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South-East Asia

The forgotten people of Acheh-Sumatra

Crescent International

Most Muslims would probably have a hard time explaining where exactly Acheh-Sumatra is. This is not entirely their fault. The reason is that the manner in which the world of Islam has been divided, entire communities have either disappeared or absorbed by other groups and peoples in such a way as to obliterate their identity. This is the case with the Achehese as well, a proud and brave people who refuse to disappear quietly. Sumatra is one of the large islands that comprises the State of Indonesia which emerged from the bowels of Dutch colonialism after the second world war. The Achenese reside in the northern part of the Island of Sumatra and have a long and proud history of resistance to Dutch colonialism.

The irony is that while they had a glorious civilization, had established an Islamic State and their ruler always referred to himself as the Naib-e Khalifah in order to maintain Muslim unity, the world of Islam has virtually forgotten them. Since Indonesia came into existence, they have waged a relentless struggle to achieve independence so that they can re-establish Islamic rule. How they fell under the control of the Javanese-dominated Indonesia is in itself a sordid story. In 1942, the Dutch sent the Javanese mercenary army to the Island of Sumatra to put down the uprising by the people there. When the Dutch left the region, the Javanese mercenaries remained in control of Acheh-Sumatra. This is how this rich Island-State came to form part of the monstrosity called Indonesia, an artificial State created as a result of putting together thousands of islands.

There are other differences as well. The Javanese are almost all pagans. That explains why most of them have only one name; such as Suharto, Wiranto etc. These names mean nothing. The present Indonesian president, B J Habibie, while he has a Muslim name, he too is fonding of Javanese mysticism, according to his own admission. The people of Acheh-Sumatra have a long tradition of waging jihad against foreign invaders, first the Dutch colonialists, and now the Javanese colonialists. This explains why they are persecuted and terrorised in their own country.

Their tragedy also is that their case is little known outside a small circle of Islamic activists. Muslims in other parts of the world have got some exposure for their struggle such as the Palestinians, the Kashmiris etc; not the people of Acheh-Sumatra. Even in Southeast Asia, the struggle of the people of Bangsamoroland have had fair press. In recent weeks, even the Muslims of Patani have been given some coverage in order to highlight their plight. When Indonesia is mentioned, it is often in relation to how badly the regime is treating the people of East Timor. The atrocities in East Timor pale into insignificance in comparison with those being perpetrated in Aceh-Sumatra. Could the difference be that the Timorese are Christians and the Achenese Muslims?

In the case of the Achenese, not only their existence is virtually denied but they are also persecuted, even by their fellow Muslims. For instance, since March, Achenese refugees have been forcibly repatriated from Malaysia under a plan conceived jointly by the Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed and the former Indonesian president general Suharto as well as his successor, Habibie. The trio had met in March under which the forcible repatriation of the Achenese was launched. Literally, hundreds of them were dragged in chains from refugee camps after being poisoned through food in order to sedate them. Some of them died of food poisoning, others were shot dead by the overzealous Malaysian police.

Those that were forcibly returned to Aceh-Sumatra were immediately rounded up by the Javanese army and sent to concentration camps. Since 1992, thousands of Achenese have disappeared and are presumed dead. While one can understand the lack of interest of the western media in the plight of the Achenese because they are trying to fight one of their

creations - Indonesia - but there is no excuse for the manner in which most of the Muslim media have treated them. Similarly, their plight has received scant attention from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) which although quite ineffective so far, has not even bothered to pass a resolution condemning the atrocities being perpetrated against the Achenese, as it has done in other cases.

The plight of the Achenese refugees and mujahideen deserves greater exposure. At the very least, the global Islamic Movement must recognise their existence and give them whatever support it can. If the Muslim Ummah is one body, as the noble Qur’an says, then let it say to the Achenese people that they are also a part of that Ummah. It may not ease their pain immediately but it will act as a healing balm for their wounds.

Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 10

Rabi' al-Awwal 22, 14191998-07-16

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