Monday, September 01, 2003

Starting From Kilometre Zero

The Star Newspaper, Kuala Lumpur

The Indonesian government’s declaration of martial law and military offensive against Acehnese separatists recently drew international attention to the troubled province on the western tip of Sumatra. ANDREAS HARSONO explains in a carefully researched and thoughtful essay why many Acehnese are fighting for independence from Jakarta.

IN 1926 an Indonesian journalist who lived in Batavia, then the colonial name of Jakarta, wrote a book about his cruise from Batavia to Amsterdam. Adi Negoro described in his two-series travelogue Melawat ke Barat (“Traveling to the West”) his stopovers in more than two dozens international cities such as Singapore, Medan, Colombo, Aden, Port Said, Marseille, Lisbon, Algiers, Gibraltar and Southampton. It was an eye-opening book of the early 20th century Dutch Indies –the colonial name of this vast archipelago. Adi Negoro mixed day-to-day stories with references to classical books, ranging from anthropology, to theology, from history to philosophy.

One of his interesting pauses was the seaport of Sabang on Weh Island in northern Sumatra where the Tambora had stopped to load up coal. Adi Negoro took a car ride around Sabang and compared the Sabang harbour with the more modern British-controlled Singapore where his ship had stopped earlier.

“If we compare only the ports, Sabang is obviously better than Singapore. But Sabang’s location is not that strategic. Although the Dutch government had made Sabang into a freeport, but it is not as busy as Singapore.” (Both seaports are located on the Straits of Malacca.)

He also wrote a little history. The Dutch built the Sabang harbour in 1887. Sabang Maatschappij, a private company commissioned by the Dutch government to manage the freeport, further developed the harbour between 1896 and 1911. It was equipped with a 2,600-ton ship repair dock. It also had four giant cranes that busily loaded up coal into ships entering Sabang from Europe, China, Japan, Singapore, Batavia and other places. In 1924 the company built another dock, 5,000 tons, to increase its repairing capacity.

“The livelihood of most people in Sabang depends on this seaport. There was a Kampoeng Tionghoa (Chinatown) near the harbour which was packed with stores and restaurants. Behind the harbour were the workers’ lodgings. On the seaside were offices of shipping companies such as Rotterdamsche Llyod Lloyd and Maatschappy Nederland,” Adi Negoro wrote.

What Adi Negoro he did not write was that Sabang was a part of Aceh –the stubborn territory that had fought against the Dutch colonialism between 1876 and 1904. The Dutch built Sabang not only to get for economic gain but also to help pacify the Acehnese.

Last June, I spent one hour in a speedboat to reach Sabang from Banda Aceh, the provincial capital of Aceh. with a speed boat. The Sabang harbour was picturesque with small fishing boats and tin-roofed warehouses. Outside the harbour was a small street and 300m meters away was the Chinatown named Jalan Perdagangan where Chinatown was located.

Outside the harbour, A pedicab driver, whose motorcycle was outfitted with a locally-made sidecar, approached me and offered a ride. More

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