Inside Story

Brutal birth

Indonesia’s emergence was both more violent and more pioneering than commonly imagined

Hamish McDonald Books 20 June 2024 3433 words

Victory in sight: Indonesian president Soekarno and foreign minister Hadji Agus Salim during their detention by the Dutch in 1949. Wereldmuseum Amsterdam

Despite being the world’s fourth-most-populous country and home to its largest number of Muslims, despite being a key supplier of commodities, and despite being so big that if you superimposed it on a map of Europe it would extend from Ireland to Kazakhstan, Indonesia rarely makes the news.

Interest in its past is even less evident. Yet every now and then comes a historian who is such a vivid story-teller that a publisher is willing to test the market with a long book about a decades-ago, far-off time. Think of John Dower’s Embracing Defeat (on the allied occupation of Japan) or Tim Harper’s Underground Asia (on the early plotters against Western powers). David Van Reybrouck, a Belgian scholar who writes in Dutch, places himself in that league with Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World, his new account of the last days of the Netherlands East Indies and the Indonesian struggle for independence.

Translated by David Colmer and David McKay, Revolusi brings to vivid life a half century that has slipped from memory, though not before Van Reybrouck was able to interview many of the surviving participants. Blended with written records, it is an enthralling read. If you thought you’d read everything important about the emergence of Indonesia, think again.

The book has already caused a shock in the Netherlands. Despite earlier revelations about the atrocities its force wrought during its four-year effort to suppress independence after the second world War, 50 per cent of the Dutch were still proud of their colonial empire, according to a 2019 survey, as opposed to 32 per cent of the British, 26 per cent of the French, and 23 per cent of the Belgians.

Although the Dutch believed their Indies empire stretched back 350 years to their first spice traders, Van Reybrouck points out that full territorial control was reached only in 1914 when the colonial army, the KNIL, subjugated Aceh after a decades-long campaign. The colonial heyday lasted just twenty-eight years before the Dutch administration surrendered to the Japanese attack.

Van Reybrouck opens his book with a vivid image. A modern passenger liner is steaming across a calm Java Sea. On the upper deck are Europeans and a few rich Asians in comfortable cabins. A deck below are more artisanal passengers of various races bunking in shared cabins. On the open decks below them, huddled against the weather, are camped the uncounted “native” passengers. A crewman has left a porthole near the waterline open, and a tilt becomes a capsize. This is an actual maritime disaster, that of the Van der Wyck in 1936.

Although the Dutch government had replaced its exploitative “cultivation” system (which obliged the subject people to grow cash crops for export) with an “ethical policy” promising educational and other development, the class division aboard the Van der Wyck reflected on-the-ground reality. Some subjects could rise from Deck 3 to Deck 2, but only a very few could make it to Deck 1, and not all of them wanted to be brown-skinned Dutchmen.

Some potential Deck 1 passengers met in the late 1910s in a house down an alleyway in Surabaya where a cultured Javanese aristocrat named Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto, president of the nascent nationalist movement called Sarekat Islam, had opened a boarding school in 1914. Among the students later in that decade was a boy of mixed Javanese and Balinese parentage called Sukarno, who studied there for five years; among the visitors were Munawar Musso and others, who formed the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, in 1922, and young Islamists including Soekarmadji Maridjan Kartosuwirjo. The three great strands of Indonesia’s resistance and early politics — the nationalism, religion and communism plaited together by Sukarno — were forming under this roof.

The more savvy among the governors-general of the Netherlands East Indies tried to bring this aspiration into the colonial discourse. One formed an advisory People’s Council in 1916. Another expanded it in 1930. But nationalism was already out of the stable, and so was communism. The PKI staged an uprising in 1926–27, against Stalin’s advice, that was squashed brutally. The Dutch sent 800 of those they didn’t kill to Boven Digul, three days’ journey upriver from Merauke in the malarial jungle of West Papua. The few who escaped to Thursday Island were sent back by Australian authorities.

Nationalists who might have qualified for Deck 1 were also suppressed. Sukarno, who had studied architecture in Bandung and formed the Indonesian Nationalist Party, was jailed in 1930. Released after two years, he was exiled in remote Flores the following year after a naval mutiny alarmed the Dutch. Around the same time two future independence leaders, Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, newly returned from Leiden University, were interned at Boven-Digoel.

Most political parties were banned, newspapers and communications subjected to censorship, and intelligence services given extra resources. The hardline governor-general, Bonifacius Cornelis de Jonge, was turning the country into a police state.

