The quiet outskirts of Banda Aceh, the capital of a province once known as Indonesia’s bloodiest, hid a history of violent revolution and counterrevolution. During a recent visit, I wanted to see who had won this farflung territory.
Aceh, the westernmost region of Sumatra, has a long history of insurgency. Before the Netherlands subsumed the Acehnese into the Dutch East Indies, they considered themselves allies of the Ottoman Empire and defenders of its caliphate.
Acehnese insurgents fought the Dutch in the Aceh War 1873–1904, the Japanese in 1942–1945 and the Dutch again in 1945–1949. In the following decades, some Acehnese thought that these victories warranted independence from Indonesia, which they considered an artificial nation.
Hasan di Tiro founded the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, in 1976 along separatist and secularist lines. GAM fighters trained in Libya and attacked Indonesian soldiers, who, in turn, killed thousands of militants and sympathizers, including civilians. Around 20,000 people died in the war.
The 2004 tsunami that devastated coastal Indonesia hit Aceh hard. More than 170,000 people died in the province, and GAM agreed in the aftermath to a peace deal. The Indonesian government settled on autonomy for Aceh, but added a bizarre idea. Local sharia bylaws would govern Aceh together with the country’s national criminal laws.
This idea sounded strange because GAM, a secular paramilitary group, had asked for independence rather than sharia. Yet supporters of the Indonesian government claimed that they were recognizing Aceh’s unique identity as the birthplace of Islam in the country.
‘GAM deals death to Raiders.’ Dueling pro and anti-GAM graffiti in Aceh, Indonesia. Jullen Harnels/Flickr photo
“None of us wanted sharia,” said Shadia Marhaban, a former GAM member who wanted Aceh to return to secularism. “The government introduced sharia to make use seem like extremists. We were a nationalist movement. We did not want sharia, and, ultimately, it created more problems than it solved.”
Religious police now patrol Aceh looking for violations of the sharia bylaws. “Their main targets are women not wearing headscarves, people gambling or drinking alcohol, and couples having sex out of wedlock,” the Jakarta Post reported in 2010.
Some former GAM members allege the Indonesian government recognized sharia law as an attempt to divide Aceh — and GAM — internally. Despite being a nominally secular militia, some former GAM members approved of the religious laws. “This is our way,” a former fighter told me. “Sharia brought order to Aceh. We are an Islamic nation, and we now have an Islamic government.”
If the point was to pit former GAM members against one another … it worked. “Overall, GAM didn’t get what it wanted, but some individuals benefited by forming political parties,” explained Teuku Kemal Fasya, my guide in Aceh.
GAM members who joined the post-conflict provincial government took office, favoring their supporters through abuse of power, corruption and nepotism — while the Indonesian government more or less maintained its authority in Aceh. Other GAM members formed opposition political parties or even fought the provincial government.
Fasya argued that the opportunity to save Aceh had passed, and that the Indonesian government had outdone GAM. “There’s no possibility of a second revolution,” he said.
Shadia seemed optimistic. “The Indonesian government, like the Acehnese government, is corrupt,” she said. “But we have civil society and, more importantly, democracy. Indonesia isn’t a dictatorship like it was before the 2000s, and the military isn’t strong in Aceh like it used to be. We might not have won what we asked for initially, but we have won something, and we have reason to be hopeful.”
Whatever di Tiro had expected when founding GAM almost 40 years ago, the region he championed had since developed a modern society and a multi-party democracy. The revolution at least brought the attention that Aceh needed to reform itself.
But neither the revolution nor the counterrevolution had won Aceh, where the conflict continued off the battlefield. Now, a mobilized civil society challenged the Indonesian government and its former GAM enemies-turned-allies, awaiting an end to corruption instead of independence.