Acheh’s Case: A Historical Study of the National Movement for the Independence of Acheh-Sumatra is an important volume on the struggle of Achehnese for independence and self-determination from Indonesia. Acheh (also known as Atjeh or Achin) is a region in the northern part of the island of Sumatra, and is located between the Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca, the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula. It was one of the oldest independent nations in Southeast Asian history, and according M. C. Ricklets, “Acheh was emerging as a major power, the most powerful, wealthy and cultivated modern state of the area.” Before it was united into a single state as part of the reaction to the Portuguese intrusion, the Sultanate of Acheh Dar al-Salam was the sire of several kingdoms, such as the kingdom of Peureulak, the kingdom of Samudra Pase, the kingdom of Beunua (Temiang), the kingdom of Lingge, the kingdom of Pidier, the kingdom of Jaya, the kingdom of Daya, the kingdom of Aru, and the kingdom of Acheh.
Acheh itself is an area of 58,390 sq. km including more than one hundred islands off shores stretching along its western coast. Acheh’s population at present is around five million and the population of the island of Sumatra, which is regarded as the sixth longest island in the world, is around twenty million in an area of l82,828 sq. miles. Today, Acheh and Sumatra are the world’s largest producer of natural gas and petroleum. Acheh also produces natural rubber, coffee, tobacco, timber, tin, gold, platinum, steel, paper, cement, bauxite, rice and sugar.
The Sultanate of Acheh attained its political greatness both internally and externally in the early seventeenth century under the brilliant Sultan Iskandar Muda (1607-1636). It was said that in that period royal control prevailed over both domestic and foreign traders in all the important ports of the west coast of Sumatra as well as on the east coast of the Malayan Peninsula. Iskandar Muda’s wealthy court was a center of scholarship unrivalled in southeast Asia in general and the Malay world in particular.
However, on March 26, 1873, after two and a half centuries of colonizing Java, the Dutch issued a formal declaration of war against the State of Acheh, thus acknowledging Acheh’s status as an independent sovereign state. Many states including the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Austro-Hungary reacted with declarations of neutrality. The American President at the time, General Ulysses S. Grant, rejected Holland’s request for the United States to take Holland’s side in the conflict. Instead, Washington issued of official ‘Proclamation of Impartial Neutrality‘ while the Ottoman empire expressed solidarity with Acheh, making preparations for a possible Turkish intervention on the Achehnese side. These declarations of neutrality constituted sufficient proof of Acheh’s status as a bonafide universally recognized independent sovereign state.
Indonesia is a geographic anomaly, a product of Dutch colonization, bringing together more than 13,000 islands with disparate histories, civilizations, cultures and languages. 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.” The name of Indonesia itself is derived from ‘Indo Nesos‘ (Indian islands, a name given to the archipelagos by a German writer in the 19th century). To the natives, this archipelago is known as ‘Nusantara‘ (countries in between, referring to its geographical location between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans). The Dutch called it ‘Indonetie‘ which comprised the islands ‘owned’ by VOC, the Dutch East Indies Company. When VOC went bankrupt, having offered big dividends to its shareholders for decades by borrowing money from the Dutch government, ‘Indonetie‘ was taken over by the Dutch government and became its colony.
Indonesia only gained its 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 fade, however, more parochial identities in the form of ‘ethnic nationalism’ have come to the fore as what is happening at the moment, particularly with the emergence of the Papuan Independent Movement (OPM), the South Moluccas Republic Movement (RMS), and the Acheh/Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF).
Perhaps the most critical event explaining the attitude of many Achehnese with regard to the integration of Acheh with Indonesia is the signing of the ‘Round table Conference Agreement‘ between Holland and Indonesia on December 27, 1949. The agreement provides for transfer of sovereignty between the territory of the Dutch East Indies and a fully independent Indonesia. Since the signing of the agreement between the two parties, the Dutch East Indies ceased to exist and became the Republic of Indonesia when it joined the United Nations. The Kingdom of Acheh Dar al-Salam was included in the agreement without its consent or any kind of referendum, and despite not having been formally incorporated into the Dutch colonial possession. Subsequently, the Indonesian government used armed troops to annex Acheh. Since annexation, the Achehnese have continued to resent what they consider as foreign occupation.