Rising with the brim of sunshine, early in the morning of December 26, 2004, a magnitude of 9.1 quakes off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh, which was considered one of the worst natural disasters on record. More than 2,20,000 people lost their lives across a dozen countries, with almost 1,70,000 casualties in the Indonesian archipelago.
The province of Aceh was first hit, with a wave rising to about 35 metres causing massive devastation. The Indian Ocean tsunami also prompted an unprecedented humanitarian response which led to international relief and reconstruction support.
The peace agreement was signed between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), mediated by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, with the signing of an MoU on August 15, 2005. With the aid of the European Union through the Aceh monitoring mission as of December 2005, the peace has held.
Aceh is located on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, which is a part of Indonesia. Its full name is Nanggröe Aceh Darussalam. Firstly, Islam was established here in the Aceh region. In the early 16th century, The Portuguese apothecary, Tome Pires reported in his book ‘Suma Oriental’, that most of the kings of Sumatra were Muslims. The North Aceh Regency which was known as Pasai earlier, was actively used as an international port.
The Sultanate of Aceh was established as a small Islamic kingdom during the 15th century, today known as Banda Aceh. Their territory grew from Satun in Southern Thailand, Johor in the Malay Peninsula, and Siak. Acehnese power expanded outward by the ocean instead of inland. Expanding down the Sumatran coast, Johor and Portuguese Malacca became its main competitors. The seaborne trade led to the focus of Aceh on its rice imports from north Java.
In 1511, the Portuguese occupation in Malacca had led many Islamic traders passing through Malacca straits to shift their trade to Aceh. In the 17 th century, during the rule of Sultan Iskandar Muda, Aceh’s influential power grew to most of Sumatra and Malay. Aceh joined in alliance with the Ottoman empire and Dutch East India Company in their struggle against the Portuguese and the Johor Sultanate. In the advent of the 19th century, Aceh made use of its influential power to utilise the location for regional trade. In the 1820s, it had been the producer of over half the world’s supply of black pepper. The pepper trade brought new wealth for the sultanate. Yet also benefited the rulers of many smaller nearby ports and were able to assert more independence.
The Aceh War
Dutch government declared war on Aceh on 26th March 1873, which triggered the discussions between representatives of Aceh and the U.S in Singapore during early 1873. An expedition began under the control of Major General Köhler in 1874 and was successful enough in capturing most of the coastal areas. The main intention of the Dutch was to capture the Sultan Palace and take over the country. On request of the Sultan, Italy and UK aided Aceh, their military for protection. Thus, Aceh managed to kill Köhler, but it wasn’t the very end.
A second expedition begun by General Van Swieten was successful enough to capture Kraton (Sultan’s palace), yet the Sultan somehow escaped. Around 1880, the Dutch changed their strategy and instead of continuing the war, they concentrated on defending the areas they already had, which was limited to the capital city. The Colonial government announced that the war was over in 1880 and yet again in 1883 it started, when the British ship Nisero, was brought to Aceh. A local leader, Teuku Umar, seeked for help, but upon the refusal, the Dutch joined together with the British and invaded their territory. The Sultan gave up the hostages in exchange for a large sum of money.
Weitzel, the Dutch Minister of warfare, declared open war against Aceh which had a spill of success as witnessed before.Two years later, Umar attacked the Dutch with his new army, instead of helping the Dutch to subjugate inner Aceh. Between the period of 1892 and 93, Aceh remained independent, in spite of the Dutch’s efforts put forth. Major J.B. van Heutsz, a colonial military leader who wrote a series of articles on Aceh. Major was supported by Dr Snouck Hurgronje, from the University of Leiden, afterwards leading the Dutch expertise on Islam.
Van Daalen destroyed several villages, ruthlessly killing 2,900 Acehnese, among which were 1,150 women and children. Owing to lesser losses on Dutch’s side, Van Daalen was promoted. Most of Aceh was under Dutch’s control by 1904 and had established an indigenous government in relation with the state. The total casualties on the Aceh’s side was ranging from fifty thousand to one lakh casualties dead and over a million being wounded.
