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

Saturday, August 22, 2015


Maju! The cry of the student soldiers 


Suhario [Kecik] Padmodiwiryo died in Jakarta last year on 19 August. 

He was 93 and a prominent hero of the 1945 Battle of Surabaya. Historian and journalist Dr Frank Palmos claims the former General was ‘the brightest literary star to emerge from Surabaya’. Yet Kecik’s passing was poorly recognised.

That defect is about to be repaired with the publication of his vivid memoir Revolution in the City of Heroes, translated into English by Palmos.

The battle in early November formed, fired and fixed the clay first shaped by president Soekarno’s declaration of independence on 17 August 1945.

Other cities, including Jakarta, had largely accepted the allies’ arrival to disarm the Japanese and repatriate the 70,000 European prisoners of war.

Though not in the East Java capital where thousands of young people [pemuda also known as Arek Suroboyo] rightly deduced that the British Indian army had another agenda – to reinstate the Dutch once the occupiers had gone.

The British little understood they were entering ‘the cauldron of the Surabayan revolution’.  They relied on the colonialists’ arrogant advice that Indonesians would joyfully welcome the return of their masters.

The Dutch refused to accept the world had changed forever after Japan had defeated the European colonialists. They loathed Soekarno and dismissed the proclamation. Grave errors.

Europeans who tried to retake their homes and businesses found the properties occupied by Indonesians who refused to budge.  Kecik reported what happened next:

‘Battered and bloodied bodies were spread around the inner city streets that had once been elegant shopping centers. This was a prelude to open warfare’.

The next movement came quickly. Dutch officers and administrators moved into Surabaya’s Hotel Oranje, now the Majapahit, the city’s most prestigious address.  They claimed local expertise but didn’t realize the ‘menial hotel staff and dining room waiters’ were dentistry students who understood Dutch.

The spies eavesdropped the braggarts and learned their plans to raise the tricolor of the Netherlands Kingdom above the hotel. So schoolboy Kusno shinned up the pole, and ripped off the lower blue stripe to create the flag of the Republic.  It was game on.

Kecik was a medical student given military training by the Japanese.  As deputy commander of a 500-strong force he helped retake the Hall of Justice headquarters of the Kempeitai, the hated secret police.  But his ‘troops’ were beyond control: 

‘They moved in a jumbled formation and all seemed in aggressive high spirits, which they enhanced by continuous slogan shouting: “Maju! Maju! Maju! Advance! Advance! Advance!”

‘Any formal effort to organise these boys into a more disciplined advance or to coordinate their firing would have failed. My military knowledge was useless here because all tactical principles had merged into one: Advance!’

The book has a curious genesis. In the 1960s Kecik, now a General, had been on a military course in Russia.  When he returned Soekarno had been deposed by Soeharto who was purging Communists and real or imagined fellow travelers.

Though he’d also been to the US for similar training Kecik was put under house arrest.  With no formal duties he compiled his memoirs drawing from ‘my lively imagination [which] had the dreaded habit of accurately foretelling the dark future of my lovely town.’ 

Comments Palmos: ‘For pure, unselfishly written diarizing, nothing in Indonesian literature compares. It has no peer in Indonesian literature as a step-by-step record of ground level activity in the fight for independence…at a time when the future of the proclaimed Republic looked bleak indeed.’

Palmos had been a foreign correspondent stationed in Jakarta towards the end of Soekarno’s rule.  Five years ago his research into the Battle of Surabaya was being hampered by a lack of first-person accounts. 

To his surprise he discovered Kecik was still alive and writing his four-volume text   Pemikiran Militer [Military Thinking].  

Armed with a video camera the Australian immediately flew from Perth to Bekasi.  The two men got on well and the old soldier agreed to work on a translation of the Surabaya section of his memoirs. 

The book’s credibility is enhanced by Kecik’s stern criticism of some pemuda for their sadism, and contempt for later accounts that glamorized his former comrades as gallants wearing headbands and striking ‘bold heroic poses’:

‘We were gathered on serious business, with fashion or posturing playing no part in this life or death contract we were entering into to win independence.’

This is not a monochrome memoir, brave Indonesians versus treacherous Westerners.  There are human moments - a Sikh soldier telling a boy whose gun misfired to go home, a Catholic and Muslim under fire praying together in high Javanese.

The English version includes information Palmos gleaned from other sources, including interviews with Roeslan Abdulgani, later to became foreign minister.

The slaughter – maybe close to 20,000 died - might have been lessened had the British conducted their own intelligence and known more of the Javanese culture of respect.

 According to Kecik truce negotiators ‘ [Captain Harold] Shaw and Abdulgani were civilized, educated and polite men who would in peace time have become friends, whereas [Shaw’s superiors] were unnaturally stiff in their approaches to our Governor, resorting to haughty postures.’

As the Revolutionaries set about arming themselves they confronted Japanese soldiers standing to attention at an armory.  From his earlier contact with the occupiers Kecik understood that they would not take the initiative and defend their weapons because they’d been trained only to follow orders.

Had they been told to remain passive, or were orders about to be given?  The young men grabbed the guns and retreated as their foes stared rigidly ahead.  But elsewhere there was serious fighting as the Japanese retaliated.

Australians in particular now have the chance to understand why their northern neighbors are such determined defenders of their revolution, and how the battle has defined the nation and underpinned the fortitude of its people.

Diplomats and public servants seeking a better relationship should read Revolution and reflect that neither Malaysia nor Singapore had to fight for their independence like the Indonesians.

Writes Palmos: ‘Kecik’s book corrects the common, mistaken assumption that
Indonesia was free from the day independence was proclaimed on 17 August 1945.’

Revolution in the City of Heroes                                                                            by Suhario ‘Kecik’ Padmodiwiryo, translated by Frank Palmos,
Published by Ridge Books, Singapore
206 pages

(First published in The Jakarta Post  16 August 2015)

No comments: