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Peace and Sharia law in Aceh province

Thomas Latschan /bk, dbDecember 26, 2014

In 2004, the Indonesian province of Aceh was a civil war zone. Then came the tsunami. Today the region is at peace, but Aceh has established an Islamist government under the eyes of the Jakarta government.

Mosque in Banda Aceh
Image: AP

There are hardly any traces left of the biggest natural disaster in Aceh's history. Several of the ruined villages on the coast have been rebuilt. Modern residential blocks, new mosques, even freshly asphalted roads now cover the area. The markets are full again, the fishermen venture out to sea, and people work in the factories - as if the wave had never come. The wave that, on December 26, 2004, ended the lives of 160,000 people in Aceh alone.

Around $7 billion (5.7 billion euros) in reconstruction aid were sent to the utterly destroyed province from around the world. "Afterwards," explains Felix Heiduk, Indonesia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), "there was a reconstruction the likes of which had hardly ever been seen before in the world. If you compare the Aceh of today with the Aceh of before the tsunami, there has been a clear modernization boost in the past few years."

Modern houses, backward legal system

That's not the case, however, for human rights in the province.

Largely unnoticed by the international public, a fundamentalist regime has taken root. Aceh is the only Indonesian province that officially introduced Sharia law. The consequences are harsh: "Public life in Aceh has changed completely over the past 10 years," says Alex Flor of the Berlin-based 'Watch Indonesia!' human rights organization.

woman in Banda Aceh is caned
Canings are common in AcehImage: picture-alliance/epa/N. Afrida

Flor lists corporal punishment for gambling and the consumption of alcoholic beverages or going out with a person who is not your spouse, brother or sister. "Women must always and in all places wear a headscarf, and are only allowed to ride on the back of a motorcycle or seated side-saddle." According to a new law, homosexuality is punishable with up to 100 lashes. Stoning is being discussed as a penalty for adultery - approval only hinges on the governor's signature.

The Sharia police, which operates apart from the regular police forces, monitors whether rules are being followed. In fact, its only function is to punish people who disobey Sharia law, Flor points out. "First offenders are told what is forbidden, in a friendly but firm manner. The second or third time, offenders can expect to be penalized."

Punishment is drastic - and it's public, as a deterrent to others.

It's not new that religion is interpreted more strictly in Aceh than in many other parts of the country. "Aceh has always been known as Mecca's front verandah," Felix Heiduk says. "The region was Islam's gateway to South East Asia, and it's always been the most conservative area in Indonesia."

Today, the 2004 tsunami is regarded as 'God's punishment for sinful behavior in Aceh'," Heiduk explains. "Political groups instrumentalized this discourse to introduce a strict implementation of Sharia law." And people can hardly elude it without being regarded as 'un-Islamic,' the Indonesia expert adds.

Beachfront, empty
Aceh bore the brunt of the tsunamiImage: AFP/Getty Images/Joel Sagget

Long road to peace

Even before the tsunami devastated Aceh, the region was largely in ruins: exhausted by decades of civil war, plagued by numerous military operations, branded by massive, widespread human rights abuses.

The situation has been volatile ever since the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) formed in the mid-1970s in the region at the northwestern tip of Sumatra. The central government in Jakarta regularly cracked down on the GAM separatists, in particular when the province was unofficially designated a military operation area in the 1990s. In the name of liberating Aceh, Jakarta let the army do as it pleased. Random arrests and torture followed, many people simply vanished and thousands of civilians, including women, children and the elderly, were killed.

A phase of relative calm ensued until fighting broke out anew in 2003/2004. Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri wanted a military decision, and the GAM was massively pushed back. In October 2004, just two months before the tsunami hit, Sukarnoputri lost the presidential elections to her former security advisor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - who was willing to compromise in Aceh.

For a brief period, it seemed the situation would calm down - but then, the wave came.

'Jakarta looked the other way'

No other region in South East Asia was hit as hard by the tsunami as Aceh. The entire coastline was leveled.

The tsunami was the worst natural disaster of all times for Aceh, "but for the peace process, it acted like a catalyst," SWP expert Felix Heiduk says. "The tsunami massively increased the pressure on both conflict parties to make peace in order to push ahead with much-needed reconstruction."

In August 2005, the Indonesian government and Aceh rebels signed a peace accord granting the province broad local autonomy, laying the foundation that allowed the GAM to develop from an armed rebel movement to the leading political force in the province.

Green landscape in Indonesia
Ten years later: the tsunami hasn't left a traceImage: Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti

"Today, the GAM is in the driving seat, and it clearly enjoys being in power," Alex Flor says. All the same, he says, the party's about-face toward fundamentalist Islam came as a surprise. "In all the years they were fighting for independence, the separatists never had Islamist tendencies," he says. "Back then, the right to self-determination and the poor human rights situation in the province were what mattered, and it really leaves a bitter taste that in present-day Aceh, no one cares any longer about these very human rights."

Introducing Sharia law was never a key demand for the independence movement in Aceh, Felix Heiduk agrees. It was the government in Jakarta that got the ball rolling. In 2001, the government refused independence, Heiduk says, but conceded it would grant autonomy - "and then you can have Sharia law, too." Jakarta kept its word.

In Indonesia, it's not really seen as a problem, Heiduk says, adding that people focus on the successful peace process and reconstruction. "Where curbing armed violence is concerned, the peace process has definitely been a success." Marred only, adds Alex Flor, by the fact that Jakarta is very cautious in matters concerning Aceh. "They appear to be afraid of getting burned once more."

Model for other regions

Aceh is special even within Indonesia with its 240 million inhabitants. Religion only plays a minor role in domestic politics in the largest Muslim country in the world. While legislation similar to Sharia law can also be found on a local level in Java, Kalimantan or Sulawesi, it's not as extreme, and there is no corporal punishment. But Alex Flor definitely sees developments in Aceh as "part of a broader trend toward a greater Islamization of society."

Some of these other regions, Flor says, likely see Aceh as an example they would follow if they could.