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We know very little about the earliest days of Aceh. The ancestors of the Acehnese probably came from the south of Vietnam, Koching Cina and Cambodia. Later on Deutero Malay brought in new culture. The earliest people of Aceh (Proto Malay) were pushed up into the mountains and form today the two ethnic groups Gayo and Alas. Aceh had a strategic position at the northwestern tip of Sumatra in between East and West. Aceh became a transit point for spices from the Moluccas, camphor from Barus and its own pepper. Aceh also became the entry point for Islam, brought in by Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Indian traders. Present Peureulak in East Aceh became an Islamic kingdom already in 840. That was probably the first Islamic kingdom in Southeast Asia. However, a Chinese chronicle an Arabic Muslim king already in the end of the 7th century. By the end of the 13th century, a strong Islamic kingdom emerged, Pasai, which not only became a commercial center, but also a religious and educational center. Islam started to spread and grow strong during the Pasai era.

The Portuguese arrived for the first time in 1509 in the kingdoms of Pasai and Pedir (Pidie) and they later conquered Malacca in Malaysia. This whole period was marked by the rivalry between Aceh, Johor (in Malaysia) and the Portuguese in Malacca for the control over the trade in the Malacca Straits. Even though Aceh finally won this war, they never won full control and never managed to establish a permanent foothold on the other side of the straits. The Acehnese were often hindered by internal dissension with a long row of short lived rulers. In 1607 to 1636 Sultan Iskandar Muda ruled Aceh and during his time Aceh became the major power in the area, built upon very strong military strength. The sea was controlled by heavy galleys carrying 600-800 men. Land based forces had Persian horses, an elephant corps, big artillery, and conscript infantry. In 1612 Iskandar Muda took Deli and Aru (near Medan) and in 1613 he defeated Johor, but Johor in the end managed to keep its independence by expelling the Acehnese garrison. In the following years he defeated a Portuguese fleet at Bintan (near Singapore), took Pahang and Kedah in Malaysia, sacked the Johor capital again and took Nias 1624/1625. In 1629 Sultan Iskandar Muda sent an expedition of several hundred ships against Malacca, but it was entirely devastated. According to Portuguese reports, 19.000 men were lost. The era during Iskandar Muda is considered to be the golden age of Aceh. After his rule Acehnese dominance decreased and Johor could prosper. The Portuguese were expelled from Malacca by Johor and the Dutch VOC. Aceh entered a period of internal disunity and the royal authority was considerably diminished. During Iskandar Muda’s era, Aceh was the most important of the Indonesian kingdoms in Malay literature, especially religious literature. The four most important authors were Hamzah Pansuri, Syamsuddin of Pasai (d. 1630), Abdurrauf of Singkil (c.1617-1690) and the Indian Nuruddin ar-Raniri (d.1658). After the decline in Acehnese power, Acehnese literature also lost its importance. Between 1641 and 1699 four queens ruled the Muslim Aceh. From 1699 to 1838 there were eleven sultans of little importance. Of these eleven, three were Arabs, two Malays, and six Bugis (from South Sulawesi). The court only controlled the city. The outlaying areas where controlled by aristocracy with the religious leaders as their only form of challenge.

On June 21, 1599 a Dutch trade ship under the command of Cornelis de Houtmanand his brother Frederick landed in Aceh. Their ship was attacked due to an Acehnese provocation and Cornelis Houtman was killed and his brother taken prisoner. In 1602 Gerard de Rooy arrived from the Netherlands, as an envoy for the Dutch Prince Mauritz. His aim was to establish a better relationship between the two kingdoms and was well received. Aceh sent two envoys to the Netherlands. In early June 1602, British merchants, sent out by the British Queen Elisabeth, arrived and reached an agreement with the Acehnese Sultan. A charter of cooperation was signed.

In the 1820’s Aceh began again to emerge as a commercial and political power. In 1820 Aceh produced more than the half of the world’s pepper consumption. The American, British and French competed and their gun-boats were often active in violent incidents. A new Acehnese leader emerged, Tuanku Ibrahim, who began to restore the power of the Sultanate. He became the guardian of several Sultans and from 1838 until his death in 1857 he had the title of Sultan himself, Sultan Ali Alauddin Mansur Syah, He played the pepper rulers against each other and through an expedition in 1854 he imposed his authority over Langkat, Deli and Serdang (in North Sumatra). During this time the Dutch has just suspended their north-ward expanse and a clash with the Dutch became inevitable. The Dutch feared that the Dutch would become too powerful or that another European power would intervene. The British and the Dutch had signed a treaty not to intervene, but the Dutch grew more and more concerned about other powers. Napoleon Bonaparte had received an Acehnese emissary and the Turks had gotten a request for protection from the Acehnese. The British preferred that the Dutch would control Aceh, rather than France or America. Through complicated maneuvers the Dutch and the British came to one of the biggest trade-offs in the colonial history. The Dutch gave up the Gold Coast in Africa and the British allowed shipment of Indian contract workers to Surinam and gave the Dutch a free hand in Sumatra and equal trading rights north of Siak. This meant war for the British in Africa and for the Dutch in Aceh. In 1873 the Dutch used a meeting in Singapore where an Acehnese-American treaty was discussed, as an excuse to intervene. In March they bombarded Kuta Raja (Banda Aceh) and landed with 3.000 men. The Dutch had misjudged the Acehnese resistance and had to withdraw with a loss of 80 men including a General. The Dutch then started a blockade. Aceh managed to get a huge army together, estimated at between 10.000 and 100.000 men. This was the richest, best armed and best organized opponent to ever face colonial expansionism. The Acehnese Sultan, Mahmud Syah, pleaded to the British, Americans, Turks and French. Britain rejected his plea and so eventually did the Americans. The Turks were powerless and the French did not bother to answer. In late 1873 the Dutch attacked with their biggest force ever in Indonesia, around 10.000 soldiers. Both sides suffered big losses, especially to cholera. The Acehnese abandoned Kuta Raja and the Dutch declared themselves the winner in early 1874, but very prematurely. The Acehnese never surrendered and the Dutch were more or less besieged in Kuta Raja, which forced them into a full scale war. The Dutch advanced by bombardments and burning villages, but the Acehnese only retreated further up the hills without giving up. In 1881 the Dutch declared the war to be over, which again was far from the truth. The Dutch controlled in reality only their own garrisons and in the end they had to leave the countryside to Acehnese control. The Acehnese guerillas were led by religious leaders and resistance became a holy war against the unbelievers. The most famous leader was Teungku Cik de Tiro (1836-1891).

