How Indonesia’s people fought colonial rule

A new book by author David Van Reybrouck reveals a fascinating history of resistance to colonialism in Indonesia, writes Simon Basketter

Revolusi is the epic story of Indonesia’s independence struggle, in particular the four-year fight from 1945-49 that took on British and Dutch troops. The bravery of the freedom fighters enthused anti-colonial movements around the world.

David Van Reybrouck has produced an ode to revolution. He argues the declaration of independence in 1945 stirred and divided a world debilitated by war.

The revolution was no bolt from the blue. Its events were direct consequences of the racism and brutality that characterised Dutch-occupied Indonesia.

The Dutch East Indies were initially conquered by the Dutch East India Company (known by its Dutch initials VOC), which sailed to the archipelago in the early 1600s to hunt for natural resources such as spices that would make it a corporate giant.

For three centuries the VOC—and then the Netherlands—fed off Indonesia with ruthless exploitation, massacre and genocide. The mercantile project became territorial as the VOC took possession of swathes of spice-growing terrain.

It took territory by force, meting out genocidal “punishments” to people who got in the way. Van Reybrouck captures the hypocrisy of the venture when assessing the directors of the 17th century VOC.

He writes that these, “seventeen pipe-puffing white-collared worthies who expressed themselves in baroque sentences would have preferred the monopolies to be acquired with a little less bloodshed”.

But it backed slaughter because it, “was good for the bottom line”.

When the company went bankrupt, the islands fell prey to state colonialism of the British, French and Dutch. The Java War of 1825-1830 saw 200,000 killed and devastated the land. As they did later in the Middle East, imperialists drew lines on maps to divide up the spoils.

For the next half-century, with over another 100,000 killed, the Dutch seized the rest of the archipelago.

By 1914, a nation of less than six million controlled more than 40 million people. But it could not hold onto it.

For Van Reybrouck the sinking of a passenger ship in 1936 was symbolic. The passengers were a microcosm of the stifling race and class divides in the colony.

On the lowest deck were the masses—a dehumanised and brutalised workforce.

One deck higher, barred from rising but looking up, were those categorised as “higher” classes and races. On the first deck, languorously soaking up the sun, those who ruled were waited upon by virtue of being European.

Nationalist struggle

It was emigre intellectuals that founded the first nationalist organisation in 1908.

The socialist Indies Social Democratic Organisation (ISDV) was formed in 1914. Sarekat Islam (SI) was founded in 1911 to protect merchants but soon became more militant.

By 1916 SI had hundreds of thousands of members, was raising self-government, and the socialists joined it. This transformed it into an Indonesian organisation that could lead struggles.

Rail worker and Marxist Semaun led the Semarang branch of the SI, which in 1916-17 grew from 1700 members to 20,000.

There were a series of strikes and protests. But after a soldiers’ and sailors’ revolt, the Dutch expelled ISDV leaders and gave soldiers’ leaders 40 years imprisonment.

Membership of SI peaked at over two million in 1919. At the same time a union federation consisting of 22 unions and 70,000 workers was formed.

In 1920 the Communist Party of the Indies (Perserikatan Kommunist di India, PKI) was launched. But in the unions and in the SI tension between right and left came to the fore as several strikes were defeated. Conservative religious forces withdrew from militant politics.

By 1925 Dutch repression reduced the communists’ legal role to vanishing point. So communists launched an insurrection without much backing. Over 13,000 people were arrested, though it took the Dutch 18 months to quell the risings.

Eventually some 3000 communists were banished to the malaria-infested Boven Digul penal colony. The nationalists filled the vacuum somewhat ineffectually.

World War

It took the Second World War to transform the situation again.

The colony had become an even more treasured part of the Netherlands’ economy, not least given the discovery of rich deposits of oil.

The Japanese were welcomed at first as the occupation supported the nationalists. But during Japan’s four-year rule, four million civilians died mainly from starvation and disease.

During the war the most popular of the nationalists, Sukarno, headed a Japanese-imposed puppet regime.

In August 1945, following the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Japanese surrendered and no allied “liberator” had yet arrived, Sukarno proclaimed independence.

So the British occupied Indonesia. In Semarang, this was met with fierce resistance that only ended after six days of street fighting.

