HISTORY by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Japanese invasion ends 400 years of Dutch rule in Indonesia
, August 15, 2015
Saying the Dutch government of Indonesia collapsed feebly under Japanese assault is wrong. It wasn’t just that the Dutch didn’t have enough soldiers. Dutch people will tell you that the Dutch don’t surrender.
Japan’s Mitsubishi “Zero” was
the best fighter aircraft in
the Pacific war until 1945.
After 400 years of ruling Indonesia, the Dutch were not loved. The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army put up a brave showing. Almost every European male colonist enlisted. Colonial troops, most notably the Ambonese, made up about half the Dutch forces. Many fought bravely. But unlike the Indian Army, most of the colonial troops did not stand and fight.
The reasons behind the Japanese invasion are not hard to fathom. The Japanese had been encouraged to abandon feudalism; this was reinforced by the United States’ gunboat diplomacy, following the thought-provoking visit of Admiral Perry’s “Black Ships” in 1853. Japan had certainly made progress but it was lacking raw materials.
The invasion of Manchuria, known today in China as dongbei (“the northeast”), had riled the United States. The Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937, when Japan invaded China proper, enraged U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Sukarno in August 1945
The Delanos had been China traders and it is conjectured that Roosevelt was sympathetic towards China.
The “China Lobby” wielded considerable influence, as did Soong Mei-ling, one of the three alluring Soong Sisters, together known as the Soong Dynasty. Soong Mei-ling was otherwise known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the strongman who led the anti-communist Chinese forces.
Despite the myths peddled by the present Chinese communist regime, Mao let Chiang’s Kuomintang (Nationalists) army do most of the fighting against the Japanese.
In all, Japan was poor in resources but rich in manpower and had a warrior ethos. Without resources like rubber and oil, in which it was totally deficient, Japan could not survive, let alone fight a major war. Aircraft and warships needed petroleum. Infantry could march or ride bicycles, as they did in Malaya, but mechanised divisions needed rubber tyres.
The Japanese believed that they had been invited to join the exclusive club of the world’s industrialised nations and then had had the door shut in their face.
The Dutch East Indies were an obvious objective for the Japanese Imperial Army. The islands were rich in resources and Japanese intelligence assessed that the native population was chafing under Dutch rule. Both the Dutch and the Japanese had files on Sukarno, the prominent pro-independence agitator.
The Japanese forces were technologically and organisationally superior. The Zero fighter was superior to any other fighter deployed in the Pacific theatre. However, it was not that the Japanese were unbeatable by colonial forces, as General William Slim proved when he led the Indian Army to victory against the Japanese in Burma.
But the Indian Army was very different in its ethos to the Netherlands East Indies Army. Nominally, the officer corps in the Indian Army was European, but Indian officers who had attained a “Viceroy’s commission” really ran the Indian Army. The Indian Army was fighting to save India. The Ambonese were mercenaries for the Dutch, playing a role similar to that played by the Gurkhas for the British. The Ambonese were to pay a high price for their loyalty.
‘Asia for the Asians’
Australian troops, fighting as Gull Force, were deployed to Ambon in January 1942, with the intention of holding two strategic airfields and reinforcing the Netherlands East Indies Army. Gull Force was composed of 1,100 men. The action concluded in four days, with the outnumbered and poorly equipped Allied forces taken prisoner. Many were transported to Hainan Island, off China’s south coast, where the undernourished men toiled under the tropical sun. Others were summarily executed. Only a quarter of the men of Gull Force survived the war, one of the worst survival records of the Pacific conflict.
Incidents such as the annihilation of Gull Force and Japanese propaganda advocating “Asia for the Asians” convinced the Indonesian nationalists that their goal of independence could be achieved with Japanese complicity. The Europeans had proved to be vulnerable.
Nationalist agitation was not new in Indonesia. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was formed in 1914 to agitate for reforms to Dutch rule in the East Indies. Initially, the PKI did not demand independence but soon became radicalised. After a botched revolt in 1926 several thousand communists were jailed and exiled to the outer islands. The PKI remained a force in Indonesian politics until the failed coup attempt in 1965, after which some half a million or more communists were killed in retribution. The PKI was banned. The PKI had been the largest non-ruling communist party in the world before its annihilation.
