The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, April 01, 2007



Java in a time of Revolution
Benedict Anderson
Published by Equinox Publishing
494 pages

The year 1945 was momentous across the globe. The Allies had at last defeated the Axis powers. The atomic age began in a flash. In Java, occupied by the Japanese since 1942, the sense of kegelisahan ('tremblingness') was felt everywhere.

American scholar Benedict Anderson wrote:

'For the first time in living memory, people were falling dead in the streets from starvation or disease, mendicancy spread silently but horrifyingly through the cities, and the sense of being precipitated out of a stable order increased with every month that passed'..

It was a time of terrible tension that demanded the wisest counsels, great restraint, humility and creative foresight. That few of these qualities were demonstrated on all sides is probably the result of war weariness, self-interest, frustration and cultural misunderstandings – or thickheaded refusals to recognize a changed world.

The official version of the birth of the Republic has brave young men determined to preserve their newfound Merdeka (freedom), fighting the stubborn Dutch bent on retrieving their lost colony and their pride.

The truth is far more complex. Certainly there were heroes, inspirational leaders and extraordinary deeds worthy of celebration. But there was also much cowardice, appalling cruelty, gross misjudgment and vile treachery by attackers and defenders.

Anderson's Java in a time of Revolution is probably the most comprehensive and objective account of the birth of the new nation. After being out of print since 1980 it's now available through the Jakarta publisher Equinox as part of its Classic Indonesia series.

This was the first of Anderson's books, researched in Indonesia in 1962 when he was 26 and studying for his doctorate. It was published by Cornell University Press ten years later. He also wrote on the 1965 coup d'état with an interpretation of events that differed from the official version – so was banned from Indonesia.

Anderson was later to become Professor of International Studies at Cornell and famous for his complex thesis on nationalism, Imagined Communities.

To say that Java in a time of Revolution is a much easier read than his later work is not to belittle this book. It's a racy chronological account of the period 1944 to 1946 and an absolutely essential text for anyone trying to understand Indonesian history and culture – and get a grip on what's happening today.

That includes Indonesians, because accounts of the past have been heavily censored by governments. This is the book that strips the creation of the Republic of its jingoism and platitudes.

(Indonesia is no different to other nations seeking to launder history and froth-up events to inspire glory and hide the stains. Till recently Australians believed the myth of benign settlement; only now is the Aboriginal version of invasion, brutality and violent dispossession being accepted.)

While the role of young men (pemuda) in creating the new nation is widely recognized, Anderson puts this in the context of Javanese culture, the role of pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and the policy of the Japanese in developing the semi-military youth corps Peta during the occupation.

He also describes the vigorous debates between the fresh-cheeked generation suffering from "youthful bravado, quixotic romanticism and irrational attitudinizing" and the cautious, more pragmatic and sophisticated leadership of the older Soekarno and Hatta.

In government-sanctioned literature the pemuda are seen as flawless and united. In fact there were internecine hostilities across the country with the Sundanese scorned for their alleged 'softness' in confronting the Japanese in Bandung.

The top men who fought for independence and constructed the Constitution were pluralists. Few pious Muslims were involved and an attempt to have a Ministry of Religion in the new administration was thumped 19 votes to six. That didn't stop such a bureaucracy being introduced in 1946. Compromise crippled much idealism.

The physical force behind the Revolution was huge, but the intellectual energy tiny. When the Japanese invaded "less than one in every two thousand of the youth of Java was undergoing the experience of upper-level nontraditional education."

The reading of the Proclamation of Independence is today remembered as a momentous moment – but Anderson's version is more of confusion and chaos. The wonder is that it ever happened.

Only the pedantic and censorious would claim this mocks the gravity of the events; on the contrary Anderson's accounts carry the rawness of reality which makes them all the more believable – and the achievements more worthy of respect.

The '45 Generation is now regarded as god-like. Of course they were also humans with all the standard frailties and emotions lesser folk experience.

Why was so much blood shed for Indonesia to gain independence? Malaysia, Singapore and Burma didn't go through such terrible birth pangs.

Certainly Dutch attitudes and behavior were major factors. When the Japanese surrendered they were charged under the peace agreement to maintain law and order till the Allies arrived.

The British commanded the relieving forces. They got their intelligence from the Dutch and had no understanding of the depth of nationalism and the widespread hatred towards the former colonial masters.

The Dutch didn't want the British as intermediaries. They dismissed Soekarno as a traitor and collaborator and not surprisingly were unable to accept him as a legitimate leader.

The British wanted no part in Indonesian politics, were prepared to negotiate with Soekarno and seemed sympathetic to the independence movement. Lord Mountbatten had overall command.

Writes Anderson: "(Mountbatten) expressed his new policy in succinct, if to Dutch ears grotesque terms, when he stated: 'Our one idea is to get the Dutch and Indonesians to kiss and make friends, and then pull out.'"

There was to be no such lovemaking and the later British role is no matter for pride. After the English Brigadier-General A.W. Mallaby was shot the Allies took terrible revenge, killing thousands of civilians in Surabaya.

The pemuda also committed shameful crimes. In one case Japanese civilian factory workers were taken to a jail in Semarang and murdered. In Surabaya pemuda ceremonially drank Japanese blood from the samurai swords they'd used to kill prisoners.

In the months after the Proclamation the internecine strife continued. The unleashed pemuda felt they'd been betrayed. They were in no mood to return to their villages and kampong and leave running of the new country to the older generation in Jakarta keen to win global legitimacy.

For a while the country looked certain to disintegrate. It was saved only by the outstanding political skills displayed by Soekarno and his colleagues.

There are so many parallels in this history with more recent events that reading this book is like finding and fitting together parts of some mysterious device whose purpose is felt instinctively, not rationally.

The radical Islamic youth groups that appear today to impose their brand of morality on society are the offspring of the pemuda culture of '45. Likewise the power of the army in modern politics and civil affairs has its origins in the Revolution.

Controlling this complex and volatile country is a masterful juggling act. How those tricks were learned, the slogans invented and the ideologies formed explain some of what's happening today.

This book is a reprint, not a new and updated edition. A pity because we have to look elsewhere to learn what happened later to the many charismatic figures who appear in these pages.

Indonesia remains a work in progress. 'Struggle' is still part of the political lexicon as it was early last century. Independence has been achieved but the nation is still not the '100 per cent Merdeka' imagined by its creators.

(First published in The SundayPost 1 April 07)


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