Colonial influence in the remote areas of the highlands was never substantial enough. Although certain guerilla warfare troops remained. The religious ulema continued with their intermittent fighting until 1910 and the parts of the province were not convinced, when the Dutch Indies finally became independent Indonesia which was followed by the end for the Japanese occupation in Indonesia.
Free Aceh Movement
In the 1970s, according to the agreement with the Indonesian central government, the American oil and gas companies started to exploit the natural resources available at Aceh. The unequal distribution of profits between the central government and native people of Aceh made Hasan di Tiro, the former ambassador of Darul Islam, to take a call for making Aceh independent. He proclaimed Aceh’s independence in 1976.
The movement began with a small number of followers initially, thus Hasan di Tiro sacrificed himself to live in exile in Sweden. In the late 80s, several security incidents prompted the Indonesian central government to take restrictive actions and send troops to Aceh, which led to human rights abuse and resulting in grievances to the Acehnese.
There was a chaotic situation prevailing in Java because of the lack of proper governance of the central government in the late 90’s, which gave rise to the Free Aceh Movement. The support of the 2000 plebiscite in Banda Aceh, was attended by nearly half a million people. Once again accompanied by repressive measures and in 2003, yet again an offence began and a state of emergency was prevailing in the province. The war was going on even though the Tsunami Disaster of 2004 struck the province.
The western coastal areas of Aceh were hit by Tsunami which also had an effect on the cities including Banda Aceh, Calang, and Meulaboh. While estimates may vary, approximately 2,30,000 people died by the earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, and about 500,000 were left homeless. The tragedy of the tsunami was further compounded on 26th March when a second off-shore earthquake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale struck the ocean bed. It further killed a mass of 905 people from Nias and Simeulue and displaced a mass of ten thousand people.The population of Aceh before the December 2004 tsunami was 4,271,000 in 2004 was further reduced by 2% post-tsunami attack.
In February 2006, more than a year after the tsunami, many people were still living in temporary Barack homes. Since the disaster, the Acehnese rebel movement, they have been striving for independence against the Indonesian authorities for 29 years and finally signed a peace deal on 15th August 2005.
Improved version of Aceh
Houses were rebuilt and therefore essentials were being met, in addition to it, the people were also looking forward to improving their quality of education, tourism, and developing a responsible, sustainable industry. Qualified educational professionals were in high demand due to the reinforcement tasks which happened in Aceh.
Most of the western coast was severely damaged, leaving behind many towns which completely disappeared. The area was slowly being reconstructed after the disaster. The government initially proposed the creation of a two-kilometre buffer zone along with low-lying coastal areas, within which permanent construction is not allowed. This proposal was unpopular among some local inhabitants and proved impractical in most situations, especially fishing families that are reliant on the sea.
The special agency for Aceh’s reconstruction called Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi was headed by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the former Indonesian Minister. This agency has a ministry-level of authority and incorporates officials, professionals and community leaders from all backgrounds.
Most of the reconstruction work was made by local people using a mix of traditional methods and partial prefabricated structures, with funding coming from many international organizations and individuals, governments, and the people themselves.
The Government of Indonesia has estimated in their Preliminary Damage and Losses Assessment that the amount summed up to 4.5 billion US Dollars. Post tsunami, although three years have passed, reconstruction was an ongoing process. The World Bank is monitoring the funding for reconstruction projects in Aceh. It has reported that 7.7 billion US Dollars were allocated for the reconstruction purpose and in June 2007, 5.8 billion US Dollars were allocated to specific reconstruction projects, of which 3.4 billion US Dollars had been spent (58%).
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Joseph Perman. (2016). The Reconstruction of Post-Tsunami Banda Aceh, Indonesia: A spatial analysis of the rebuilding of structures, roads, and productive land. https://escholarship.org/content/qt95r06890/qt95r06890.pdf?t=oettag&v=lg
Asprihanto, H. K. K. (2019, December 23). “We can’t be afraid”: Rebuilding in Indonesia’s tsunami zone leaves city in peril. U.S. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indianocean-tsunami-risk-idUSKBN1YR027
E.T.H.Z. (2018, January 12). A society divided by reconstruction: Rebuilding after a deadly tsunami. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180112105116.htm