After spending nearly 30 years in exile, Dr Tengku Hasan di Tiro, the charismatic, if now aged, leader of Aceh’s independence movement returned to the island to a hero's welcome. Hundreds of thousands of joyous supporters had gathered at the airport to welcome him on October 13. Many had never seen him in person or they were too young to remember when he declared Aceh’s independence from Indonesia in 1976 and launched the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) the guerrilla movement whose members were hunted by the Indonesia military for more than three decades.
The 83-year-old Dr Hasan di Tiro, now frail both because of his age and having suffered three strokes, knelt on a prayer rug at the tarmac of the airport and kissed the ground. He was driven to the main mosque in Banda Aceh where he spoke briefly to the assembled crowd. “I am happy to be back in Aceh, Allahu Akbar! The peace deal for Aceh is a gift from Allah,” he said. The remainder of his message was read out by his lieutenant Mahmood Khalid, who has for many years served as Aceh’s Prime Minister in exile.
The guerrilla war finally came to an end following the devastating tsunami that struck southeast Asia on December 26, 2004. With its epicenter in Aceh-Sumatra, the island suffered great calamity. Hundreds of thousands of people were swallowed up by the sea; its entire infrastructure was destroyed and for weeks, survivors roamed in a dazed state. It was in these circumstances and the fact that the military dictator Suharto had already left the political scene in Indonesia, that the way was paved for a political settlement. In return for the Acehnese giving up their quest for independence, the Jakarta government agreed to grant Aceh a large measure of autonomy and a greater share of its natural resources--oil, gas and timber.
Soon after the tsunami, Zafar Bangash, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), had phoned Dr di Tiro at his home in Sweden. He was too frail to talk but asked his lieutenant Mahmood Khalid to thank him and the Crescent staff with whom he has had a long association, for their help to the tsunami victims and their families. Mahmood Khalid and Dr Abdullah, another of his lieutenants, had a long conversation with Zafar Bangash explaining the scope of the devastation suffered by Aceh.
The frail and emotional Dr. di Tiro, descendant of one of Aceh’s most famous religious and political families who abandoned a business career in the US to fight as a guerrilla in the island’s jungles, was visibly moved by the people’s warm and emotional reception. He returned not as a guerrilla fighter but as an elder statesman, confirming that struggling for people’s rights earns a leader their respect. While studying in New York in 1953, he declared himself “foreign minister” of the Darul Islam movement, which at that time was led by Daud Bereueh in Aceh. Due to this action, he was immediately stripped of his Indonesian citizenship, causing him to be imprisoned for a few months on Ellis Island as an “illegal alien”. The movement for freedom led by Darul Islam in Aceh ended in a peace deal in 1962. Dr Hasan di Tiro returned to Aceh in 1974 but soon thereafter (1976) he set up the Free Aceh Movement.
Among Indonesians, the Acehnese are the most devout Muslims. They had a powerful empire in the 17th century and ferociously resisted Dutch colonisers. Hasan di Tiro is a descendant of the former rulers of Aceh. He went into exile after being wounded in action in 1979, eventually landing in Sweden. His absence only added to his mystique among Acehnese supporters of independence, and the diaries of his time as a guerrilla leader were widely circulated.
While the Tengku (meaning prince) has eschewed any interest in official positions because of his poor health, his former guerrilla colleagues have established a new political party, the Aceh Party that will contest parliamentary elections early next year. It is expected to do well. Tens of thousands of Aceh Party flags were hoisted by the crowds that came to see him - and the trucks that brought them. Party officials in party T-shirts had helped with airport security and appeared to have a good organization in place.
With Tengku Hasan di Tiro’s charisma and mystique, they are likely to do well in next spring’s elections and hopefully bring much needed relief to the long-suffering people of Aceh-Sumatra.