The Europeans on Deck 1 lived above it all. The arrival of increasing number of Dutch women (four for every five males by 1920) was helping keep the men away from inter-Deck relationships of the kind that had produced a large mixed-race group known as Indos. In their clubs, bungalows and golf courses, the Europeans read reports of Hitler’s rise with enthusiasm. When the Dutch Nazi party leader toured in 1935, he was greeted by outstretched right arms and entertained twice by De Jonge. The local Nazi party had three times as many members as the Dutch one.

Then came Japan’s invasion. Japanese spies masquerading as benevolent traders had been effective in cultivating Indonesians, but attitudes towards the invaders began changing as they became increasingly harsh. Men were sent off as labourers to Siam and elsewhere, not many to return. Young women were forced into concubinage or prostitution. Four million died of starvation on Java alone during 1944.

Sukarno had gone along with the Japanese to test their promise of liberation. After they surrendered in August 1945 they helped him and Hatta broadcast a declaration of independence, the first in any European colony. Then came an uneasy interregnum. Sukarno, Hatta and Sjahrir trod warily, trying to strike a balance between the outgoing Japanese and the powerful incoming Allies (who included exiled Dutch forces in Australia and the liberated Netherlands) on the one hand, and their impatient population on the other.

Most impatient of all were the pemuda — roughly two million young people aged fifteen to twenty-five — who had been trained and indoctrinated by Japanese militias to believe that semangat (spirit) conquered all. “The pemuda had seen their mothers starve to death, their fathers dragged off as forced labourers, their sisters abducted as comfort women,” writes Van Reybrouck. They were “wiry scrags who had been drilled endlessly to rush the enemy with nothing more than bamboo spears, sticks and fake guns, screaming loudly… Wide-open eyes, wild gaze, sacred fury.”

A nightmare awaited the British forces as they began arriving in Java and Sumatra in September 1945. (The Australian army had an easier time in the east of the archipelago, thanks to the prevailing loyalty there to the Dutch.) The pemuda, who had launched an orgy of killing against any Europeans and Indos they encountered, regarded the British as a Trojan Horse for the Dutch. They ransacked the Japanese armouries, handing out tens of thousands of guns.

In October, pemuda surrounded British brigadier Aubertin Mallaby in a Surabaya street and hacked him to death. Allied Southeast Asia commander Louis Mountbatten responded by sending 12,000 Indian troops and twenty-four tanks, aided by shelling from the sea and bombing by Lancasters out of Singapore. Some 15,000 Indonesians died.

By the time the British pulled out in November 1946 the Dutch were back. First came civilians and remnants of the colonial military from their exile in Australia, then members of the new Royal Dutch Army made up of 120,000 young men conscripted between 1946 and 1949. (About 6000 refused to embark, of whom 2565 were jailed, and the hunt for deserters went on until 1958.)

While Dutch forces built up in the Indies, top civilians pursued a parallel track by talking to Sukarno, keeping the Americans happy, and floating a plan for the Republic of Indonesia in Java and Sumatra to be incorporated into a wider federation with states in Borneo and eastern islands, all under the Dutch crown. Sukarno’s republicans accepted it as the best offer going.

But this modified scheme for clinging on went too far for conservatives back in Amsterdam. They unilaterally added a new condition: New Guinea had to be kept separate so that the Dutch and Indo populations of the Indies could be resettled there. As Van Reybrouck comments, “The coasts of New Guinea, modernised since the American invasion, would offer a new luxury deck, now that the passengers from Decks 2 and 3 had climbed to the top in the rest of the archipelago.”

Despite the agreement, clashes continued on the borders of the Dutch and Republican zones. After the pemuda infiltrated some of the outer islands, commando captain Raymond “Turk” Westerling was sent to Makassar with 120 men to restore order by any means. His field trials and mass executions claimed the lives of hundreds of villagers. Back in Central Java, the Dutch imposed a naval and air blockade on Republican strongholds around the city of Yogyakarta.

By now, the Netherlands treasury was nearly bankrupt. But military hardliners argued a quick strike would gain control of plantations, which would then return a profit on exportable commodities. With the Dutch formally abandoning the peace agreement, quick advances in a “police action” by some 100,000 troops did indeed give the Dutch control of most of West and East Java, Semarang, North Sumatra around Medan, and the oilfields around Palembang.

But then what? Dutch army commander Simon Spoor, who wanted to go on to Yogyakarta, was backed by the ruling Catholic party and Queen Wilhelmina, who urged a clearing out of the “Yogya hotbed” and its “extremists.” The Socialists, though, who were also in the governing coalition, wanted the Republic to survive; otherwise their rank and file would revolt.

