Indonesia – Struggle for Independence
Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
The Islamic world emerged from the First World War with its heartland occupied, its institutions destroyed and its political future in the European colonial juggernaut. While the history of the Islamic world before World War I was a reflection largely of its own internal dialectic, it reflected the dialectic between Europe and the colonized people of Afro-Asia after World War I. It took two world wars to loosen the European stranglehold on Afro-Asia. In the eighteenth and 19th centuries Afro-Asia was divided and parceled by European powers. The divisions reflected the power equilibrium between the big players, Great Britain, France and Russia after the Napoleonic wars (1798-1812). The First World War shook Europe to the core. The Second World War further weakened Great Britain and Franc. The rapid Japanese advance across East Asia destroyed the myth of European invincibility and provided hope to the nationalists in Asia and Africa for their liberation from centuries of bondage. Colonial rule established by brute force and cunning in the 19th century was demolished by brute force in the 20th century.
Privilege does not abandon its advantage without a fight. Even after the bloodletting of the Second World War, the colonial powers made an end run to reestablish their colonial hold on Asia. The French retook Vietnam until they were defeated and ejected from the Indochina by a determined insurrection. The Dutch landed in Indonesia with British help. A protracted war ensued pitting the independence forces against the colonists that lasted four years. Independence came to Indonesia when the United States, concerned about communist inroads into the Archipelago, forced the Dutch to withdraw. The British gave up India when they realize that the Indian army, the lynchpin of the British Empire, was no longer a reliable ally in its colonial venture.
This is the story of Indonesia. It is a story of a dialectic between nationalism, Islam and communism played out against an overarching background of a ruthless Dutch colonial rule before World War II, the ensuring cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union after the World War, and the relentless pressures of American hegemony after the end of the cold war.
For the last four hundred years the history of Afro-Asia has been inextricably tied to the history of Europe. Riding on the mastery of the oceans, the Europeans touched the far corners of the earth, first in search of trade, then to dominate and colonize the world. Ancient civilizations on the Afro-Asian continents were subjugated while Europe became the mistress of the globe. This was a phenomenon unparalleled in human history. Never in human history had a small corner of Eurasia so completed dominated the entire globe.
The rise of the European colossus was gradual. One may list the major milestones in this rise as the Fall of Granada (1492), the discovery of America (1492), the discovery of sea routes to India around the horn of Africa (1496), the introduction of the printing press (1526), the Protestant Reformation (1517-40), the Battle of Lepanto (1572), the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir (1578), the destruction of the Spanish armada (1588, 1598), the formation of the joint stock companies (1600-1602), the failure of the Second Turkish siege of Vienna (1683), the political implosion of India (1707-1762), the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the Industrial Revolution (1758-1812). We have covered each of these milestones in volumes 1 and 2 of our book.
The initial thrust for European expansion was religion. After the conquest of Granada (1492) the crusades spilled over into North Africa and beyond. The need to circumvent the Muslim Maghreb forced the maritime Christian powers of Spain and Portugal to venture out further into the Atlantic. In the process America was discovered (1492) and Africa was circumnavigated (1496). With the Treaty of Tordisillas brokered by Pope Alexander VI, Spain and Portugal divided up the world to explore, conquer and convert. In 1496 Vasco de Gama sailed to the coast of East Africa and with the help of a Muslim navigator, Ahmed Ibn Majid, reached the west coast of India. He returned ten years later, this time at the end of a flotilla of gunships and blasted his way from Shofala in southern Africa to Cochin in India. Naval technology provided Europe the advantage it needed to establish its sway over the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese established a string of colonies all along the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. The major outposts were Shofala in East Africa, Hermuz in Persia, Goa and Cochin in India, Malacca in Malaysia and Canton in China. The thriving Indian Ocean trade, hitherto open to all the peoples of the Indian Ocean littoral states, was now in the hands of Europeans. The land powers of Asia surrendered the oceans to Europe and were smug their attitude towards these seafarers from foreign lands. With the loss of trade, prosperity shrank. Europe expanded while Asia shriveled.
Towards the end of the 16th century, political power shifted from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands, England and France. The motive for hegemony changed from religion to profits. The Dutch displaced the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and held sway over the Eastern trade through the first half of the 17th century. However, superior resources enabled France and England to displace Holland and compete for supremacy in Asia, a competition in which the British emerged victorious. The colonization of Asia starts with competition for trade routes and trade monopolies and ends with a slicing of colonial spheres reflecting the power balance between European powers.
This chapter focuses on the history of Indonesia. Stretching over 3000 miles of ocean, Indonesia is a nation of nations and consists of more than 12,000 islands. The resource rich island of Sumatra is the largest and stretches along the strategic Gulf of Malacca dominating the sea lanes from India to China. The smaller island of Java is the most densely populated and holds more than fifty percent of the total Indonesian population of 250 million. Some of the islands are so small that they are mere rocks jetting forth from the ocean. Each of the larger islands has its own rich culture. A shared history dating back more than two thousand years and an overarching Malay culture unites the archipelago into a composite mosaic.
Geography and geology have dictated the history of Indonesia. The far flung islands are connected by the sea which is the conduit for transportation and commerce making the Islanders one of the most seafaring peoples of the world. From ancient times Indonesian boats plied the waters of the Indian Ocean reaching as far as Mozambique and the East coast of Africa. Geologically the great fault lines that separate the Pacific plate from the Indian and Indo-Chinese plates graze the western shores of Java and Sumatra causing immense destruction with earthquakes and tsunamis as they graze past each other and slide. The islands straddle the equator and are blessed with abundant rain and sun, a climate that is conducive to the cultivation of spices. Bountiful nature has made the Indonesians a people of mild disposition and grace.
