Aceh (//); (Acehnese: Acèh ([ʔaˈtɕɛh]); Jawi: اچيه; Dutch: Atjeh or Acheh; Indonesian: Provinsi Aceh) is a special region of Indonesia. The territory is located at the northern end of Sumatra. Its capital is Banda Aceh. It is close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India and separated from them by the Andaman Sea.
There are 10 indigenous ethnic groups in this region, the largest being the Acehnese people, accounting for approximately 80% to 90% of the region’s population.
Aceh is thought to have been the place where the spread of Islam in Indonesia began, and was a key factor of the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia. Islam reached Aceh (Kingdoms of Fansur and Lamuri) around 1250 AD. In the early seventeenth century the Sultanate of Aceh was the most wealthy, powerful and cultivated state in the Malacca Straits region. Aceh has a history of political independence and resistance to control by outsiders, including the former Dutch colonists and the Indonesian government.
Aceh has substantial natural resources, including oil and natural gas; some estimates put Aceh gas reserves as being the largest in the world. Relative to most of Indonesia, it is a religiously conservative area. It has the highest proportion of Muslims in Indonesia, who mostly live according to Sharia customs and laws.
Aceh was the closest point of land to the epicenter of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which devastated much of the western coast of the province. Approximately 170,000 Indonesians were killed or went missing in the disaster. The disaster helped precipitate the peace agreement between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
Aceh was first known as Aceh Darussalam (1511–1959) and then later as the Daerah Istimewa Aceh (1959–2001), Nanggroë Aceh Darussalam (2001–2009) and Aceh (2009–present). Past spellings of Aceh include Acheh, Atjeh, and Achin.
According to several archaeological findings, the first evidence of human habitation in Aceh is from a site near the Tamiang River where shell middens are present. Stone tools and faunal remains were also found on the site. Archeologists believe the site was first occupied around 10,000 BC.
Not much has been uncovered about the pre-Islamic history of Aceh, however there are several artifacts that linked pre-Islamic era with Buddhism and culture from the Indochina region, as well as Old Malay custom. Historic names such as Indrapurba, Indrapurwa, Indrapatra, and Indrapuri gave some hint of Indian influence on this region. However, there are no archaeological findings (such as statues or temples) that link this region with Hinduism.
Beginnings of Islam in Southeast Asia
Evidence concerning the initial coming and subsequent establishment of Islam in Southeast Asia is thin and inconclusive. The historian Anthony Reid has argued that the region of the Cham people on the south-central coast of Vietnam was one of the earliest Islamic centers in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, as the Cham people fled the Vietnamese, one of the earliest locations that they established a relationship with was Aceh. Furthermore, it is thought that one of the earliest centers of Islam was in the Aceh region. When Venetian traveller Marco Polo passed by Sumatra on his way home from China in 1292 he found that Peureulak was a Muslim town while nearby ‘Basma(n)’ and ‘Samara’ were not. ‘Basma(n)’ and ‘Samara’ are often said to be Pasai and Samudra but evidence is inconclusive. The gravestone of Sultan Malik as-Salih, the first Muslim ruler of Samudra, has been found and is dated AH 696 (AD 1297). This is the earliest clear evidence of a Muslim dynasty in the Indonesia-Malay area and more gravestones from the thirteenth century show that this region continued under Muslim rule. Ibn Batutah, a Moroccan traveller, passing through on his way to China in 1345 and 1346, found that the ruler of Samudra was a follower of the Shafi’i school of Islam.
The Portuguese apothecary Tome Pires reported in his early 16th-century book Suma Oriental that most of the kings of Sumatra from Aceh through Palembang were Muslim. At Pasai, in what is now the North Aceh Regency, there was a thriving international port. Pires attributed the establishment of Islam in Pasai to the ‘cunning’ of the Muslim merchants. The ruler of Pasai, however, had not been able to convert the people of the interior.
Sultanate of Aceh
The Sultanate of Aceh was established by Sultan Ali Mughayat Syah in 1511.
In 1584–88 the Bishop of Malacca, D. João Ribeiro Gaio, based on information provided by a former captive called Diogo Gil, wrote the “Roteiro das Cousas do Achem” (Lisboa 1997) – a description of the Sultanate.
