The story that wouldn’t stop gnawing
Every great nation strives to know the truth of its foundation, why it exists and who was responsible.
When Dr Frank Palmos, whose words start this story, was in Jakarta more than a half century ago he was handed a sacred trust.
Neither he nor the donor realized it at the time for the young Australian was one more face in a sea of students at the since demolished Ikada Stadium. They were listening to diplomat and revolutionary leader Dr Roeslan Abdulgani speak on the Principles of the Indonesian Revolution.
The stand-out was that Palmos wasn’t just the only foreigner in the audience - he’d plonked himself in the front-row. Blessed with confidence, language skills and an inquiring mind the historian-to-be and the Foreign Minister that was, mixed and matched.
So when Palmos returned to the capital in 1964 with a degree in Indonesian Studies as correspondent for several newspapers the friendship thrived. “Dr Abdulgani was as exciting and funny as President Soekarno,” Palmos recalled. “He was generous with his relationship.”
The freedom fighter was also a writer with a strong interest in history, particularly the birth of the nation in 1945 where he’d been a midwife. His book One Hundred Days in Surabaya that Shook Indonesia was translated by Palmos into English.
Till now historians have reckoned it’s one of the few authoritative texts about youngsters armed with bamboo spears who turned words into action after Soekarno proclaimed Independence on 17 August.
Six weeks later a British-led force of tough Indian troops landed to recover the East Java capital for the return of the colonialists.
But the Surabayans defied the battle-hardened Gurkhas, killed their commander Brigadier Aubertin Mallaby, and fought furiously against the misinformed invaders, for the Dutch had arrogantly assumed they’d be welcome back.
The fighting climaxed on 10 November, now recognized as National Heroes’ Day.
Although the British eventually secured the city and its port the revolutionaries’ furious resistance inspired the nascent nation to maintain the struggle for four more years till the Dutch capitulated in 1949.
The story of those tragic times is now to be retold. Tanah Keramat [Sacred Territory] should be available in Indonesian in time for the 70th anniversary of the day that determined the Republic would be free.
Palmos developed the book out of his doctoral thesis at the University of Western Australia. Inevitably he’s encountered some resentment: What’s a foreigner doing with such precious national memories? Recounting any state’s history is a job for the home-grown.
“I have a ready reply,” said Palmos during a visit to East Java where he’s been supervising the translation and talking to a publisher. The initial print run could be 5,000 copies – a big order in a culture where readers browse but seldom buy.
“I could not have written this without access to the personal papers of Dr Abdulgani, one of the Republic’s founders. These were given to me by his family when he died in 2005.
“Before everything went to the National Archives I worked through the collection. It included documents the 1945 History Committee had assembled to publish a major book.
“However Soekarno was against the project; he didn’t wish to focus praise or attention on any one ethnic group, or city or incident.
“After Soekarno was deposed by Soeharto, Dr Abdulgani became Ambassador to the United Nations. [The headquarters are in New York.] While in the US he was influenced by the way Americans handled their history and kept it alive.
“Later in the 1990s he was an advisor to Megawati Soekarnoputri [daughter of Soekarno and later the nation’s fifth President] when she was opposing the Soeharto government. So he was never able to write the book.
“Another major resource was General Purnawarman Suhario’s Memories of a Student Soldier. I encountered this by chance and learned the author was still alive.
“I borrowed a video recorder and rushed to Jakarta. The old soldier, known as Hario Kecik, came to the Obor Foundation publisher’s office in his uniform and medals – it was an extraordinary and moving moment. I also had access to interviews conducted with veterans by the army. My book is really fulfilling and extending Dr Abdulgani’s dream.”
[In 2003 Dr Retnowati Abdulgani-Knapp [ right, with Frank] published a biography of her father titled A Fading Dream.]
After Jakarta Palmos was sent to report on the Vietnam War. In Saigon he survived an ambush that killed four other journalists. He spent two years in the US where he covered space missions. Later he worked in Australian television. “But the Battle of Surabaya continued to gnaw,” he said. “It was unfinished business.”
Palmos’ trip to Surabaya was funded by the Australia-Indonesia Association. Last year he won the AIA’s media section award given ‘to recognise and honor Australians who have made significant contributions to the greater understanding and friendship between Indonesians and Australians’.
On the award night he told the audience: “I’d like to leave this earth knowing I’d left behind a legacy of literature and history.”
On a side trip to Malang this month (April) Palmos, 75, told The Jakarta Post: “The Indonesian people treated me so wonderfully as a student. It would be wrong for me not to use the knowledge I’ve gained to repay the Republic for what it has given to me.
“I didn’t expect Indonesian historians to be so disinterested. But Soeharto had his version of the past written after the 1965 coup and I think many just gave up. They should now read and criticise and add to my book.
“Serious journalists are beholden to continue writing and do more than just go home and talk about the old days.
“The people of Surabaya are the first independent citizens of Indonesia. They saved the Republic, they defended the Proclamation.
“I hope Sacred Territory revives young people’s interest in their nation’s history. The older generation has had its chance. Dr Abdulgani told me long ago that it was a good story; he was right.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 May 2015)