposed resolution number no: E/CN2.4/Sub.2/1993/L.21;15 and the second one on 18 August 1994 with the proposed resolution no. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/L.25.16. With these two resolutions it is definite that the Acehnese struggle for self-determination has become a case at the United Nations.

The Possible Solution

To affect a change in the present unitary system of Indonesia is to accommodate a new road to freedom for the people of Aceh in particular and for the Sumatrans in general. The Acehnese and the Sumatrans need to be given a chance to decide their future. This new road cannot be other than the road to legitimate `self-determination' through `referendum' or `direct ballot,' whether they want to be an independent state in the form of `Confederation of Aceh/Sumatra' or in the form of `Commonwealth of Independent States of Indonesia (CISI)' or whether they want to be integrated or remain as part of Indonesia in the form of `Loose Indonesian Confederation.' 

The restoration of territorial sovereignty over Aceh to the Acehnese, over Sumatra to the Sumatrans, and over Javanese territory to the Javanese, is an act of justice too long denied. This is the only way to secure peace, security and harmony to this vast region hitherto drawn into endless anarchy, lawlessness, oppression and injustice, caused by incessant rebellions against Javanese colonialism on one hand, and by the Javanese cruel suppression of these nationalities, on the other. Through this act of justice, the most important source of conflict, that of one ethnic group dominating over the others shall have been neutralized. Once peace and security are restored, the road to development and progress, which has been blocked for many decades, will be wide open. The problems of administration will have been reduced to a manageable size, and economic planning will be made possible and practicable.

On the basis of sovereign equals, a new grouping of truly independent states can be organized in the region of Sumatra as well as in other regions of the East Indies (Indonesia) in the form of a `Commonwealth of Independent States of Indonesia (CISI)' composed of all traditional sovereign states, as equal partners in promoting their mutual interests with fairness to all and with injustice towards none, in all fields of human endeavor. Within this framework of a future integration, the Acehnese and the Sumatrans will be able to cooperate on equal and just basis, in creating a better world for themselves and their posterity, in an atmosphere of cooperation instead of antagonism of mutual help freely given instead of dictation, exploitation, oppression and colonialism.

The establishment of these traditional sovereign states within the framework of this new political entity in all regions of Indonesia will increase political stability in the region of Southeast Asia and will enhance this region' s influence and prestige internationally. Moreover, it will also give to this region a new strategic significance and enable the people to better protect their interests regionally as well as internationally, as their newly acquired votes in international councils will be sought after and their joint decision as members of a larger, politically stable and integrated unit will have real constructive weight in world affairs.

1. Lukman Thaib, The Roots of Acehnese Struggle, Bangi: Department of Political Science± Universiti Kebangsaan, Malaysia, 1998, p. 154.
2. Ibid., p. 11.
3. `Proclamatie' , quoted from the Suara Aceh Merdeka (Voice for the Independence of Aceh), London: BM, 1994, p. 8.
4. Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, A Memorandum on Aceh: A New Birth of Freedom, London: House of Lord, 1992, p. 5.
5. As Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, had correctly written: `Indonesia was nothing but a geographic expression until the Dutch found out it was more efficient to unite the islands of Indies under a single administration.' Quoted from Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, The Price of Freedom: The Unfinished Diary, Sweden: ASNLF Information Department, 1981, pp. 138±139.
6. Ibid., pp. 142± 143.
7. M. C. Ricklets, A History of Modern Indonesia, Bloomington, IN: Indiana State University, 1981, p. 335.
8. Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, `The Speech delivered before the United Nations Sub-Commission for Human Rights', Geneva: Palaes Des Nations, 8 August 1994.
9. Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, `The Speech delivered before the 48th Session of the Commission on Human Rights' , Geneva: Palaes Des Nations, 23 August 1992.
10. Lord Avebury, Problem of Self-Determination in the Muslim World, London: House of Lords, 1991.
11. Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, The Price of Freedom, op. cit., pp. 142± 143.
12. Ibid., p. 187.
13. UNESCO DOC. 23, 1990, para. 42.
14. Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, `First Telex to the United Nations Decolonization Commission', 12 June 1990.
15. Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, `The Speech delivered before the 48th Session of the Sub-Commission for Human Rights' , Geneva: Palaes Des Nations, 29 January 1992.
16. Tapol Bulletin, `Aceh Resolution at the UN', London: British Campaign for Human Rights in Indonesia, Report No. 119, 1993.
17. United Nations, `UN Concern with Indonesia Grows' , Palaes Des Nations, Report No. 125, October 1994.

ISSN 1360-2004 print; 1469-9591 online/00/010105-06 (C)2000 Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs

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