In the port of Surabaya British troops threw grenades into a crowd of Indonesians and a full scale revolt broke out.

The British sent 20,000 troops to Surabaya and began a three-day bombardment of the city. It was only retaken after bloody street fighting that saw 900 British soldiers dead. In Indonesia it is known as Heroes Day to this day.

The ferocity of the resistance convinced the British military that effective reconquest and occupation was not viable.

So the British gave Indonesia back to the Dutch—it didn’t cross their mind to give it to the Indonesians. Armed by the British Labour Party the Dutch tried to hold on to Indonesia over the next four-and-a-half years. Some 200,000 Indonesians and 50,000 Dutch were killed.

The Australian government fully supported their effort at re-occupation, with the Dutch government-in-exile based in Australia during the Second World War.

But trade unions here imposed a ban on all Dutch shipping, paralysing the effort to reimpose colonial rule on Indonesia in the crucial early period after the war.

Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Malay and Australian seafarers all united in an effort to support Indonesian independence.

Dutch soldiers committed appalling war crimes, repeatedly massacring civilians. The British-trained Captain Westerling would herd people into a village square. He’d force people to squat before they were shot in the head. The village would then be burnt to the ground.

But the Dutch colonial troops’ violence, summary executions, systematic rape and torture could not stop the revolt. The reason was the young fighters who made up militias.

One said, “We were starving a lot of the time. When we came to a village, we’d ask for food. If there were no villages, we’d look at what the monkeys were eating. If there were no monkeys, we’d fast.

“We couldn’t quench our thirst with coconuts, because if we’d climbed up into the trees, the Dutch would have seen us and shot us. We just drank water from the river.

“I didn’t have a uniform. Just a red-and-white headband. They patrolled on foot and were better armed than we were—automatic rifles, whereas we could only fire one shot at a time! But we had scouts everywhere.”

Suradi Surokusumo, who was 22, said, “I would have been ashamed not to fight the Dutch. I was proud of being a nationalist, proud of being Indonesian, proud of our national anthem ‘Indonesia Raya’.”

Toernowo Hadiwidjojo was 24 and worked as a telegraph operator for the railways. “I already had a two-year-old son but took part without a second thought… Independence was a must! I had no fear. I preferred war to colonialism!” he said.

According to Van Reybrouck, “The three-way split between Islamists, nationalists and communists was of lesser importance—the Revolusi had brought them all together.

“Some recited verses of the Koran during their improvised training exercises, others sang Indonesia Raya, yet others whistled The Internationale.”

Nationalist leader Sukarno was released from prison, and on 27 December 1949 he flew to Jakarta to deliver a triumphant speech on the steps of the governor-general’s palace.


Independence did not mean an end to protest and revolt. Despite having launched another disastrous coup attempt in 1948, the communists were on the rise again.

So when Sukarno replaced elections by “guided democracy” the communists accepted seats in the appointed parliament. Sukarno saw them as a counterweight to the military.

He rightly argued that the PKI “would be more controllable inside the government than outside”. By 1965, the PKI had a membership of three million.

At the same time Sukarno became a leader of the international Non-Aligned Movement of nationalists. In the eyes of the US government, nonalignment meant support for the “communist camp”.

So when a group of army officers attempted a coup in October 1965, Indonesian military leaders—under General Suharto with US backing—embarked on a bloody civil war against the PKI and the left.

As many as one million Indonesians were slaughtered. The army set out to destroy the base of the communists in the villages, and again, there were villages burned.

Francisca Pattipilohy was born in 1926. She lived through four different eras—the colonial era, the Japanese occupation, the independence struggle and the 1960s.

She ended up exiled to the Netherlands when her husband, a journalist, was arrested by the Suharto regime and disappeared.

She recalled, “No matter how well you spoke Dutch, how educated you were, how hard you tried, you were always a native. In court, a native always had to sit on the ground. That was a way of drumming that humiliation into you.”

She concludes, “We never actually became independent. We thought we could make things fairer, but we were three centuries behind. That makes it a difficult struggle.

“The other side was stronger, the capitalist system has established itself everywhere. But as long as this system carries on, the whole world will be wrecked and the environment devastated.”

Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World by David Van Reybrouck, translated by David Colmer and David McKay Bodley Head, $36.99

Republished from Socialist Worker UK


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