Ancient empire rose and fell, uniting and dividing the peoples of these far flung islands. The kingdom of Srivijaya flourished in Sumatra from the 4thto the 14th century CE and at times controlled parts of Java and Malaya. The powerful kingdom of Majapahit dominated the islands from the 13th to the 16th centuries from its center Eastern Java and through trade and treaties its influence was felt all over Southeast Asia.
Trade with India and China brought cultural, religious and military influence. In ancient times, Hinduism was brought to the islands by traders from the eastern shores of India and was the dominant religious influence until the 4th century CE, Hindu influence pervaded the islands. In the 4thcentury CE, the Indian Emperor Ashoka accepted Buddhism. Through his patronage Buddhism travelled to Sri Lanka and the Indonesian islands. These external influences were modified and adopted to fit the local cultural milieu. The kingdoms of Srivijaya and Majapahit that dominated the islands were Buddhist-Hindu in their religious outlook but the culture of the islands remained decidedly local.
Islam arrived in the archipelago in the 8th century with traders from Yemen and Persia. However, the initial influence of the new faith was confined to a few trading posts on the sea lanes connecting India and China. The penetration of Islam into interior of the islands dates from the 12th century. This was a period of explosive growth for the Islamic faith in Asia and Africa. Sufi Shaikhs traversed the islands spreading a spiritual Islam that gradually displaced Buddhism and Hinduism. It is significant to note that the growth of Islam in the archipelago was not the result of a conversion of kings and noblemen, nor of military invasions, but of a change in the beliefs of the people of the soil. The kings and noblemen accepted Islam only after a large proportion of their subjects had embraced the new faith. The Islamic influence melted into the older cultural milieu of the islands. Much as it was in the earlier penetration of Hinduism and Buddhism, the people of the islands retained their language and their culture and adopted the new faith within their older cultures.
Geography placed the archipelago in the cross currents of political and military ambitions from powerful dynasties in India and China. In the 12thcentury, the Chola kings of southeastern India launched a series of raids on Sumatra and controlled the coastlines of both Sumatra and Malaya. In the 13th century, the Yuan emperor Kublai Khan (d 1294), sent an expedition to intervene in the internal political struggles in Java. In the 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zeng Yi (d 1433), also known as admiral Ho, made seven voyages to the Indian Ocean and brought his armada of great ships to the shore of Java and Sumatra. Some historians date the Chinese Muslim presence in the Malacca Straits from the visits of admiral Ho’s fleet (1404-1432). The Chinese naval influence waned and disappeared in the second half of the 15th century as the Yuan emperors shifted their resources from sea voyages to their long and hostile land frontiers with Mongolia.
Indonesia was a part of the trade network linking the Indian Ocean with the Western Pacific. With the advent of Islam in the archipelago in the 12thcentury, and the penetration of Sufi Islam in the Indian subcontinent, the faith of Islam provided the spiritual umbrella for the trading nations in this vast network. Arabic became the lingua franca for trade. Even the Chinese emperors, who were not Muslim, found it expedient to appoint Muslim admirals to lead their navy. This vast network was a peaceful one. Even though Islam dominated this network and Arabic was the lingua franca, Buddhists from China and Sri Lanka as well as Hindus from India and Bali participated in this trade as equals and without discrimination.
Early in the 15th century the peace of the Indian Ocean was shattered by the guns of the Portuguese. The year 1492 was a hinge around which the history of the world revolves. It was the year that Columbus discovered America. It was also the year when the Spanish Crusaders captured Granada, the last Muslim bastion on the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish Inquisition followed and the Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain. In 1494, under a Papal decree, Spain and Portugal divided up the world for conquest and conversion to Roman Catholic Christianity. In 1496 the sailor Vasco de Gama circumnavigated the coast of South Africa and with the help of Muslim navigators in East Africa arrived on the western shores of India. His first visit was a scouting mission. He returned in 1506 at the head of a flotilla of gun boats blasting his way across East Africa to the southern tip of India. Within a short span of three years, the Portuguese occupied Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kedda in East Africa, Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf and Goa, Diu and Daman in India. Malacca fell after heavy resistance in 1511 and Macao and Canton in China was settled soon thereafter. The Indian Ocean which had hitherto been an ocean of trade, commerce and peaceful interaction between people was transformed into an ocean of cut throat competition and war. The Portuguese took the spices out of Asia but in return had nothing worthwhile to teach the ancient peoples of an ancient continent.
The Portuguese had twin goals. The first was to destroy Muslim influence and force their brand of Christianity into Asia. The second was to control the Indian Ocean trade and extract tribute from the traders and the pilgrims on their way to Mecca. So weak were the navies of the littoral states that not one of them could challenge the Portuguese at sea. Even the mighty Moguls of India saw it fit to have the passports of Indian pilgrims stamped by the Portuguese than to confront them in the Arabian Sea. Only the Ottomans offered some resistance. Under the able admiral Piri Rais, the Portuguese were cleared from Aden and the entrance to the Red Sea. The Portuguese were expelled from East Africa north of Mozambique. However, following their defeat at the battle of Lepanto in 1572 and their standoff with the Portuguese navy off the shores of Mozambique in 1578, Ottoman naval power receded from the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Ocean was too large and the Portuguese resources were too meager for them to control this vast region. Ships belonging to the Ottomans and the Sultan of Oman continued to ply the Arabian Sea. A power equilibrium was established at sea so that after the year 1550 as much trade flowed through Alexandria in Egypt as it did through Lisbon in Portugal. The wheels of fortune turned against the Portuguese in the last quarter of the 16th century. The King of Portugal, Sebastian, invaded the North African kingdom of Morocco in 1578. At the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir, the Moroccan monarch Ahmed al Mansur inflicted a crushing defeat on the invaders. Sebastian lay dead on the battlefield. 20,000 of the invaders were either slain or captured and were used as slaves in the campaigns against the Songhai Empire in sub-SaharanAfrica. So complete was the Moroccan victory that two years later, in 1580, the Spanish monarch took Portugal under his protection making it a virtual colony until 1640.