The Dutch had very good intelligence. One pre-war nationalist the Dutch had under surveillance was Sukarno. Sukarno was one of the few Indonesians educated to tertiary level. Under the Ethical Policy, announced at the start of the 20th century by Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, Dutch rule would comprise three policies – internal migration (transmigrasi), irrigation and education.
Sukarno was an architect, and well regarded in his profession. Before there was any threat of Japanese invasion, he had been exiled to the outer islands as a threat to Dutch rule. Sukarno was also a well-known womaniser and had several wives, as well as numerous liaisons.
Who was Big Brother Karno?
Sukarno was not, as he often hinted, a son of the soil. His father was from an aristocratic Javanese family and his mother was Balinese, from a Brahmin family; definitely upper class. Normally a Balinese woman from a priestly caste would not marry out. In theory she could not marry a foreigner or a man from a lower caste, but she did so.
Sukarno had only one name, which is quite common among Javanese. The original spelling of his name was Soekarno. This was because the Dutch alphabet does not have a “u” in it, so the formation “oe” is used for “u”. This “oe” formation is still occasionally used in Indonesia today. Sukarno used both “u” and “oe” formations in his own name. Outside of Indonesia, the “oe” formation is rarely used these days.
A common belief among the Javanese is that one’s name and its spelling have mystical significance, so changing the spelling can bring ill fortune. On the other hand, if a person is having bad luck, it is quite common to take on a new name.
The Japanese used Sukarno as a figurehead. We would describe him as a collaborator. His aim was to organise the people of Indonesia against the likely return of the Dutch at the conclusion of the war.
Sukarno was not blameless in the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. Tens of thousands of labourers – mainly from Java – known in Japanese as romusha, were requisitioned to work as far away as Burma and Thailand, where as many as 90,000 of them perished along with Chinese, Malays, Australian, British and American prisoners of war constructing the Burma Railway. This was an everlasting source of shame for Sukarno.
Life was harsh for those left behind. The Japanese requisitioned land for the cultivation of crops vital to the war effort. Rice and other food crops were confiscated, resulting in famine.
Sukarno was an adept politician. His role was to rally the Indonesian people against the Dutch “police action” aimed at recovering Indonesia. His speeches were full of allusions and word plays in Indonesian, Javanese, English, Dutch and Japanese.
Suharto, who was to succeed Sukarno, showed early promise that he would too become the dalang of Indonesian politics. The dalang is the puppet master in the shadow play, known in Indonesian as the wayang. Suharto rose through the ranks of the PETA, or the Japanese militia, in English, the Defenders of the Fatherland. Suharto, who came from a deprived background, rose after independence to lead a regiment of the Diponegoro Division, which is raised in Central Java. There he showed outstanding leadership and organisational ability.
Japan officially capitulated to the Allies on September 2, 1945. Indonesia had declared independence on August 17, 1945. This is commemorated as Tujuh Belas Agustus. The Merah Putih, or the “red and white” national flag, was raised in freedom for the first time.
Australia, as did most of the Western world, wished to deter the Dutch from reoccupation of the Dutch East Indies. The Indonesian forces were mainly poorly equipped irregulars, though they did maintain strong morale. The Dutch launched two major offensives, although their bona fides were tarnished by duplicity in negotiations with the Indonesian leadership.
Australia did not formally recognise the new Republic of Indonesia until 1949, although it had accorded some limited recognition in 1947.
However, the new Republic of Indonesia was in some disorder. Bung Karno (Big Brother Karno), was something of a demagogue, though a clever one. His speeches were inspiring and he came up with novel linguistic formulations for the new republic, such as berdikari, derived from “berdiri di atas kaki sendiri,” (“stand on your own two feet”).
Australian policy towards Indonesia has always been driven by raison d’etat. Bahasa Indonesia went through a boom in the 1970s but is rarely taught now. Unless one counts visits by young people to Bali intent on getting drunk, people-to-people contact is at a low ebb. Indonesia, with a population of 255 million, is the world’s fourth most populous nation, sitting astride the island chain through which any invader must travel to threaten Australia.
When Sukarno assumed power, he carried the weight of 1,000 years of history on his shoulders. He was the inspirational leader. His successor, Suharto, the puppet master, had the task of pulling the disparate nation together.