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Nigel Harris

The year of anniversaries

(October 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 80, October 1985, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘WHAT CAN we do? We can do much! we can inject the voice of reason into world affairs. We can mobilise all the spiritual, all the moral, all the political strength of Asia and Africa on the side of peace. Yes, we! we, the peoples of Asia and Africa; 1,400,000,000 strong, far more than half the human population of the world, we can mobilise what I have called the Moral Violence of Nations in favour of peace.’
President Sukarno of Indonesia, Opening Address to the Asia-Africa Conference, Bandung (Indonesia), 18 April 1955.

It is Sunday. The train is not crowded. It climbs slowly towards Bandung, chugging between the terraces of flooded brown paddy, stepped up to the summit of the hills.

Beyond them and higher lie the tea estates, regimented like formal gardens. Bamboo irrigation pipes funnel brown water down the fields. There are five crops in two years here. A volcano or two smoke evilly above.

A plastic toy rolls across the carriage floor between our ankles. It is a black military jeep, an appropriate plaything for a land overshadowed by military-industrial baronies. The iron fist has a glove of prodigious corruption. The police are mean in khaki and brilliant white helmets.

Republic proclaimed

Mean or not, the tangible evidence of their power – and the effects of a decade or more of oil revenue – are all around. The villages of West Java are prosperous; mopeds pop down the rural tarmac roads. There are no ancient thatched huts left, few traditional clothes or bare feet. The soil is very rich for those with access to it.

1985 is the fortieth anniversary of the proclamation of the Indonesian Republic, and the picture of President Suharto, now ‘father of the nation’, beams down from all the walls.

The proclamation was courtesy of the occupying Japanese, so it was not very real. It took three years of bitter and barbarous war to make the Republic stick. The British – Mountbatten and Churchill – held the door open to let the Dutch back in to recreate the ‘Netherlands East Indies’, and they scorched the red earth of Java to destroy the independence movement.

Only ten years later, there was yet another illustrious anniversary, in Bandung itself. In the former Dutch Pension Fund Building, a dull 1930s cement thing, the first Asia-Africa conference met. It was the foundation of the ‘Third World’, although they had not invented the phrase then.

The great names were all there – Sukarno, Nehru, Tito, Nkrumah, Ben Bella, Chou En-lai. And they embodied an idea: there was a third alternative to Washington and Moscow, to capitalism and Stalinism, to the terrors of nuclear Cold War.

It was a heroic moment, but when it rained, the Indonesian Ministers had to mop the floors for, as Nehru proclaimed, ‘Bandung is the capital city of Asia-Africa’ and there must be no puddles. In April of this year, there was a ceremony of commemoration, but the world has moved on. They don’t have puddles now, and the delegates all stayed at the Jakarta Hilton.

That was 40 years and 30 years ago. But hang on, wasn’t there another anniversary, 20 years ago? On 30 September 1965, Lieutenant Untung with a group of young officers attempted to murder the senior generals of the army.

The generals escaped, and launched a devastating counter-attack that slaughtered anything up to three quarters of a million people – including almost the entire Communist Party (the PKI, the largest Communist party in the world after China and Russia). Children played football with the heads. The rivers ran scarlet instead of brown.

That’s where President Suharto came to power as General Suharto. You would think he would want to remember the time when he overthrew Sukarno. You would think in Bandung they would especially remember. For Sukarno was the most famous graduate from the Institute of Technology Bandung. And the city is the headquarters of the Siliwangi Division, the one that the head of the army, General Nasution, relied upon as one of the few loyal units that could be summoned to Jakarta in early October, two decades ago, to begin the slaughter. It announced the opening of that terrible year of the long knives.

But the kindly avuncular Suharto who gazes down from the walls does not like to remember. Perhaps he is ashamed to recall the abattoir from which he snatched his crown. And the left doesn’t care to remember either.

For the destruction of the PKI was not only a terrible defeat, but an even more massive rejection of the politics of class collaboration than that which took place in Chile eight years later, or in Shanghai in 1927.

The strategy of the PKI had been collaboration, on a programme of mild reform. The President, Sukarno, needed the PKI to counter-balance the army – and offered the Communist leaders high state office in return for their loyalty.

Almost certainly the PKI were not involved in Untung’s adventure. It was not their style to be so daring. But, so unstable was the structure, the removal of only one brick brought the whole gigantic building to the ground. The PKI were smeared with being pro-China, and thus became the object of all the anti-capitalist feeling of Indonesians (capital was heavily concentrated in the hands of Chinese Indonesians).

Bandung spirit

Furthermore, under Sukarno the country was plunged into a series of adventures and a scale of economic mismanagement which reduced the mass of the population to extremes of poverty. The PKI raised no protest.

1965 was the end of the ‘Bandung Spirit’, as well as of Sukarno. But the new military regime kept the windy slogans, the litanies and catechisms – the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

The pansila is still the official intonation, drilled into yawning civil servants and school kids.

It is all long ago, marked now only in the cyphers on the regimental banners, in the melancholic memories of old men in Beijing, in nightmares of the winners in Jakarta. The old emperors have long retired to the history books and now hardly anyone remembers. Just as 1965 smothered 1955 in blood, so 1985 has buried much of 1965.

The train chugs on, reliable, clean and comfortable in reaching the place, Bandung, but it cannot take you to the idea. The famous ‘spirit of Bandung’ has joined the world of spirits, downed in many a draught in many a bar. It took more than talk to turn the world round, to end the nuclear blocs.

But the spirit lives on in something Suharto and his cronies would not appreciate. For the years of boom that transformed those villages in West Java, and plumped the children’s cheeks and showed how corrupt and bloody dictatorships did so much better than incompetent leftist ones, also spread Jakarta into a giant industrial city. And in the industrial areas, the fever of liberty that distantly excited those gentlemen (there were very few ladies) in Bandung so long ago, that seemed horribly crushed in 1965, is as vigorous as ever.

In the waves of strikes in the early eighties, the new industrial working class of Indonesia began to flex its muscles. The stirrings are still too small to perturb President Suharto, but he may live to learn.

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Last updated: 17 October 2019