History was no more kind to the Spanish who had grown rich from pillaging the Mayans in Central America. In response to acts of British piracy, Spain assembled its mighty armada and set sail into the English Channel in 1588 with the stated goal of conquering England. A combination of bad weather and superior British tactics destroyed the armada. Ten years later, in 1598, Spain made a second attempt and sailed towards England with another armada to avenge the defeat of 1588. The fleet was caught in a storm off the coast of France and the bulk of it was swallowed up by the high seas.
These events unfolding as they did one after the other shattered the naval power of the once mighty Spaniards and the Portuguese. The Iberians had ruled the high seas in the Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean since the discovery of America in 1492. The papal award of 1494 had given the Americas to the Spaniards and Asia to the Portuguese. Using their mastery of the seas, and their knowledge of ship-mounted cannon, the Spaniards had enslaved the Americas and Portugal had destroyed the Muslim trading colonies around the rim of the Indian Ocean. These were devastating blows from which Spanish did not recover. Spain was so weakened by its naval losses in 1588 and 1598 that it lost its position as the dominant global naval power. Portugal did not recover from its defeat at al Qasr al Kabir in 1588. The decline of the Iberian powers created an opportunity for the North European powers of England and the Netherlands.
The modern history of Indonesia begins in the year1602 in the Dutch city of Amsterdam. It was the year when a group of enterprising investors met and founded the Vereennigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) or the Dutch East India Company. This was a strategic business decision at a most opportune historic moment. After a protracted struggle, Holland had won its independence from Spain (1570). Amsterdam was a naval shipyard for Spain during their occupation. After the departure of the Spanish, the technology and trained manpower in Amsterdam provided the infrastructure for Dutch ship building. Holland rose and for half a century was the undisputed master of the seas.
The rise of Holland as a naval power did not go unchallenged. The Spaniards mounted a blockade of Dutch ships around the Iberian coastline. This only forced the Dutch to move farther out into the Atlantic Ocean and build larger and sturdier ships. An exhausted Spain which was also acting as a protector of a defeated Portugal was no match for a resurgent Holland. The Dutch moved rapidly to displace Portuguese power in the Indian Ocean. In 1605 they captured the Portuguese fort at Amboina in the Moluccas. Unlike the Portuguese who were saddled with a crusader mentality to convert the natives, the Dutch were motivated by pure profit. They were nonetheless as brutal as the Portuguese in their treatment of the local population. In 1519, they massacred the entire population of Banda in the Moluccas islands of Indonesia and established a monopoly on nutmeg production. In 1520 they razed Jayakarta to the ground and built a new town Batavia (modern Jakarta) on its ashes. Further conquests followed in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. In 1640 they captured Colombo in Sri Lanka. The following year, working in collaboration with the Sultan of Johor, they laid siege to the fort of Malacca. The fall of this strategic fort brought the Straits of Malacca under Dutch control. A series of treaties with the Malay sultans followed, Kedah in 1642, Ujung Salang in 1643 and Bangkeri in1645 giving the Dutch a near monopoly in the spice trade from the archipelago.
The British had their own East India Company chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 CE ostensibly to trade with Asia. Rivalry between the Dutch and the British was inevitably. At stake was not only the spice trade with Asia but also the lucrative slave trade from West Africa. Sugarcane was introduced into the West Indies in the 16th century. The hot climate and the backbreaking work required hardy labor and the Europeans were unfit for this work. The Spaniards brought in some slaves from West Africa in the 16th century but it was not until the Dutch appeared on the scene that the slave trade picked up momentum. By 1640 the slave trade was even more profitable than the spice trade with the Indies. Sugarcane was transported to New England where it was converted to rum. The rum was sent to Europe. Europe exported guns to Africa in return for slaves who were shipped to the New World. The sugar case-rum-guns and slaves triangle was enormously profitable for the slave-gun runners of Europe. To exploit this trade, the Dutch formed the Dutch West India Company in 1621 and established colonies in New Amsterdam (New York) and up the Hudson River.
The Dutch-English rivalry erupted into open hostilities in 1640. The English held the advantage in this tussle. England had a population six times as large as that of Holland and its sea captains well trained as pirates in the rough seas of the East Atlantic. The English prevailed in the conflict and overran New Amsterdam. However, the Dutch were more successful in the Indian Ocean and managed to hold onto their colonies in the Straits of Malacca, Sri Lanka and the west coast of India. In addition, in 1651 they captured the Cape of Good Hope off the tip of Africa and established a colony there. This strategic location gave the Dutch enormous advantage in the competition for Indian Ocean spice trade.
The Dutch trade policies were monopolistic and were representative of corporate colonialism at its incipient worse. Locally, they encouraged the cultivation of a single crop suited to the climate: cloves in Sri Lanka, Timor for sandalwood, and Banda for nutmeg. Externally, they waged war to prevent other Europeans or local powers from encroaching on their turf. Their employment policies were restrictive, and the wages amounted to little more than slave labor. No inhabitant of Batavia could accept alternate employment or marry without the permission of the VOC.
There was stiff resistance to the brutal policies of the VOC. Princes, noblemen and religious shaikhs alike led the resistance. In the relentless conflicts that raged for control of the islands, the VOC had the upper hand. Control of the high seas gave the VOC the advantage of flexibility and maneuverability. The invaders could train their guns on a town and then withdraw into the relative safety of the high seas only to return when the tactical situation on land was in its favor. Technology and training favored the Europeans. The local rulers, often at odds with each other, could not focus their defense on a single area. Nonetheless, the people of the archipelago put up a long and valiant fight. In the protracted warfare a large number of Malays were taken prisoner and transported as slaves to lands as far away as Sri Lanka and South Africa.
