Celebrations are under way this week in Indonesia. The country is looking back on 64 years since founding president Sukarno and vice-president Mohammed Hatta proclaimed independence from the Netherlands.
The 1945 declaration took place in extraordinary circumstances. It was the first breakout from the colonial system since the Philippines’ short-lived independence from 1898 to 1901.
Japan had occupied the Dutch East Indies in 1942 – but now the Japanese had surrendered and the Dutch were in no position to immediately re-establish their colonial control.
Nationalist leaders Sukarno and Hatta were kidnapped by militant youths desperate to seize the hour and persuade them to strike while the iron was hot.
The declaration of independence was read with very little ceremony and no fanfare.
Word spread quickly across the islands of Java and Sumatra and a tremendous surge of anti-colonial nationalist sentiment took place. The Republic of Indonesia was certain to have the backing of the masses here, on the two largest of the thousands of islands that made up the new country.
What the militants could not have known was that decisions were being taken elsewhere that would very soon impact on the republic.
In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then part of the British Empire, the Southeast Asia Command under Admiral Louis Mountbatten was preparing an intervention in Indonesia.
The plan had two immediate purposes. First, to disarm and demobilise the thousands of Japanese occupation troops left in Indonesia at the surrender.
Second, to locate and secure the large number of prisoners of war and civilian internees in the Japanese camps in Java and Sumatra, where they had been held for more than three years in dreadful conditions.
The British had been planning a return to their own colonial possessions in southeast Asia, principally Burma, Malaya, the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang, Malacca) and British North Borneo (now Sabah, Malaysia), since the Japanese had overrun them early in 1942.
Plans had been drawn up for re-entry under the umbrella of a British Military Authority (BMA). Nothing was to be allowed to stand in its way, least of all nationalist aspirations.
The rubber and tin of colonial Malaya were so vital to Britain’s economy that the British would stop at nothing to restore these territories to its control.
The BMA landed in Singapore in the first week of September 1945 and Mountbatten moved down from Ceylon.
Under his direction a Royal Navy vessel, HMS Cumberland, arrived in Jakarta Bay. Before long British and Indian troops were disembarking in Java.
The BMA refused to recognise the authority of the Republican government. For its part the new government appealed to the newly constituted United Nations for recognition.
What makes this situation particularly unusual is that the so-called “founding fathers” of Indonesia had no concrete plans for an army.
It is thus a bitter irony of post‑independence Indonesia that the armed forces should grow to be such a powerful and sinister influence, most notably in the mass killings that took place in the anti-leftist bloodbath of 1965-66.
To begin with there was no obvious sign that the British intended to restore Dutch colonial rule.
But the British and Indian troops found themselves confronting the masses in Java and Sumatra and the Dutch could play piggy-back as they prepared to attempt restoration of colonial rule.
Dutch prisoners ignored Mountbatten’s appeals to remain in the prison camps until British and Indian troops arrived to secure them, and began to appear on the streets of Java’s big cities – Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and Semarang in particular – as well as Medan in Sumatra.
Very soon violent confrontations took place between the returning colonialists and the Indonesian nationalists – particularly the irregular youth militias that had begun acquiring Japanese arms by one means or another.
The BMA’s determination not to deal with the Republican government hardly facilitated the task of reaching the camps.
The camps came under siege from the militias, thus putting the lives of the more than 150,000 prisoners, of various nationalities, under a much greater threat.
The broad context is simple to grasp. The colonial powers were hell-bent on restoring a broad arc of rule in southeast Asia and for them the colonised peoples were to have no say in the matter.
The colonised peoples had different ideas, and in Indonesia this meant 14 months of bitter fighting in a conflict which took the lives of more than 700 on the British side and thousands of Indonesians.
By the end of 1949 the colonialists were forced to accept defeat and recognise Sukarno’s government. Unfortunately the imperial powers continued to meddle in Indonesian affairs after this.
David Jardine lives in Bogor, West Java and is the author of Foreign Fields Forever: Britain’s Forgotten War In Indonesia 1945-46, which is available from [email protected]
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