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Sitting astride the equator, Sumatra's climate is about as tropical as tropical gets. Daytime temperatures seldom fail to reach 30°C (86°F) on the coast, but fortunately the weather is appreciably cooler inland around the mountains. Places like Berastagi, Bukittinggi and Danau Toba get cool enough at night to warrant a blanket. The dry season runs from May to September. The timing of the wet season is hard to predict. In the north, the rains start in October, and December/January are the wettest months; in the south, the rains start in November, peaking in January/February. Bengkulu and West Sumatra are the wettest places, with average rainfall approaching 3500mm.

Pre 20th Century History

Knowledge of Sumatra's pre-Islamic history is sketchy. Hunter-gatherers were living along the Strait of Melaka (Selat Malaka) 13,000 years ago. Otherwise there is little evidence of human activity until the appearance, about 2000 years ago, of two megalithic cultures, one in the mountains of western Sumatra, the other on Pulau Nias.

Sumatra had little contact with the outside world until the kingdom of Sriwijaya emerged at the end of the 7th century. Presumed to have been based near the modern city of Palembang, Sriwijayan power was attained through control of the Strait of Melaka - the main trade route between India and China. At its peak in the 11th century, Sriwijaya ruled a huge slab of Southeast Asia, covering most of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, southern Thailand and Cambodia. Sriwijayan influence collapsed after the kingdom was conquered by the south Indian king Ravendra Choladewa in 1025. For the next 200 years, the void was partly filled by Sriwijaya's main regional rival, the Jambi-based kingdom of Malayu.

After Malayu was defeated by a Javanese expedition in 1278, the focus of power moved north to a cluster of Islamic sultanates on the east coast of what is now the province of Aceh. These sultanates began life as ports servicing trade through the Strait of Melaka. Many of the traders were Muslims from Gujarat (west India), and the animist locals were soon persuaded to adopt the faith of their visitors - giving Islam its first foothold in the Indonesian archipelago. These traders also provided the island with its modern name, which is derived from Samudra, meaning 'ocean' in Sanskrit.

Samudra was a small port near modern Lhokseumawe that became the most powerful of the sultanates. As Samudran influence spread around the coast of Sumatra and beyond, the name gradually came to refer to the island as a whole. Marco Polo corrupted the name to Sumatra in his 1292 report on the area.

After the Portuguese occupied Melaka on the Malay Peninsula in 1511, Aceh took over as the main power base on Sumatra. The sultanate eventually carved out a substantial territory, covering much of northern Sumatra as well as large chunks of the Malay Peninsula. Acehnese power prevailed until the beginning of the 17th century, when Dutch traders began their probings into Sumatra.

Based in Padang, the Dutch made little military effort to impose themselves until after the Napoleonic Wars (1800-15). By then, their influence in Sumatra had all but evaporated. The British ruled in Bencoolen (now Bengkulu), American traders were monopolising pepper exports from Aceh, and the Chinese were exploiting the rich tin reserves on the islands of Bangka and Belitung, east of Palembang. The subsequent Dutch campaign to control Sumatra resulted in some of the most protracted fighting of the colonial era. It began with a failed attempt to capture Palembang in 1818; a second attempt in 1825 succeeded, but fighting dragged on in the South Sumatran interior until 1847. Meanwhile in West Sumatra, fighting had broken out between supporters of traditional law and Islamic fundamentalists. By 1821, the latter had won control of much of the highlands when the Dutch entered the fray in support of the traditional leaders. The war dragged on until 1837, when the Dutch finally captured the equator town of Bonjol.

In 1863, after three military expeditions, the Dutch finally established authority over Nias. Treaties and alliances brought other areas of Sumatra under Dutch rule, including Bengkulu, which the British willingly traded for Melaka. The war against the Acehnese, however, proved to be the bloodiest and the longest lasting. The Acehnese turned back the first Dutch attack in 1873 before succumbing to a massive assault two years later. They then took to the jungles to wage a guerrilla struggle that lasted until 1903, when the Acehnese sultan Tuanku Muhamat Dawot surrendered.

Modern History

The Dutch were booted out of Aceh for the last time in 1942, immediately before the WWII Japanese occupation of Sumatra. From 1945 until Indonesia achieved independence in 1949, Aceh was ruled by Daud Beureueh, the leader of an Islamic modernist movement.

Sumatra contributed several key figures to the independence struggle, including future vice-president Mohammed Hatta and the first prime minister, Sutan Syahrir. The island also provided the new nation with its fair share of problems. Not least of all Aceh. The new nation's living-together philosophy didn't go down too well with the staunchly Muslim Acehnese, who rebelled against being lumped together with the Christian Bataks in the newly created province of North Sumatra in 1951. Led by Beureueh, they declared an independent Islamic republic in 1953. Aceh was conferred special provincial status within Indonesia in 1959, which provided for substantial autonomy in religious, educational and cultural affairs.

The Sumatran rebellion of 1958-61 posed a much greater threat to Indonesian nationalism. The Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI) was declared in Bukittinggi in February 1958. While many local grievances were involved, the main argument with Jakarta concerned the Communist Party's growing influence with President Soekarno. The central government showed no interest in negotiations and moved quickly to quash the rebellion, capturing the main cities of Medan and Palembang within a month. By mid-1958 Jakarta had regained control of all the major towns, but the rebel fighting continued in the mountains of South Sumatra for another three years.

In the late 1970s Aceh remerged as a problem area. Growing opposition to Jakarta's stranglehold on Aceh's rich natural resources led the province's religious and intellectual leaders, as well as the newly formed Free Aceh Movement (GAM), to call for autonomy and secession from the Indonesian republic. In 1989 GAM began a low-level uprising and the government reacted forcefully.

For the next eight years the province came under near martial law. Following Soeharto's resignation in 1998, GAM upped the tempo of its resistance and the conflict spread across the province.

The late 1990s were particularly violent years, and deaths, tortures, disappearances and arbitrary arrests became the norm. A brief ceasefire in 2000 was followed by renewed fighting and the emergence of militia groups bringing terror and mayhem across the province.
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