One of the most renowned prisoners taken by the Dutch was Shaikh Yusuf (1624-1693), an Awliyah of the Khilwatiyah Sufi order from Java. Shaikh Yusuf was a prince of the Gowa royal family. At the age of 21 he was sent to Mecca to perform his hajj and to study under the renowned scholars of the age. The young prince stayed in Mecca and Madina for more than thirty years, mastering religious disciplines and learning the secrets of Sufi orders. At the age of 54 he returned to Makassar, Indonesia as a learned Shaikh. He was horrified to find that the kingdom had fallen to the Dutch. Moral degradation had overtaken the local Muslims. Gambling and opium consumption was common. Disillusioned with the state of affairs in Makasar, Shaikh Yusuf migrated to Banten which was ruled by the pious Sultan Ageng. The Sultan received the Shaikh with honor, gave him one of his daughters in marriage and appointed him as the Chief Kadi of the court.
The Shaikh took up the cause of the Malay people and organized an armed resistance to the Dutch. For five long years, his disciplined cadre of fighters harassed the VOC. However, during a fire fight in 1683 the Shaikh was injured and captured by the enemy. He was enslaved and shipped, first to Colombo in Sri Lanka and then to Cape Town in South Africa. In this new land, far away from home, the Shaikh organized a tareeqa, teaching local people the ethics and moral values of Islam. His lifelong dedication earned him the reputation as the first Awliya who introduced Islam into southern Africa. When he died in 1699, he was buried on a hill overlooking the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian. It is said that the body of the Shaikh was returned to Gowa in 1705 but the local belief is that he is still there in his tomb. It is a place of pilgrimage now, a place of recluse and a reminder to people of Malay descent in South Africa, of the struggles of their forefathers and their roots in far away lands.
Colonialism is more than loss of independence. It saps the moral strength of a people and scuttles their cultural and spiritual growth. It impoverishes the colonized and enriches the colonizer. In the long and valiant struggle of the Indonesian people lasting more than two hundred years against ruthless and often violent colonization by the Dutch, the name of Shaikh Yusuf stands out among the valiant soldiers of the islands.
The dawn of the 18th century witnessed a protracted struggle between the French and the British for ascendancy in Asia. Much of Asia and Africa was going through an intellectual, technological and political retraction even as Europe has making rapid technological and military advances. At stake was the future of Afro-Asia and a long and protracted struggle ensured spanning three continents. The Anglo-French war of 1702-1712, also known as the war of Spanish Succession was fought in Europe. The Anglo-French war of 1749-1754 was fought in southern India. The Anglo-French war of 1755-1763 was fought in North America. In each case the British generals were more than a match for the French and England came out victorious. France lost its colonies in India and North America.
The Anglo French rivalry worked to the benefit of the Dutch. France was an adversary of England and had resources comparable to those of England. Holland, by contrast, was an adversary of England, but its resources were far less than those of France. The Dutch were vanquished by the British in the war of 1640-47 and posed no threat to British global ambitions thereafter. The British were willing to let Holland control the trade with the East Indies provided it did not threaten their interests in India. The French, by contrast, competed with the British for control of India, North America and Southeast Asia, a competition that did not cease until the beginning of the 19th century.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte burst out of France, riding on the waves of the French Revolution, with slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity that were heard around the world. His Republican ideas were a direct challenge not just to the British but to all the monarchies of Europe. In the Napoleonic wars that ensued (1798-1812), Holland was occupied by the French. The British moved to protect their colonial interests by taking over the Dutch colonies in the Indian Ocean. Java was occupied by a British Indian expeditionary force in 1811.
The Napoleonic wars ended in 1812. In 1816, Britain handed back the East Indies colonies to the Dutch. However, Colombo and the Cape of Good Hope remained in British hands. Protracted negotiations ensued between Amsterdam and London. By the Treaty of 1824 Holland formally gave up its claims to its colonies in India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the Malay Peninsula in return for British recognition of its rights in the East Indies. In essence, the Dutch empire became a satellite of the British Empire, deriving its power from the British power in India and Southeast Asia. The treaty of 1824 split the Malay world along the Straits of Malacca. The division of the Malay world into Indonesia and Malaysia follows roughly the boundaries fixed by Britain and Holland in the year 1824.
Resistance to Dutch colonial rule continued unabated. The VOC had made the Malay population of Batavia virtual slaves in their own land. In 1825 Javanese anger erupted like a volcano under the leadership of Prince Dipanagara. Resentment against Dutch colonial rule was only one element in the uprising. There were positive elements in it as well. The ulema saw the Dutch as unbelievers who were bent on subjugating Islam. Peasants and noblemen alike saw this as an opportunity to assert their independence. Dipanagara proclaimed himself the Ratu Adil, the just ruler, who would bring peace and justice to the island. He was immensely successful at first and his forces laid siege to Batavia which lasted until 1828. But the Dutch had the advantage at sea. They brought in reinforcements from Colombo, Cape Townand the Netherlands. The siege of Batavia was lifted. Dipanagara retreated to the mountains and continued a protracted guerilla war that lasted two years. In a shameless violation of all norms of civilized warfare, the Dutch enticed the prince to enter their camp under the pretext of negotiating a peace treaty, captured and exiled him to the island of Sulawesi in 1830. The Java war of 1825-30 was bloody. Over 100,000 Javanese and 10,000 Dutch were killed in the hostilities.
