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When I heard the name Aceh, the main locale in Indonesia hit by the 2004 tsunami, it was not new to me.

I remembered it from my grade-school days. Aceh, or Atjeh, as we knew it at that time, was the center of many years of rebellion against the Dutch colonial authorities.

Banda Aceh is the northernmost region of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. As patriotic school children we were proud of the Dutch victories over the Acehnese after decades of often fierce fighting. I cannot remember whether people ever paused, at that time, to consider the suffering of the Aceh people caused by the Dutch military campaigns.

The cataclysmic tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, brought the name of Banda Aceh back into world news. One towering wall of sea roared over Aceh—its cruel fury beyond all description—sweeping entire villages from the face of the earth. Thousands died, their bodies never found.

Yet a remarkable series of events took place soon after.

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), the diaconal arm of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, took initiative in bringing aid to the tsunami victims. Gifts flooded in from Canada and the United States. The cooperation of Development Canada and the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city on the central island of Java, as well as of many nongovernmental agencies, was secured. Prominent among those who donated so generously to this cause were many descendants of the Dutch citizens who, through their government, brought so much distress to the Aceh people more than a century earlier.

These donors may not have been aware of those historic connections—gestures of mercy often come with a touch of reconciliation not immediately visible. In retrospect we may now speak, symbolically, of Aceh’s redemption.

In June 2009, CRWRC concluded its work on behalf of the tsunami survivors. The total amount of money CRWRC invested in Aceh came to more than $10 million (provided apart from the regular CRWRC budget). Here’s how those gifts benefited Aceh:    

  • temporary shelters for 425 households
  • emergency kits for 5,300 people
  • medical camps to treat 6,500 people
  • income assistance to 17,500 people
  • artesian wells in 15 villages
  • electrical power to 4,400 people in 18 villages
  • school access for 2,300 children
  • textbooks and typewriters to schools in four villages
  • more than 1,140 earthquake-resistant houses
  • 600 livelihoods restored.

Dutch Colonial Rule

The history of Dutch colonialism is recorded from many different perspectives. Historians have traditionally pointed out that the Dutch brought order, safety, and a system of legal justice. The Reformed churches prided themselves in having brought the gospel, and the many churches across the island empire are a testimony to that ministry today.

But there remains one overriding question: by what standard of justice could one nation impose its governmental structures on a multitude of other people groups?

The Dutch ruled the archipelago for more than 300 years. The presence of the Dutch in the South Pacific region goes back to the spice trade of the late 16th century. Trade centers needed defending against attacks by the island populations, as well as by the British and the Portuguese navies, so the Dutch stationed troops all around. The reasoning was, of course, that if the Dutch didn’t provide protection for their trade, other nations would take over.

Gradually, Dutch military leaders found it reasonable to unite the entire area under one government and make it part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. That Indonesia’s individual people groups never wanted government by a foreign nation was never seriously considered by successive administrations.

And that’s how Aceh comes into the picture. The Sultanate of Aceh, from the very beginning, objected strenuously to becoming part of one huge Dutch kingdom. Their relationship with the colonial authorities in Batavia, now Jakarta, were often strained and always complex.

True, the Acehnese were a warlike people. And their own governmental structures were at times nonfunctional, so ad hoc agreements with Batavia were repeatedly violated. The Acehnese also often resorted to piracy on the high seas.

All through the three centuries of colonial rule, the Dutch maintained that it was their duty to maintain order in that strategic part of the globe.

And so it was that on March 26, 1873, an expedition of Dutch gun boats bombarded the villages of Aceh from the sea. Colonial army units soon followed with attacks on the settlements of the Aceh district. Though greatly outnumbered, the Acehnese never fully surrendered.

In 1898 the Dutch government appointed General J.B.  van Heutsz governor of Aceh. He was a man of action and a military genius. In 1904, after 163 days of fierce fighting, all resistance was finally broken.

Among the Dutch delegation that accepted the surrender was a young captain named Hendrikus Colijn. His meteoric career brought him to London as the president of Shell Oil Company. He then became head of the main Christian Party, and, finally, prime minister of the Netherlands.

How many Acehnese died in the many military campaigns till that year has never been established. Present-day Dutch online sources point out that the authorities in Batavia were very conservative in reporting casualties. Researchers today maintain that the number is upward of 70,000. Some historians believe 100,000 is more likely.

Following his “successes” in Aceh, General van Heutsz was appointed governor general of all Indonesia (then known as the Dutch East Indies). He applied the Aceh strategies to many other islands of the huge region. From then till the beginning of World War II, the Dutch faced no uprisings of significant consequences. Van Heutsz was honored as a great national hero. He died in 1924 and was given a state funeral in Amsterdam, until that time afforded only to members of the royal family.

After Colonialism

The Dutch colonial policies likely had a significant impact on the realities of Indonesia today. When Sukarno proclaimed himself president, following the surrender of Japan in 1945, he insisted that his regime was the rightful successor of the Dutch and that the many people groups did not have the right to self-determination. When the Acehnese once again expressed aspirations toward independence, he was quick to send in the troops.

While Sukarno was able to stem the initial uprisings, the peoples’ desire for independence was not defeated. Sukarno’s successor, Suharto, soon faced the much firmer opposition of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a rebel group determined to win independence.

The period of 1976 to 2005 was marked by continued violence. It gave Banda Aceh the reputation as a belligerent and hostile region. Increased rebellion, in turn, led to greater repression and control by Jakarta. It left Aceh a closed and isolated area.

Unexpected Consequences

The 2004 tsunami had an unforeseen but wonderfully healing impact on conditions in Aceh. The overwhelming needs that resulted from the flood brought scores of international organizations and fellow Indonesians to Aceh to help. Among them was CRWRC, which soon employed more than 50 workers for nearly five years.

Within a year of the tsunami, the civil war in Aceh subsided, and a peace agreement was signed. The region was given the freedom to have its own regional political parties, and those who had been GAM soldiers now participated in the political process.

For decades the people of Aceh had not dared to venture into the hills to buy their favored durian fruit. Now they could, to everybody’s delight. Scooters and motorbikes appeared on the country roads in great numbers, their riders no longer fearful of being shot at from above.

And all the while a warm cooperation grew between the Acehnese and those who stood side by side with them to help repair and heal. Local people became involved in decision making at all levels. They discovered a different kind of power—“power over them” had been transformed into “power with them.”

In many respects, history has come full circle. Redemption for Aceh, yes. But also for us.

  1. Aside from the aboriginal peoples of North America, the U.S. evolved from colonization by England, and Canada evolved from colonization by both Britain and France. Can you think of exploitative practices on the part of the “mother countries”?
  2. What arguments did colonial powers mostly use to justify their presence in other regions? How would you evaluate such arguments?
  3. CRWRC’s relief project in Banda Aceh was an example of a comprehensive and sustained ministry (2004-2009). What might be the advantages of such an approach?
  4. CRWRC, from the beginning, worked closely with the Acehnese and consulted closely with local authorities. What advantages can you see?
  5. The Aceh project contributed greatly to racial reconciliation in the region. It also enhanced freedom and justice in society. How can that be explained?

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