Rather than pushing out the “extremists” the collapse of the peace agreement obliged the most reasonable Republican negotiator, Sukarno’s prime minister Sutan Sjahrir, to resign. And responding to the police action, the dismayed American and British governments offered their good offices, and Australia (now favouring decolonisation) and India put Indonesia on the agenda of the UN Security Council, which issued a ceasefire call. The police action was wound up after fifteen days, but not before it had won control of all the assets the Dutch wanted.

The UN had meanwhile appointed a committee of good offices to mediate in the dispute. The Dutch nominated fellow colonialist Belgium, the Indonesians Australia (which appointed industrial court judge Richard Kirby, “an expert on social issues with a decidely progressive profile,” says Van Reybrouck) and those two chose the United States as the third. When the three representatives arrived in Jakarta in October 1947, the conflict was immediately internationalised.

A US warship, the Renville, anchored out of territorial waters was ostensibly neutral deck space for a further round of peace talks at the end of 1947. The Americans leant on the Republicans to accept a new version of the Dutch scheme: the Dutch could kept the territory just seized and they could form new states elsewhere, all including the shrunken Indonesian republic going into a United States of Indonesia under the Dutch queen.

That this plan had to be validated by referendums gave the Republicans some way out in future. Even so, Sukarno’s braiding of the three political strands, nationalism, religion and communism, came apart. Kartosuwirjo, the Islamist who’d visited the old school in Surabaya, began an uprising in West Java to make Indonesia a Darul Islam (House of Islam); the unrest went on until he was captured and executed in 1962. Socialist prime minister Amir Sjarifuddin resigned and joined up with the communist PKI, under Musso (another old visitor in Surabaya), who had just returned from Moscow.

When the communists took control of Madiun, a town in Republican territory, in September 1948 — hoisting a red hammer-and-sickle flag in place of the Republic’s red and white — Sukarno and Hatta sent in their army’s Siliwangi division. During months of fighting the Republican army arrested 35,000 PKI followers and summarily executed Musso, Sjarifuddin and hundreds of others.

This display of anti-communism swung the Americans away from the Dutch and towards Sukarno and Hatta. Early in December 1948 they warned the Dutch that any further military action would affect Marshall Plan aid. Even so, on 19 December a hardline new colonial administrator, Louis Beel, ordered a second police action. Planes strafed Yogyakarta’s airport and paratroops landed to seize it. Motorised columns pushed south from Semarang. In Sumatra, other columns opened corridors across the island. In Yogyakarta, Sukarno and Hatta let themselves be captured while their army dispersed to the jungles and countryside.

Again, though, what now for the Dutch? They had assumed the UN Security Council was packed up for the year and would return in late January to a fait accompli. But Australia, supported by the United States, urged an emergency session, which on 24 December called for a ceasefire and the release of the nationalist leaders, and later set out a timetable for transfer of sovereignty by July 1950.

Beel tried to pre-empt the UN in April by announcing a “United States of Indonesia.” But the leaders of the previously compliant outer island states switched to the Republicans. Though the Netherlands was now discredited, fighting went on until August 1949; indeed, this was the most vicious phase of the four-year war, with 1200 Dutch soldiers and an estimated 47,000 Indonesians killed.

In retirement homes in Europe and Indonesia, and even in remote Nepali villages where veterans of the British forces were living, Van Reybrouck collected personal accounts of the war crimes committed during this brutal conflict. Ex-soldier Goos Blok talked of field interrogations, of a fifteen-year-old rigged up to a field telephone to receive electric shocks, of water torture and civilians shot in panic. Radio operator Stef Horvath, who couldn’t hear signals because they were drowned out by the screams of suspects being interrogated next door, saw prisoners dead of dehydration and suffocation in sealed railway wagons.

Others admitted wild, whimsical shootings, kampongs sprayed with machine guns from a distance, villages burnt and all males over fourteen shot dead. After interrogators gave up, prisoners would be told “Go piss in the kali (canal),” only to be shot and then reported as trying to escape. Rapes were frequent but only thirteen soldiers were convicted for sexual assault, receiving sentences of at most eighteen months.

The pemuda were vicious too, provoking savage reprisals that only made the Dutch more hated. Former soldier Ton Berlee, who’d survived the Japanese invasion and then the Burma railway, had the job of photographing the bodies of comrades and attending autopsies: “Tongue out, eyes out, scalped, privates off. I had to photograph it. If you’d seen your mates so terribly mutilated, tortured and killed, you shot at everything that moved. And then we’re the war criminals! Agreed, our side did things that weren’t right either, but you just went mad.”

Beyond the “excesses” of enraged individual soldiers in the field, Van Reybrouck sees systematic war crimes. On 9 December 1947 Dutch conscripts executed the entire male population — perhaps as many as 400 men — of Rawagede near Jakarta. During the second police action, one army unit killed hundreds of men at Cililitan in West Java, and another about a thousand at Rengat, South Sumatra. Their officers were given medals.