After their victory in the Java war (1825-30) the Dutch abandoned any pretext of dealing with the Indonesian sultans on the basis of treaties and moved outright into a colonial posture. The history of the 19th century was one of unabated and wanton exploitation of the Indies to industrialize and enrich the Netherlands. In 1831 a system of forced cultivation was introduced by the colonial administration in Java. The peasants were coerced into cultivating cash crops like coffee, sugarcane, spices and indigo at the expense of traditional crops such as rice needed for food and were compelled to sell the cash crops to a government owned monopoly Nederlandse Handel-Maatschappij, in which the king of Holland owned a substantial number of shares. The exploitation was so intense that Java, a land of plenty, experienced a series of famines in 1845-47. Political events in Europe added to the misery of the Indonesian peasants. In the decade after the Java war, Belgium waged a successful war for its independence from the Netherlands (1830-39). The war took such a heavy toll on resources that Holland went nearly bankrupt. The Dutch shifted the burden of recovering the cost of war on the Indies and it was on the backs of the wretched peasants of the archipelago that Holland got back on its feet. This pattern of exploitation lasted well into the 20th century.
Rivalries, feuds, wars and treaties between European powers had a direct impact on the fortunes of the colonies. The colonial fray reached West Africa and the Gold Coast in the second half of the 19th century. While France was busy swallowing up Western Sahara, Cameroon and Niger, Britain focused on the Gold Coast. Pushing inland from the Atlantic sea board, Britain gradually consolidated its position in Ghana and Nigeria (1850-1906). The lure of Ghana was gold and ivory while that of Nigeria was timber and oil. The borders between colonies were often no more than lines on maps drawn by colonial negotiators in London and Paris. The British entered into similar agreements with the Dutch. By the Treaty of 1873, the Dutch surrendered their forts on the Gold Coast in return for a free hand in the East Indies. This treaty removed the last British objections to a Dutch colonization of Sumatra which had hitherto resisted the European onslaught.
The large and strategic island of Sumatra jets deep into the Indian Ocean. The northern tip of the island lies Aceh, a fine harbor and a natural stop off point for voyagers between India and China. From ancient times the area played host to Arab traders, Chinese seamen and Javanese sailors plying the waters of the Indian Ocean. The voyagers brought their culture and their ideas with them and Aceh became a caldron of Asian civilizations. Until the 4th century Hinduism was the religion of the land. In the fifth and 6th centuries Buddhism reigned supreme. Islam entered this Hindu-Buddhist matrix in the 9th century. The well known historian Al-Idrisi (d1165) mentions Islamic communities in Aceh, Malacca and Canton. In the 14th century, the celebrated world traveler Ibn Batuta (d 1377) stopped here on his way to China.
In 1508 the Portuguese the Portuguese occupied Goa in India and followed it up with the occupation of Malacca in Malaysia in 1511. The inquisition against the Jews and Muslims was in full swing on the Iberian Peninsula. The Portuguese brought the inquisition with them into the new lands. This drove many a Muslim scholar from the west coast of India and Malaya. These scholars found a welcome home in Aceh which was blessed by the able sultans Ali Shah (d 1530) and Alauddin Shah (d 1571). It was during this period that the Khilafat passed from the Mamlukes in Egypt to the Ottomans in Turkey (1519). In 1526, Suleiman the Magnificent became the Ottoman sultan. He built a powerful navy and challenged the marauding Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. With the help of the Ottomans, the sultans of Aceh successfully defended western Sumatra and Joho located across the Malaccan Straits from the Portuguese during the 16th century.
The 17th century was the golden period for Acehnese history. In the year 1607 sultan Iskandar Muda ascended the throne of Aceh. Through skillful diplomacy he kept the Europeans at bay. With a centralized, efficient administration he built up Aceh into the most prosperous state in the Malacca Straits. He established his sway on western Sumatra and Johor and controlled the lucrative trade flowing through the Straits. Nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, tin, sulphur and nuts were exported from Sumatra. The sultan used the tax revenue to build a strong navy. He was also an avid collector of jewels. Aceh became a center of Islamic learning. Schools and academies thrived. Scholarship was valued and rewarded and learned men thronged to its madrassas from as far away as Gujarat and Madina.
One of the most influential scholars of the period was Shaikh Abdur Raoof al Sinkli (1615-1693). Born in Sumatra, he studied in the local schools and proceeded to Hejaz in the 1644. In Mecca and Madina he studied kalam, hadith, fiqh, tasawwuf and eloquence under the most renowned ulema of the age. Returning to his homeland in 1661, he established a school (dayah) in Aceh. His scholarship attracted students from far and wide and Aceh became a magnet for scholars from all over the archipelago.
Shaikh Sinkli’s teachings became a spark for intense intellectual activity in Sumatra. The writings of Ibn Arabi (d 1240) were available in the islands and his ideas of wahdat al wajud (unity of existence) had trigged widespread debates among Sumatran scholars. Trade had knit together the scholar communities of the Indian Ocean littoral states and ideas travelled with the traders. India was at this time at the zenith of Mogul empire and Indian scholars influenced the intellectual activity in far away lands. For instance, the writings of Indian scholar Shaikh Fadlullah al Hindi al Burhanpuri added to the intensity of debates about wahdat al wajud in Sumatra. One such debate took place in the year 1638 in the court of Sultan Iskander Thani (1637-41) between Shaikh al Raniri and Shaikh al-Sumatrani. Shaikh Sinkli stayed above the fray and tried reconciliation. The proponents of wahdat al wajud maintained that God was immanent in His creation. Those opposed to this concept maintained that this belief was contrary to the injunctions of the Shariah. Al Sinkli was trained both in Shariah and tasawwuf and was able to moderate these debates. He adhered to his belief in wahdat al wajud but he tried to preserve the transcendence of God by stating that the world (alam) was tasbih (a simile) and was a reflection of the essence (dhat) of al haqq (the truth). Al Haqq is one of the Asma ul Husna (beautiful Names of God). Al Sinkli maintained that the oneness of al haqq cannot be compromised. Truth flows from the essence of God. There is nothing that surrounds Him but He surrounds everything. Wahdat al wajud was an experience reserved for the most spiritual of Shaikhs.