Later, during its golden era, in the 17th century, its territory and political influence expanded as far as Satun in southern Thailand, Johor in Malay Peninsula, and Siak in what is today the province of Riau. As was the case with most non-Javan pre-colonial states, Acehnese power expanded outward by sea rather than inland. As it expanded down the Sumatran coast, its main competitors were Johor and Portuguese Malacca on the other side of the Straits of Malacca. It was this seaborne trade focus that saw Aceh rely on rice imports from north Java rather than develop self sufficiency in rice production.
After the Portuguese occupation of Malacca in 1511, many Islamic traders passing the Malacca Straits shifted their trade to Banda Aceh and increased the Acehnese rulers’ wealth. During the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda in the 17th century, Aceh’s influence extended to most of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Aceh allied itself with the Ottoman Empire and the Dutch East India Company in their struggle against the Portuguese and the Johor Sultanate. Acehnese military power waned gradually thereafter, and Aceh ceded its territory of Pariaman in Sumatra to the Dutch in the 18th century.
By the early nineteenth century, however, Aceh had become an increasingly influential power due to its strategic location for controlling regional trade. In the 1820s it was the producer of over half the world’s supply of black pepper. The pepper trade produced new wealth for the Sultanate and for the rulers of many smaller nearby ports that had been under Aceh’s control, but were now able to assert more independence. These changes initially threatened Aceh’s integrity, but a new sultan Tuanku Ibrahim, who controlled the kingdom from 1838 to 1870, reasserted power over nearby ports.
Under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 the British ceded their colonial possessions on Sumatra to the Dutch. In the treaty, the British described Aceh as one of their possessions, although they had no actual control over the Sultanate. Initially, under the agreement the Dutch agreed to respect Aceh’s independence. In 1871, however, the British dropped previous opposition to a Dutch invasion of Aceh, possibly to prevent France or the United States from gaining a foothold in the region. Although neither the Dutch nor the British knew the specifics, there had been rumors since the 1850s that Aceh had been in communication with the rulers of France and of the Ottoman Empire.
Pirates operating from Aceh threatened commerce in the Strait of Malacca; the sultan was unable to control them. Britain was a protector of Aceh and gave the Netherlands permission to eradicate the pirates. The campaign quickly drove out the sultan but the local leaders mobilized and fought the Dutch in four decades of guerrilla war, with high levels of atrocities. The Dutch colonial government declared war on Aceh on 26 March 1873. Aceh sought American help but Washington rejected the request.
The Dutch tried one strategy after another over the course of four decades. An expedition under Major General Johan Harmen Rudolf Köhler in 1873 occupied most of the coastal areas. Köhler’s strategy was to attack and take the Sultan’s palace. It failed. The Dutch then tried a naval blockade, reconciliation, concentration within a line of forts, and lastly passive containment. They had scant success. Reaching 15 to 20 million guilders a year, the heavy spending for failed strategies nearly bankrupted the colonial government.
The Aceh army was rapidly modernized, and Aceh soldiers managed to kill Köhler (a monument to this achievement has been built inside Grand Mosque of Banda Aceh). Köhler made some grave tactical errors and the reputation of the Dutch was severely harmed. In recent years in line with expanding international attention to human rights issues and atrocities in war zones, there has been increasing discussion about some of the recorded acts of cruelty and slaughter committed by Dutch troops during the period of warfare in Aceh.
Hasan Mustafa (1852–1930) was a chief ‘penghulu,’ or judge, for the colonial government and was stationed in Aceh. He had to balance traditional Muslim justice with Dutch law. To stop the Aceh rebellion, Hasan Mustafa issued a fatwa, telling the Muslims there in 1894, “It is Incumbent upon the Indonesian Muslims to be loyal to the Dutch East Indies Government”.
During World War II, Japanese troops occupied Aceh. The Acehnese Ulama (Islamic clerics) fought against both the Dutch and the Japanese, revolting against the Dutch in February 1942 and against Japan in November 1942. The revolt was led by the All-Aceh Religious Scholars’ Association ( PUSA). The Japanese suffered 18 dead in the uprising while they slaughtered up to 100 or over 120 Acehnese. The revolt happened in Bayu and was centered around Tjot Plieng village’s religious school. During the revolt, the Japanese troops armed with mortars and machine guns were charged by sword wielding Acehnese under Teungku Abduldjalil (Tengku Abdul Djalil) in Buloh Gampong Teungah and Tjot Plieng on 10 and 13 November. On May 1945 the Acehnese rebelled again. The religious ulama party gained ascendancy to replace district warlords (uleebalang) party that formerly collaborated with the Dutch. Concrete bunkers still line the northernmost beaches.