A wave of hungry Acehnese?

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 09 Jan 2005


The tsunami that swept in waves of terror and swept away waves of lives may bring in another wave as well: hungry Achenese refugees. SUHAINI AZNAM raises the possibility. 

WHILE Malaysia is battling hard to keep a lid on the numbers of illegal migrant workers, estimated at between 800,000 and 1.2 million with the vast majority being from Indonesia, the tsunami may cause even greater numbers finding their way to Malaysian shores. 

The worst-hit area is the province of Aceh, nearest the epicentre of the infamous earthquake. Aceh was home to an estimated 4.5 to five million people. Today, Aceh lies devastated. 

So where will the surviving multitudes go? 

Logically, they will be drawn to the nearest centre of prosperity – thriving Penang and the entire west coast just a bridge away. 

Acehnese have always maintained close links with the northern states of peninsular Malaysia, where many have settled down over the last two centuries. Families and friends would urge them to come over for prolonged and limitless visits. 

Former Agriculture Minister Tan Sri Sanusi Junid feels that one must differentiate between economic migrants and victims of natural catastrophe. 

“We have to separate the Acehnese problem from the illegal immigrant problem,” said Sanusi, president of the Malaysian-Acehnese Association, who is proud of his Acehnese lineage. 

The association holds annual meetings with 20,000 Malaysian-born Acehnese-speaking members and 30,000 more migrant workers. These are just the known figures. 

“If there is migration coming out of this tsunami disaster, it should not be looked at as economic migration,” he said. 

“The Acehnese, if they do come, should not frighten the hosts that they will create problems.  

“Any (host) country need not fear having to give them citizenship or voting rights, which are the main fears in a multiracial society. 

“You can even call them tsunami refugees, who are meant to go back. And they will go home, provided Aceh is ready to open up to international investments. Even now I have offers to build schools, orphanages and mosques. 

“Aceh can rise from the ashes in 10 to 15 years’ time.” 

But other Malaysians are less reassured. Within the Indonesian community, Acehnese have gained infamy for being involved in inter-communal fights, sometimes at knife-point. 

Hardened by three decades of resistance to the Indonesian military, the Acehnese have developed a reputation for ruthlessness. 

Men have died or “disappeared” during these clashes between the Indonesian military and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). A night curfew was imposed. Ironically, GAM’s leader, Hasan Tiro, is safely ensconced in Stockholm. 

“(Dying by) this tsunami is less painful than death by bullets,” said Sanusi.  

The pain is great for the survivors but had their relatives been shot, there would today be resentment. 

Aceh resents Jakarta’s stranglehold over its natural resources, particularly oil. Looking enviously at neighbouring Brunei up to the last few years, the Acehnese feel that their oil revenue has been drained to feed Jakarta. As an olive branch, former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri had offered limited autonomy. 

Aceh and peninsular Malaysia share many commonalities. 

Geographically, the landscape is the same. Flying out from Jakarta to Medan, one sees a change in topography: the old red tiled rooftops of Java and southern Sumatra give way to coconut trees and zinc roofs. The houses rise up on stilts. Buffalo work the padi fields. Mosques dot the land. It all looks familiar. 

And there is that famous son: the late veteran singer-film producer Tan Sri P. Ramlee had Acehnese roots and his descendants are ever eager to claim distant kinship. 

The northern states stretch over Malaysia’s padi-growing Muslim belt. The Acehnese feel right at home. One young Acehnese student here, worrying about her family, described it as being “just like Kelantan”. 

Historically, Sumatra and Malaya share enduring, familial ties, sealed by trade, wars and marriages among the ruling families. 

The 17th and 18th centuries saw Aceh ruling over Kedah, Perak, Pahang and Johor. 

When Penang was established in 1786, boatloads of Acehnese traders settled in the urban enclave of Acheen Street, building a mosque after its name. 

Parallel to this, Penang’s Chinese community and Aceh also developed strong commercial ties.  

Thus for the Acehnese, the lines of modern nationhood are artificial, contrived, brought about by British and Dutch colonialists only in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

When Sukarno advocated his Indonesia Raya plan in the 1960s, Malaya was very much a part of his greater South-East Asian political map. 

Penang is only a half-day journey by outboard motor from Aceh. The Penang-Medan ferry run takes five hours and costs RM120. 

There are 20,000 Indonesians now employed in Penang. In addition, some 100 students are enrolled in the state. 

The tsunami has accomplished for Jakarta what its own military has spent decades trying to achieve. It has impoverished the once proud, independence-seeking people. 

“Aceh should no more be declared a war zone. In any case, it would have lost most of its natural resources,” said Sanusi. 

It is in Malaysia’s interest to assist in the rebuilding of Aceh, if it wants to stave off a hungry tide. 

On a more universally compassionate note, the Acehnese really have nowhere else to go.  

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