Tales from the Aceh struggle

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 25 May 2003


HASBALLAH M. Saad is a fascinating storyteller. He could tell you lots of stories about Aceh, his homeland in the northern tip of Sumatra. 

“I have a small island with a wooden house and a fish pond, where I usually treat my friends. It’s beautiful there,” he told me when we met recently in Petchaburi, Thailand. 

Hasballah is a 51-year-old professor in a teachers college in Jakarta. But he used to be an aide to President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) in charge of Aceh problems. 

He recalls an experience back in 1976 when Aceh Governor Muzakkir Walad invited him to a meeting in the governor's office in Banda Aceh. Hasballah was then a student leader. Muzakkir had asked him to attend a meeting with a globe-trotting Acehnese aristocrat who lived mostly in the United States. 

“I have left Aceh for 20 years. I see no change here. Aceh is still poor despite the presence of mineral, gas and oil,” Hasballah quoted Hasan Di Tiro as saying. 

Hasan Di Tiro, the visiting aristocrat, claimed to be friends with US President Dwight Eisenhower. He came to Banda Aceh to ask Muzakkir to give him a forest concession and a major construction contract to help develop Aceh. 

Muzakkir politely answered: “We couldn’t do that Tengku. This kind of decision should come from Jakarta.” 

Tengku is a collegial title in Aceh used for a man whom an Acehnese speaker respects. But this Tengku Hasan Di Tiro couldn’t take such an answer. While Aceh produced revenue of more than US$10bil annually, it was mainly channelled to the Suharto regime in Jakarta. Di Tiro returned to the United States to bring back arms, money and a bloody rebellion in Aceh. 

Di Tiro began to organise an underground movement in Aceh. The struggle climaxed on Dec 4, 1976, when Di Tiro issued a declaration of independence of “Aceh-Sumatra.” He made himself the head of state, planned to revive the ancient Acehnese sultanate, and went into the jungle to wage Aceh’s guerilla war. 

Indonesia, according to Di Tiro, was a fraud or a cloak to cover up Javanese colonialism – a reference to Indonesia’s main ethnic group of Javanese whose population live mainly on the island of Java. 

“There never were a people, much less a nation, in our part of the world by that name (Indonesia). No such people existed in the Malay archipelago by definition of ethnology, philology, cultural anthropology, sociology or by any other scientific findings,” declared Di Tiro. Indonesia is “a Javanese republic with a Greek pseudo-name.” 

No Acehnese, and even other Indonesian citizens, ever posed such a bold posture against Jakarta. It prompted the Indonesian army to conduct a manhunt. 

Di Tiro and his comrades had limited weapons and were no match for the Indonesian army. In 1980, Di Tiro fled to Sweden and continued his work from an apartment in suburban Stockholm. 

Meanwhile, Hasballah, who was not interested in joining Di Tiro’s rather strange rebellion, began to build his own career. Hasballah worked with a family-planning organisation in Banda Aceh and later in Jakarta. He became one of Aceh’s leading figures. He also pursued his PhD from the Jakarta teachers college.  

In 1999, Gus Dur, an eccentric cleric and democracy activist, was elected President of post-Suharto Indonesia. He asked Hasballah to join his Cabinet to solve the Aceh problem. 

They sought the cooperation of the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre to help mediate between the rebels and Jakarta. Hasballah began to meet privately with the rebels in Sweden. A ceasefire agreement was signed and even enhanced with the establishment of a joint security committee last December. 

But Gus Dur did not stay in power long enough to secure the peace initiative. His eccentricity and mismanagement prompted the Indonesian parliament to impeach him in July 2001. Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri took over the presidency and ordered Indonesian generals to be bold again when dealing with Aceh guerillas. 

The rebels responded by being aloof. They began to use the cry “freedom from Java colonialism” once again. Jakarta finally issued a deadline on May 2, saying that the rebels should surrender their weapons or face an imminent war. A last-minute talk brokered in Tokyo failed to get the two sides to sit down and solve their problems. 

The question of Aceh is not merely the rhetoric of “either you remain in the republic or you secede and therefore have to be crushed.” 

“You should talk about political compensation,” said Hasballah, adding there should be negotiations and more diplomacy rather than the use of force. 

Aceh rebel leaders like Hasan Di Tiro, Zaini Abdullah, Bakhtiar Abdullah, Djamil M. Amin, as well as thousands of other fighters in the jungles of Aceh needed to have their honour respected. They could not return empty-handed. 

Surrounded by her hawkish generals, Megawati chose to declare martial law in Aceh on May 19. Hours later bombs were dropped on Acehnese villages, killing some guerillas and many civilians. 

More than 10,000 people have been killed over the last three decades in Aceh. It is obvious that thousands more will die in the ongoing war, not to mention a lost and traumatised generation. 

“I was very sad when martial law was declared. Violence tends to create more violence. It will not solve the Aceh problem,” Hasballah said. 

He knows that many people in Jakarta are angry these days. And yes, civilisation and peace in Aceh can also start from anger. But there would be no civilisation if anger did not turn into politics. 

And each war, including the one in Aceh, has an element of anti-war. “No rain without end, no war without end,” Hasballah said. 

But he is still not sure about the future of Aceh. “I just want you to pray for Aceh.” 

  • Andreas Harsono is The Star's correspondent in Jakarta 

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