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The New International, March 1946


Leon Shields

Role of the Indonesian Leadership

Capitulation of the Nationalist Politicians


From New International, Vol.12 No.3, March 1946, pp.87-89.marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Recently the struggle of the Indonesian masses for independence has seemed to slacken and has been all but driven from the pages of the newspapers. But on January 22, Sutan Sjarir, Premier of the Indonesian Republic, again broke into the headlines. As a response to British and American objections to Russia’s imperialist policy in Iran, the Russians had demanded that the UNO “put an end to the present situation in Indonesia.” Sutan Sjarir, alert leader of the struggle for independence, immediately utilized the opportunity – to demand that the British troops remain in Indonesia!

“If the British withdrew now, the Japanese might refuse to lay down their arms and might resist,” he said.

To put it mildly, this statement is startling. Ostensibly, Sjarir is the leader of the nationalist movement, which is seeking to overthrow the oppressive rule of Dutch imperialism. In the struggle for independence, tens of thousands of Indonesian youth have sacrificed their lives, perhaps an equal number of non-combatant men, women and children have been killed in cities, and Javanese villages have been razed in a manner reminiscent of Lidice.

At first it seems incredible. This article will show, however, that from the very beginning the rôle of the leadership of the Indonesian Republic has been to restrain and sabotage the war for independence.

Shortly before their surrender, as a last gesture of revenge, the Japanese announced their intention to set up an independent Indonesian Republic, with Soekarno as President. On August 17, two days after the Japanese surrender, the Indonesians proclaimed their independence. It was not until a month later, September 16, that an Allied occupation fleet arrived at Batavia, and 1,000 Dutch soldiers disembarked.

At that time newspaper dispatches reported the existence of an irregular army of 100,000 Indonesians, armed with surrendered Japanese weapons, ready to fight for their independence. Even after allowing for newspaper exaggeration, there still remains no question that, had the leadership so desired, it could have prevented the landing of this small Dutch detachment. The fact that this vastly inferior force was permitted to occupy Batavia, the capital of the country, unopposed, serves to indicate the irresoluteness and timidity of the official leadership of the nationalist movement.

The British Intervene

When it became clear that the Dutch, alone, would be unable to reestablish their oppression of Indonesia, the British began to take a more direct hand in the matter. On September 27, Lord Mountbatten announced that he was dispatching British troops to Java. On October 5, Maj. Gen. Hawthorn charged the Japanese with responsibility for maintaining law and order on the island. The Japanese officers arose to the occasion by calling the local nationalist leaders to a conference at Surabaja, and when these approached, opening fire on them. This resulted in a general uprising in the city in which over 100 people were killed and the Japanese garrison was overpowered and disarmed. The following day a spokesman for The Netherlands government announced that Indonesia was “not yet ready for self-government” and that his government was dispatching 10,000 Dutch troops to Java, “a sufficient force to control Indonesia in three weeks.” On October 9 British troops began to arrive in Batavia “to preserve law and order.”

By now the threat to the island’s independence had become too ominous to be ignored. Recognizing the danger, the aroused masses disarmed the Japanese throughout most of the island and intensified the fighting around Batavia. On October 13 the Indonesian People’s Army, reflecting the mood of the population, issued a proclamation of war against the Dutch. “Weapons of war are all kinds of firearms, poison, poison darts, arrows, and arson, and all kinds of wild animals,” it declared. Furthermore, natives were forbidden to sell food to the enemy.

But this vigorous policy quickly met the resistance of the official leadership. The government immediately denied that it was at war with the Dutch. “If there is going to be any shooting, we are going to let the Dutch start it,” President Soekarno told the press conference (after hundreds had already been killed in skirmishes with Allied troops!). And Vice-President Hatta announced: “We will continue to seek independence, not through fighting but through world arbitration.”

On October 15, Maj. Gen. Hawthorn forbade the natives to carry arms, set road blocks or refuse to sell food to the Allies upon penalty of death. Two days later, as though to underline the meaning of this decree and not permit even the wildest possibility of its misinterpretation, Prime Minister Attlee announced that it was Britain’s duty to help its Dutch ally resume control over Java. At the same time the American government made its attitude clear by requesting the Dutch to remove United States labels from lend-lease weapons before using them against the natives!

Indonesians Counter-Attack

Two weeks later the Allied command felt strong enough to venture out of Batavia. On October 28 a British force of 1,600 men landed at Surabaja. Just as the policy of “let the Dutch fire the first shot” had permitted the Allies to occupy Batavia, so now this same policy permitted the British to occupy Surabaja without firing a shot.

The British immediately ordered the surrender of all arms upon penalty of death. But when they tried to enforce this order the people could be restrained no longer. On October 29 the enraged populace attacked the imperial troops and in the first encounter killed forty and seriously wounded 110, while 200 more were later reported as missing. (This much the British headquarters admitted; actually the number of casualties was probably much higher.) The entire garrison was surrounded and on the verge of being cut to pieces.

This was the climax of the war for independence. The way that the tide turned now would largely decide the course of events in Indonesia, and perhaps in the whole colonial world, for a long time to come. In this crisis the British, completely cut off from help, fell back on the only course of action that could save them. They called for help upon – the President of the Indonesian Republic! President Soekarno was flown by plane to Surabaja, and rushed to the headquarters of Col. Crookshank of the British army. Here the Colonel feverishly informed him that “the situation was getting out of control.” He spread a map before Soekarno, pointing out the precarious position of the British troops in the city. He showed the President of the Republic a communication from a group of engineers: “We’re running out of ammunition. Send reinforcements or we’ll be overrun.”

Had the reinforcements been sent?


Why not?

Because, said the Colonel, “Our headquarters are surrounded – we’re all surrounded. We’ve got to do something before more bloodshed results.”

