Aceh: History, Politics and Culture

Article excerpt

Aceh: History, Politics and Culture


Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010. Pp. 386. Illustrations,

Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Following the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and undersea earthquake off the island of Sumatra, which hit Aceh the hardest, Indonesia's long-troubled westernmost province became the subject of unprecedented international attention. Foreign and Indonesian journalists and development workers descended upon the disaster zone and images of the devastation wrought by the waves were broadcast around the world. This event, combined with the resolution in August 2005 of a protracted armed separatist conflict between Free Aceh Movement rebels and Indonesian security forces, created a set of conditions that inspired a growing number of scholarly writings about what makes Aceh unique, and how other places might learn from its dual experiences of recovery from natural and man-made disasters.

Aceh: History, politics and culture, edited by Arndt Graf, Susanne Schr6ter and Edwin Wieringa, contributes to this burgeoning body of literature by bringing together scholars and activists who explore various dimensions of Acehnese state and society in contemporary and historical perspective. The seventeen chapters are logically ordered into four parts that offer insights into (i) History, (ii) Contemporary economy and politics, (iii) Foundations of religion and culture, and (iv) Current debates in religion and culture. The overall aim of the collection is to provide an introductory body of knowledge 'which would benefit expatriate aid workers in their dealings with the Acehnese people' (p. ix).

Yet upon opening this book this reader felt a nagging sense of foreboding. First, the audience for which this collection of essays is primarily intended--the international development community involved in the large-scale reconstruction effort in post-tsunami, post-conflict Aceh--had already completed their missions and withdrawn from the province by the time the book was published. While authors and publishers are frequently overtaken by events, the phased departure of foreign aid workers from Aceh had begun four years previously and ended in 2009.

The key substantive weakness of this volume, however, is that there is neither an editorial introduction nor a concluding chapter. The editors provide no overarching theoretical or conceptual framework, no contextualisation of the case of Aceh in relation to wider developments, and do not attempt to situate this book within the growing body of scholarship on Aceh. …


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