“Unlawful violence was anything but a marginal phenomenon during the decolonisation war,” Van Reybrouck says. “On the Dutch side it was not limited to a few excesses at the bottom of the military ladder, but ordered and caused by officers in charge of platoons, companies and battalions. In Jakarta the high command tolerated and tacitly allowed it, the highest levels of the civilian administration were aware of it, and the supreme judicial authorities did not prosecute it.” Not even the chaplains protested: “Murder on patrol seemed more forgivable than masturbation under a mosquito net.”

Ultimate responsibility lay with the Dutch government and parliament. Initially the politicians were in unfamiliar territory: the resistance movements and the handovers in the French, Belgian, Portuguese, British and American empires were yet to come. And the Indies were many times more important in the Dutch psyche than colonies were for other imperial powers. But by the time of the second police action, independence had been won in the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma. There was no “direct order,” but the political decision to launch that all-out attack created conditions for mass violence.

In the end, the Americans pulled the aid strings, forcing the Dutch to transfer sovereignty to Indonesia within a flimsy “union” with Netherlands. The Dutch retained their enterprises and concessions, persuaded Indonesia to take on the colonial administration’s debts, and held out West New Guinea for future negotiations. The transfer of sovereignty was signed in the presence of Indonesia’s Mohammad Hatta and the new Dutch queen, Juliana, in Amsterdam on 27 December 1949, and Sukarno flew into Jakarta.

Not until January 1969 did accountability for war crimes begin when former conscript Joop Hueting gave the first public account of torture and summary executions. His television interview had been timed to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the second police action but was postponed a month so that veterans celebrating Christmas “would not suddenly be seen by their wives and children as war criminals.” Hueting received many letters with corroborating stories, but also death threats, and was vilified as a traitor. He needed police protection and moved to a safe location.

A limitation law in 1971 meant war crimes in Indonesia could no longer be prosecuted. Safely back in the Netherlands, Turk Westerling lived unscathed until his death, telling all and sundry what he had done. Only in 2015 did the Dutch government pay compensation to his victim’s families. No wonder so many of the Dutch are still starry-eyed about the Indies.

(No doubt unwittingly, Van Reybrouck had protected himself from one predictable Dutch comeback — “What about the Belgians?” — by writing a savage book about Belgium’s behaviour in the Congo ten years earlier.)

All these events are described supremely well in Revolusi. But Van Reybrouck draws a longer bow with the argument implied in the book’s subtitle: that Indonesia was crucial to the “birth of the modern world.” Its struggle did inspire anticolonial movements in Africa, and the Bandung conference called by Sukarno in 1955 was a seminal moment for what is now known as the Global South. Notably, a meeting of Egypt’s Nasser with China’s Zhou Enlai in Bandung set off a chain of events leading to seizure of the Suez Canal. But the victories of China’s communists in 1949, Vietnam’s at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and Cuba’s in 1959 eclipsed the Indonesian achievement.

After dancing between the great powers, confiscating Dutch assets, campaigning for West New Guinea and then against Malaysia, Sukarno’s balancing act collapsed. In 1965–66 the Indonesian army once again slaughtered members of the PKI and Indonesia became an inspiration more for the architects of reactionary bloodbaths against would-be revolutionaries. Jakarta viene (Jakarta is coming) was written on walls in Santiago ahead of Pinochet’s military coup against Salvador Allende’s left-wing government in 1973.

And was the revolusi really a revolution? As Cisca Pattipilohy, a journalist who was swept up in the Bandung elation, admitted to Van Reybrouck: “But it all came to nothing of course.” After her leftist husband died in jail following 1965 she went into lifelong exile in the Netherlands. As for the Indonesians, most stayed on Deck 3 for decades after merdeka (liberation). A small number of the political and military elite moved onto Deck 1, occupying Dutch houses and enjoying a version of the colonial lifestyle. Only from the 1980s did large numbers of ordinary Indonesians start moving up to Deck 2, making garments, shoes and bags for export and catering to mass tourism.

Van Reybrouck ends with a vignette, out at sea again, aboard a small boat near Sulawesi. Lamenting the environment damage wrought by palm oil production and pollution, he sees the need for a new kind of revolution, and finds its proponents among the pemuda of the world: “Anyone who believes that young people cannot make a difference in the struggle against global warming and the loss of biodiversity needs to study Indonesian history now.” Like Van Reybrouck, we must hope they use less violent tactics. •

Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World
By David Van Reybrouck | The Bodley Head | 641 pages | $36.99