Whereupon the courageous President got into a British truck and, carrying a white flag, persuaded the local leaders to call off the attack.

Hew Surabaja Fell

The British were granted safe conduct and were permitted to evacuate the city to the docks. While they remained there unmolested, the Allied command gradually built up its strength for a second try. On November 55 the Fifth Division landed, with tanks, at Surabaja. The press reported that the mood of the British soldiers at this time was “all in favor of a fight to revenge the humiliation of defeat.” As for the people of Surabaja, they understood perfectly well the terrible danger that was accumulating for them on the docks of their city. Soekarno and other national leaders complained that they were finding it “most difficult to quell the mob spirit” of the people.

And while Soekarno was “quelling the mob spirit” on the docks of Surabaja the superiority of forces had already shifted to the side of the British. On November 9 the British commander, Lieut. Gen. Christison, ordered all Indonesians to lay down their arms by 6 a.m. or face “all the naval, army and air forces at my command.” The following day, warships, artillery and the RAF opened fire on the city. Thousands of Indonesian civilians were killed. “The bodies are piled up in Surabaja and cannot be removed,” read the dispatches. “The British are moving into the city, using common people as shields and employing bombs, tanks and guns in deliberate, indiscriminate attacks on the people.” Refugees fleeing the city were strafed on the roads by the gallant RAF.

On November 13, Soekarno retired into the background and Sutan Sjarir, a “socialist,” became Premier.

If the policy of Soekarno had been irresolute and timid, then the policy of Sjarir can be characterized as being openly and consciously treacherous. His first announcement was that he would fly to Surabaja to halt the fighting. “Surabaja has hurt our cause in the eyes of the world; we want to settle all matteis amicably with the British.”

But it was not within his power to put an end to the fighting. A week after the eruption of the war in Surabaja, the British were still shelling the city. On November 15, therefore, from his headquarters in Batavia, Sjarir issued a pamphlet deploring the “murder and robbery that, seen from the viewpoint of social reform, signifies nothing and is reactionary, as every fascist deed will always be reactionary.” The struggle of his people for human dignity and freedom, its heroic resistance in the face of British artillery, air and naval bombardment is – reactionary and fascist! Sjari-fuddin, the Minister of Information, announced that the Indonesian government was planning to make it illegal for anyone except police to carry arms – i.e., illegal to struggle for independence!

The subsequent role of the Indonesian leadership has followed the same treacherous pattern. While British and Dutch troops, using lend-lease Sherman tanks and rocket guns were still blasting their way yard by yard through Surabaja, the national committee of Indonesia, meeting on November 28 in Batavia (still the only city securely in the hands of the Alliesl) voted confidence in Premier Sjarir. Vice-president Hatta criticized Indonesians engaged in the fighting, saying that “the fascist outlook should find no place in the national struggle.” On November 29, after Surabaja had finally been completely occupied, Premier Sjarir predicted the cessation of hostilities throughout Java.

“I have been in contact with local leaders who support my point of view and are endeavoring even now to induce the young men to give up fighting,” he stated.

Restrained, sabotaged and in its last stages slandered by its official leaders, the Indonesian struggle for independence has been gradually subsiding. There is no reason to believe that at this late date, after the series of defeats unrelieved by victory, the independence movement can again be revived unless there is a complete change of leadership. Temporarily at least the struggle for freedom has been checked.

Victory Was Possible

We must now pause to inquire: after all, given the relationship of forces, could the outcome possibly have been any different? Would not little, backward Indonesia have been overwhelmed by imperialism in any case, no matter what course its leadership had chosen to pursue?

In our opinion it is not inconceivable that the outcome might have been different. As we have pointed out, the climax of the war came shortly after the British landing at Surabaja. Had the Indonesian leadership seized this opportunity to gain a decisive victory, it would have electrified all Indonesia, inspired new confidence in the masses, and would have rallied the whole country to the movement for independence. The only remaining Allied troops at this time were concentrated around Batavia, and the people could hardly have been restrained from taking the offensive against this remaining relatively weak foothold of the oppressors.

Even more important than its effect upon Indonesia itself, would have been the effect of the Republic’s victory upon the whole colonial world. Indo-China, Korea, the Near East and India were all smouldering with revolt – one decisive colonial victory might well have ignited them into an unquenchable anti-imperialist flame. Australian dock workers had refused to load ships destined for Java, and the war was unpopular with sections of the British and Dutch workers. An Indonesian victory would have strengthened tremendously the anti-imperialist

forces throughout the world, and would have made it immeasurably more difficult for the imperialists to carry out their task of suppression.

The course which the leadership followed guaranteed the defeat of the nationalist movement. Shortly after open hostilities broke out the newspapers published a report that the Allies had occupied an Indonesian “armaments factory” which was engaged in the manufacture of bows and arrows! But with such a timid and treacherous leadership, even had the Allies been equipped with bows and arrows and had the Indonesians been armed with tanks and airplanes, the result would not have been different. Why did the leaders of the Republic pursue this course? The vast majority of the island’s wealth is owned by the Dutch and British, and a few plantations and oil wells are owned by US corporations. A victory over imperialist troops gained by the Indonesian populace would have resulted inevitably in the demand for a more just distribution of the wealth. But this could be accomplished not through the government, but only through a system of Soviets, democratically and directly controlled by the workers and peasants of the island, and responding to their vital demands. It is from this prospect of a social revolution that the nationalist leaders shrank. For basically they are intellectuals drawn from and tied to the wealthy native families – the colonial bourgeoisie.

The concrete events in Indonesia show once again the necessity of the colonial proletariat to forge its own party to insure not only the proletarian revolution, but even a successful struggle for national liberation.

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