A turning point in the war came when the Dutch started to take advice from the Islamic scholar, the Friesian Dr. Christian Snouck Hurgronje. The new Dutch Governor of Aceh, van Heutsz, carried out the new policy, which was to crush the religious leaders at any cost and try to appease traditional and secular leaders, i.e. the aristocracy. In 1903 the Sultan Tuanku Daud Syah finally surrendered, but still went on plotting against the Dutch and led an attack on Kuta Raja in 1907, which failed. He was finally exiled. Also the major military leader surrendered in 1907 and became an official under the Dutch. Several religious leaders were killed in 1910-12. For the Acehnese the war never ended though. During the Japanese occupation, many secular leaders were imprisoned and murdered.

After World War II when the Dutch attempted to conquer Indonesia again. Aceh was carefully avoided though, except for Pulau Weh (Sabang). The religious leaders saw in the Japanese, chance to get rid of the Dutch, but were disappointed and continued resistance with guerilla attacks. Directly after the war the Acehnese attacked the Japanese who had to be evacuated by the Allies. A civil war between the pro-republican religious leaders and the secular leaders broke out. The religious leaders won and Aceh became the only stable area in Indonesia when the aristocrats were deposed. On August 17, 1945 Indonesia declared itself as an independent Republic. The Acehnese supported the struggle against the Dutch with supplies, such as an airplane that was purchased with gold donations from the Acehnese. This airplane became the first plane of Garuda International Airlines and a replica is a monument in Banda Aceh.

In 1949 Aceh had been made an autonomous province of the Republic, but in 1950 Aceh was amalgamated with the province of North Sumatra (Sumatra Utara). Aceh never accepted this and in 1953 it came as far as military intervention from Jakarta and the Acehnese provincial government withdrew to the hills again. In 1957, a cease-fire was signed, but the stalemate lasted until 1959, When Aceh was given the “Daerah Istimewa”-status (Special area). Aceh obtained virtual autonomy in matters of religion, customary law (adat) and education. Fighting stopped, except for a few cases for two more years. Aceh gained what no other of the rebellious provinces managed to achieve, at least on paper.

During Soeharto’s rule Aceh were more or less treated like a source of money. The huge gas fields, gold and other minerals were exported and very little came back to Aceh. New resistance grew up and martial law was declared in the western and northern parts of Aceh. The Indonesian army brutally crushed the Acehnese opposition. The opposition was under the leadership of Hassan di Tiro, a descendant of the last Sultan and a former ambassador of Indonesia. He was forced to go into exile and eventually ended up in Sweden where the Acehnese resistance leaders gathered together. After Soeharto’s fall in May 1998, his protégée B.J. Habibie became president. He lifted the martial law and suddenly all the horrors of Soeharto were exposed to the world.

The human rights abuses during the martial law and the inability of the following governments to punish the wrong-doers left the Acehnese frustrated and demands for a referendum to determine if Aceh should be a part of Indonesia or not evolved. In a huge demonstration on June 12, 1999 between one and two million people from all over Aceh gathered in Banda Aceh to demand Referendum. The conflict eventually escalated once again into warfare between GAM (Aceh Freedom Movement) and the Indonesian forces. Martial law was introduced once again in 2002, now in all of Aceh. Peace negotiations started eventually, but not until after the Tsunami on the 26th of December, 2004, a peace accord could be worked out and finally signed in Helsinki. App. 120.000-150.000 people were killed by the tsunami in Aceh.

In 2007 Veterinary Irwandi Yusuf, a former GAM member, was elected as Governor of Aceh, in the first direct elections ever. However, he was not given much support of the political party formed by GAM (Partai Aceh) that dominated Aceh parliament. In June 3 Hasan Muhammad di Tiro passed away in Banda Aceh 84 years old. In April 2012 Dr. H. Zaini Abdullah, another GAM leader, who after 24 years in exile in Sweden, returned back home and was elected Governor of Aceh.




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