The scholarship of al Sinkli was recognized by the ruling elite. Sultana Safiatuddin appointed him the chief Kadi of Aceh and from this position he influenced the development of both fiqh and tasawwuf in the region.
The most famous of al Sinkli’s students was Shaikh Burhanuddin. Shaikh Burhanuddin established his zawiya in Western Java. Learned men, peasants and sufis alike flocked to hear him and learn from him. His students established zawiyas all over Java and Sumatra where young scholars stayed and learned the discipline of a tareeqa. Shaikh Burhanuddin combined in himself the teachings of both the Shattariya and the Naqshbandi silsilah. In a silsilah a Shaikh is connected to the Prophet through an unbroken chain of transmission. His legitimacy derives from this connection and hence his teachings are accepted by students and ulema alike. Shaikh Burhanuddin removed wahdat al wajud from his lectures. Instead he emphasized adherence to the Shariah in his tareeqa While the goal of dhikr (remembrance of the name of God) in the teachings of Shaikh al Sinkli was fana (annihilation), the goal of dhikr in the teachings of Shaikh Burhanuddin was simply tazkiyiatun nafs (cleansing of the soul).
Shaikh Burhanuddin is widely recognized as the founder of Ahle Sunnah Wal Jamaat in Java. The Ahl e Sunnah Wal Jamaat emphasize in their teachings adherence to the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet and the ijmah both of the Companions of the Prophet and of the community. They accept validity of all four of the Sunnah schools of fiqh and the philosophical teachings of Abu Hassan al Ashari (873-935) who said God could be known only through his Names and attributes. He also taught that the Quran was “not created”, meaning, it was time-independent and eternal.
The students of Shaikh Burhanuddin established zawiyas throughout Southeast Asia and were responsible for the spread of Islam to the far off islands in the archipelago. Shaikh Burhanuddin died in the year 1699 and his tomb in Ulakan is visited by thousands even to this day. His influence is felt in modern Indonesia in the largest social-religious organization in modern Indonesia, the Nahdatul Ulema which runs scores of pesantrans (religious schools) throughout the archipelago.
Upon the death of Iskandar Muda in 1636, his son Iskander Thani ruled for brief five years and was succeeded by Iskander Muda’s daughter Ratu Safiatuddin Tajul Alam. Queen Safiatuddin was one of a succession of five queens who ruled Aceh from 1641 to 1702. She was a capable monarch who ruled in consultation with a court consisting of noblemen and merchants. She rationalized the tax collection and unlike her father invested the tax revenue for the welfare of the people instead of precious diamonds. Her style was consultative and she made the noblemen and the merchants stakeholders in the continuity of the throne. For these reasons she was extremely popular with the powerbrokers and the peasants alike and her tenure was accepted by the ulema. Four Aceh queens followed Safiatuddin in succession. These were Ratu Naqiatuddin Nurul Alam (1675-1678), Ratu Zaqiatuddin Inayat Syah (1678-1688), Ratu Kamalat Syah Zinatuddin (1688-1699) and Badrul Alam Syarif Hashim Jamaluddin(1699-1702). The tradition of a woman head of state was consistent with the honor bestowed on women in the local Malay tradition (aadat) and with the position that women enjoyed in the non-Arab Turkish, Indian and African Islamic courts. Their legacy reinforced the earlier legacy of Razia sultana of India (1336-1340) and Queen Shajarat ut Durr (1351-54) of Egypt. By their example these women adorned the canvas of Islamic history and paved the way for women heads of state in our own times.
The Treaty of 1873 removed British objections to the Dutch colonization of Sumatra. Wasting no time, the Dutch invaded the sultanate of Aceh. Aceh was ruled by Sultan Mahmud Syah (d 1874), heir to a long line of monarchs dating back to the turn of the 19th century. When the Dutch laid siege to his capital, the sultan appealed for international help. Britain, the only power that could have helped, turned the other way. As the Dutch advanced, the sultan retreated to the mountains to continue resistance. The following year he died of natural causes and the cause of resistance was taken up by Sultan Tunku Ibrahim. A long war of attrition ensued. The Sumatrans fought valiantly for thirty years for their land and for their independence. It was Islam that provided the backbone for their resistance. It was only in 1903 that the Dutch gained the upper hand and convinced the sultan to lay down his arms. Sporadic resistance continued in the hills of the large island and the Dutch were never able to establish the absolute colonial authority in Sumatra as they did elsewhere in the islands.
The dawn of the 20th century saw the colonial empires at their zenith. The British flag flew over India, Egypt, Malaya and South Africa. British arms were triumphant on the Gold Coast and Nigeria. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were in the British Commonwealth owing their allegiance to the King. The French sway over Indochina and West Africa was complete. The Dutch Empire, a satellite of the British Empire had completed its stranglehold on the East Indies. The colonial mind set had taken hold in Europe and the “white man’s burden” was openly talked about as if it was the manifest destiny of Europe to shepherd the peoples of Asia and Africa.
Man is born free and the longing for a free soul is embedded in the human spirit. Even as the colonial powers felt secure in the vastness of their empires the foundations of their power were shaken up by the undercurrents of Asian national consciousness. The first seeds of independence in the colonies of Asia and Africa were sown in the heyday of the colonial empires at the turn of the 20th century.
Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, there were signs that the Asian giants were stirring. The establishment of the Indian National Congress (1885), the All India Muslim League (1906), the Aceh Islamic resistance (1874-1903) and the Moro war (1898-1902) in the Philippines were manifestations of these stirrings. The victory of the Japanese over the Russians in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 showed that Asians could stand up to the military prowess of Europe.
On May 20, 1908 the first Indonesian national organization, the Budi Ultimo National Congress was founded by a Javanese physician Dr. Wahidin Soedirohoesodo. Dr. Wahidin was a modernist who believed that western education would kindle national consciousness among his countrymen. His ideas found a resonance with the educated elite, the doctors, engineers, teachers and government workers. Budi Utomo became an umbrella organization that took in its fold Indonesians of all political persuasion. Included in it were Islamic scholars, merchants as well as labor leaders and is therefore considered the parent organization of various strands that appeared later in the century – nationalist, Islamist as well as communist. It grew rapidly, adopted Malay as its national language, established a national organizational structure and set up scores of local branches in Java and the outer islands. Paid membership grew and a cadre of dedicated workers got their first training in the political process. The Dutch grew suspicious of its strength. To curb its influence at the national level and exploit local rivalries, they recognized the local branches but refused to recognize the national organization.
The broad based Budi Utomo National Congress could not accommodate the divergent, often conflicting goals of the nationalists, Islamists and the communists. Other organizations spring up to provide alternate and specific platforms to these diverse groups. In 1910, Douwes Dekker, a journalist and politician of Eurasian descent, established the Indies party. Dekker had worked as a youth in the coffee plantations of Java and had seen first hand the discrimination and suffering of the Javanese peasants. Together with Tjipto Mangunkusumo and Kihadjar Dwantara, Douwes established a Committee which initially advocated self rule for Indonesia within the Dutch empire but later stood for full independence of the islands. Alarmed, the colonial Dutch government accused the three of subversion and exiled them to the Netherlands where Dekker continued his work in behalf of Indonesian independence. The influence of Dekker in the Indonesian struggle for independence was significant. He was the first one to use the term Indonesia in his writings. In the 1920s he was a mentor to Sukarno, the hero of Indonesian independence.
The centrist Budi Utomo did not sufficiently address the concerns of the workers and a migration to leftist politics was inevitable. The ideas of Karl Marx had found their way to the Indies through Dutch publications. The first move towards organizing the workers was taken in 1914 by Hendricus Sneevliet who formed the Indies Social Democratic Association. Events in Europe continued to affect the destiny of the peoples of Asia. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) gave a boost to the struggle of Asian workers who toiled under the yoke of unbridled colonial capitalism. In 1924 the Indies Social Democratic Association changed its name to the Indonesian Communist Party and worked to organize trade unions and farmers. However the focus of the party shifted when it started a series of insurrections in Java and Sumatra in 1926. The Dutch forcefully put down the insurrections. The leaders of the party were killed or exiled and it was not until after 1948 that the party resurfaced as a significant player in Indonesian politics.
The diverse Islamic community in Indonesia had its own specific concerns. The loss of independence to the Netherlands was considered a disgrace by the ulema who longed for the establishment of a Shariah-based state. However, it was the merchant community of Muslims that made the first political move. Their primary concern was not so much religion but the economic domination from the Chinese. The colonial government had established a social hierarchy in which the Europeans occupied a privileged position at the top, the Chinese served as intermediaries while the native Javanese occupied the bottom rung of the ladder. International trade was controlled by the Dutch, the retail trade was delegated to the Chinese while the islanders were relegated to subsistence farming and hard labor. There was a great deal of resentment against the Chinese merchants who often sided with the Europeans in the political dialectic between the Dutch and the Javanese.
To address the grievances of the merchants, a Muslim Traders Association was established in 1909. In addition to encouraging trade, the Association emphasized Islamic education. The agenda found a resonance with the large majority of Muslims and the Association grew rapidly. In 1912 it changed its name to Sarekat Islam. By 1914 it had more than 250,000 members and 100 branches throughout the islands.
There were other strands in the Muslim political milieu. The educated elite sought a reformation of the community through western education. In this sense their orientation was similar to that of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan of Aligarh in India who sought to uplift the Islamic community in India through modern, western education. The reformist group started the Mohammediya movement in Yogyakarta in 1912.
Neither the Sarekat Islam nor the Mohammediya were fully responsive to the aspirations of traditional Islam. This need was filled in 1926 through the establishment of Nahdatul Ulema. The Nahda emphasized the traditional values in Islam and served as a balance to the reformist thrust of Mohammediya and the mercantile thrust of Sarekat Islam. In time, the Nahdatul Ulema grew to be the largest religious organization in Indonesia. It established a vast network of schools, the pesantrans, to impart traditional Islamic education to the children. The pesantrans were boarding schools for boys and girls, usually located in the back country and provided the poor peasants the only chance to impart education to their children. Even to this day, the pesantrans form the backbone of rural education and are an important element in the social-religious milieu of Indonesia.
The political resurgence in the early part of the century nurtured some of the giants who guided the destiny of Indonesia towards independence. Two of these stalwarts were Achmad Sukarno (1901-1970) and Muhammed Hatta (1902-1980). Sukarno was born in Java in 1901, the son of a school teacher. He studied in Dutch primary schools and in 1927 graduated as a civil engineer from Technische Hogeschool in Bandung. He was fluent in Dutch, English and French besides his native Javanese and was a powerful and persuasive orator. While a student, he met Tjokroaminoto, a nationalist and came under his influence. In 1928 he established the Indonesian Nationalist Union (PNI) together with Tjipto Mangunkusumo, Kihadjar Dwantara and Douwes and advocated self rule for the islands. Sukarno knew first hand the impact of European colonial rule on the Indonesian workers. The sight of unbridled colonial exploitation fostered in him a distaste for capitalism and a liking for socialism. However, at his core he was a nationalist rather than a socialist and his goal was independence from the Dutch rather than a socialist state.
