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, December 04, 2011


They helped shape Indonesia: Veteran Ibdul Hamid Purna W (above) and his colleagues.


The plot is Shakespearian. So are the characters. The flywheel of time, heavy with history and greased by blood, spins on. Old men, blind with prejudice, fumble for the invisible brake. Leaders vacillate. The young seize the moment.

There’s cowardice and bravery, butchery and vision, leadership and deceit. We, the audience, knowing the end, shout ’enough, enough’. The players are deaf. This is Arek Soeroboyo. It’s a tragedy. And a triumph.

Synopsis: It’s late 1945. The Japanese have been atomised into defeat. The Allies arrive in East Java to restore the colonialists. The tough locals resist, but the invaders win. It’s a Pyrrhic victory.

The last scene comes four years later when the stubborn Dutch finally accept the inevitable and leave. A new nation has been born.

Journalist Frank Palmos has produced a doctoral thesis Surabaya 1945 – Sacred Territory that will form the basis for a set of new histories about the Battle of Surabaya. These are expected to be published next year with schools in mind.

Palmos first came to Indonesia 50 years ago to learn the language, then returned as Australia’s youngest foreign correspondent for the Year of Living Dangerously. He interpreted Soekarno’s speeches. He was befriended by Roeslan Abdulgani who was actually in the battle. When the former diplomat died Palmos was given the freedom fighter’s personal papers.

These have become the cornerstone of his research along with scores of personal interviews with veterans. He’s also had access to the Indonesian Army’s historical accounts and has burrowed deep into the war archives, particularly in Britain.

His work won’t please all. Accounts written by lazy hacks, or produced to a political script, have been hardened by age, so acceptance of the new version may be hampered by prejudice.

The counter argument is that Palmos is not a thunder-thief, but a window-opener, exposing the words of those who were there but who haven’t been heard, cleaning out the rubbish, setting the story in its proper order. His contribution to a balanced understanding of the past deserves promotion, not rejection because he’s an outsider.

Indeed, who better to do the job? An ethical foreign journalist who knows Indonesia from the inside, is sympathetic but not partisan, and has seen war close up in Vietnam may be the best man for the job.

Palmos is particularly scornful of the work of Idrus, whose account of the war was given credibility through inclusion in US scholar Benedict Anderson’s seminal Java in a Time of Revolution.

“No authoritative Indonesian source used Idrus,” writes the iconoclast – and the italics are his. “This was a fictional reconstruction by Jakarta writer Idrus who pretended he was an eyewitness. He had never been to Surabaya”

Another writer, Louis Fischer whose The Story of Indonesia was used by incoming foreign diplomats as essential reading, recounts an Indonesian attack on the British that Palmos says never took place. Fischer also added Achmad to the president’s name to suit Western nomenclature.

Then there’s the doctoring of the famous photo of Rebel Radio’s Soetomo whose Che Guevara-style image still appears in posters.

According to the author, the fiery broadcaster did not use a weapon and rarely went into the streets. The original photo was taken under a Malang holiday hotel umbrella in 1947 then doctored with the addition of bomb blasts.

Notes Palmos dryly: “For Bung Tomo’s followers the past becomes rosier with every passing year.”

Palmos has been thorough. He’s turned every available page to build a clear picture of what happened, uncovering much unpublished material, some of it funny.

After the 17 August proclamation the radio announcer slipped the news past Japanese censors by using Madurese. Dutch speaking medical students posed as ill-educated waiters to eavesdrop dinners and bugged meetings with hidden microphones. A teenager who tried to shoot a Sikh soldier with an empty weapon was disarmed and told to go home to his mum.

Women were also prominent in the conflict, feeding the fighters and nursing the wounded. Calls for reinforcements were met by thousands flooding in from the hinterland to cook and care. I’d like to know more of their stories.

Not all was benign or glorious. The chaos was used to settle personal vendettas, slaughter civilian internees, spy on colleagues and plunder the 20,000 refugees fleeing the city every day. Some Chinese supported the pemuda – others were spies. War brings out the best and worst.

For historians there’s an uneasy relationship between academics and journalists. The latter write to be read, the former to be footnoted. Fortunately Palmos has retained his ability to tell a good yarn while maintaining the annotations.

The lead up to the start of the main conflict on 10 November was menjelang datangnya – awaiting the hurricane. An earlier three-day battle of awful brutality had ended with a cease-fire brokered by Soekarno, who’d been called in by the Allies. His action went against the advice of the local leaders who had their enemies on the run and suspected foul play.

They were right. The British used the interregnum not just to evacuate the Europeans who’d been held in Japanese concentration camps, but also to bring in thousands of well-equipped reinforcements.

Like a modern thriller, Palmos takes us, step by muffled step, through the nightmare wait for the inevitable doomed clash of untrained schoolboys against bombers, pushbikes versus tanks.

It took 99 days for the British to drive the exhausted and outgunned fighters, seriously hampered by a lack of radios, into the hills. There they continued guerrilla warfare when the Dutch returned in early1946. The pemuda never surrendered. Their kampong warfare tactics set the pattern for street fighting in Indo-China and their spirit stoked independence in India.

Could it have been avoided? Probably not. When the British cheated on the ceasefire conditions, concrete positions had set. The Allies were determined to crush the ‘terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’, grossly misreading the mood. Earlier they’d showered the city with pamphlets featuring Queen Wilhelmina and talked of Indonesians’ ‘love’ of the Dutch, then shelled Surabaya from warships.

On the other side was a city daubed with revolutionary slogans, bedecked with red and white flags, and a radio station blaring Merdeka atau mati - Freedom or death. The hardy citizens had already proved their worth by disarming the Japanese, seizing 400,000 weapons and competently taking over civil administration.

Their spirit in confronting the overbearing Dutch desperate to recover their plantations and prestige should have jolted anyone prepared to look and listen. If such sages existed they don’t feature in this book.

Palmos rightly makes much of the tension between the Revolutionary command fiddling in Jakarta and the fighting Surabaya pemuda (literally ‘youth’, but to become the word for action and attitude) – a tricky subject for local writers to handle.

Although Soekarno was heavily criticised the people stood by their President, always teetering on the cliff-edge, forever expecting to be arrested and charged as a collaborator. Among his own people he was suspect for allegedly helping the Japanese recruit romusha (slave labor) and feared assassination.

For anyone wanting to understand why Indonesians – and particularly Surabayans - are such ferocious patriots, this book explains all. Like the French and American Revolutionaries the Arek Soeroboyo fought for a universal principle – freedom to decide their own destiny – and paid terribly with maybe 100,000 casualties and a scorched and almost empty city. Never wonder why the flag is half red.

Why haven’t local writers been more active? They were certainly restricted under the first two presidencies. Comments Palmos: “Indonesian historians are now perhaps a little indolent, certainly too modest, about their nation’s remarkable history. The world expects much more from them before time wipes clean the last traces of their glorious earlier years.” He particularly wants a higher profile for Governor Surio’s outstanding leadership and “Churchillian” speeches.

Finally Palmos raises the issue of special recognition for those who fought in Surabaya, before the army was formed. “At the time of writing (2011) there were no battle ribbons, no medals for bravery struck, and Veterans were still pushing for those who fought in the Battle.”

Maybe a foreigner’s book will spur the Government to put things right.

(First published in The Sunday Post, 4 December 2011)

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