The Dutch, weary of nationalists, and alarmed at the activities of Sukarno, arrested him, charged him with sedition and sentenced him in 1929 to exile in the island of Flores. When he was released in 1931, he returned home to Java, a mass hero who championed the cause of Indonesia’s independence. In 1932 he dissolved the PNI and founded the Indonesia Party which demanded complete independence from the Netherlands. The party came under intense surveillance from the colonial authorities and was dissolved in 1934. Sukarno was arrested again and imprisoned in Flores.
In the 1930s, Sukarno saw an opportunity for Indonesia’s independence in the rise of imperial Japan. As the Japanese imperial army marched across Manchuria and Eastern China, Sukarno sensed the possibility that the Japanese invasions might spill over into the East Indies. He was willing to help the Dutch against such a possibility provided that independence was first granted to Indonesia. Just as the British paid little heed to similar demands from Gandhi in India, the Dutch brushed off Sukarno’s overtures confining him instead for eight long years in prison.
The political dynamics changed with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941). In February 1942 Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies and quickly overran the islands. The Dutch retreated almost without a fight. Sukarno was carted in haste from place to place, taken to Sumatra, but was abandoned by the Dutch in their hasty retreat. The Japanese saw an opportunity in using the young Sukarno for their own agenda. On his part Sukarno saw an opportunity to use the Japanese to gain Indonesian independence. Their interests were a mirror image each of the other. Sukarno helped the Japanese providing Indonesian labor for their war effort while the Japanese allowed Sukarno to develop a cadre of young men trained in military discipline. This was the beginning of the Indonesian army which fought a valiant guerilla war against the Dutch when they tried to reestablish their empire after the war. A persuasive orator that he was, Sukarno worked tirelessly to infuse a sense of nationhood among the Indonesian people. In 1943 he was decorated by the Emperor of Japan for his assistance in the war effort. Necessity dictated politics. The war was the trigger for the independence of Asia and Africa. Sukarno played the politics of necessity but later he expressed regret for the assistance he had rendered the occupying Japanese.
Power is the arbitrator of politics. The Second World War transformed the power balance in Asia. The lightning Japanese advance across Asia destroyed the myth of an invincible Europe and provided an impetus to the political forces seeking the seeking the emancipation of Asia. Without the war, the colonial era would have lingered on much longer.
The independence struggle for Indonesia was not a one man show. It was a corporate struggle involving several significant personalities. One of them was Mohammed Hatta.
Born into an affluent family in 1902 on the island of Java, Hatta lost his father in early childhood and was brought up in his mother’s family. A bright student, he attended Dutch language schools and at the age of nineteen proceeded to the Netherlands where he stayed till 1931 and studied law.
The youthful Hatta was a political activist. In the Netherlands he joined the Indonesische Vereneging (Union of Indonesia) of which he became chairman in 1926. He was also the editor of a magazine Free Indonesia. Indonesische Vereneging became an advocate of noncooperation as a means to gain independence for Indonesia. In support of this goal, Hatta attended conferences all over Europe where he met and made friends with some of the future leaders of Asia including Nehru of India, Ramadan Bey of Egypt and Sedar Senghor of Africa. These activities alarmed the Dutch. The headquarters of the organization were raided in 1927, Hatta was arrested and put in jail. When he was brought before a judge with charges of disturbing the peace, Hatta gave a famous speech in which he passionately argued for an equal partnership between Indonesia and the Netherlands and an end to the colonial relationship.
In 1931 Hatta returned home to an Indonesia torn by conflicts between rival groups of activists and the arrest of Sukarno. Most of the members of Sukarno’s PNI party had joined the Partindo party. The Dutch educated elite had formed a new PNI party. Partindo was a political party with mass appeal whereas the more moderate new PNI focused on education and training. Hatta became the chairman of the new PNI in 1931. When Sukarno was released from prison later that year, he tried to bring about reconciliation between the new PNI and Partindo. When this effort failed he joined the Partindo party.
The Dutch colonial administration would not tolerate the development of a mass movement led by Partindo. Sukarno was arrested once again in 1933 and exiled to the island of Ende. Hatta was critical of Sukarno at this stage. He believed that Sukarno’s mass movement was untimely. Hatta emphasized a more moderate approach emphasizing disciplined noncooperation. The moderate approach was no more acceptable to the Dutch than the mass approach of Sukarno. With Sukarno and his Partindo out of the way the Dutch moved against the new PNI. Hatta was arrested along with other leaders of Partindo and imprisoned in Glodok.
When the Japanese occupied Indonesia in 1941 they transferred Hatta to Jakarta. Here he met up with Sukarno. The old animosities between the two were forgotten and the two together formed a tactical alliance with the Japanese to assist their war effort in return for a promise of independence. Sukarno, the consummate orator, infused a sense of nationhood in his people, trained them militarily and made them ready to fight the Dutch should they attempt to recolonize Indonesia. In November 1943, Hatta and Sukarno were honored by Emperor Hirohito of Japan for their cooperation with the Japanese.
The Japanese were at first lukewarm towards the independence of Indonesia. The islands were a rich source of men and materials, both essential for the war effort and sustaining the empire. After the battle of Midway (June 1942), the tide of the Pacific war turned in favor of the Allied powers. As the Japanese war crumbled and defeat seemed imminent, the Japanese hastily set up a Committee to prepare for the independence of Indonesia (BPUPKI).
On August 9, 1945, the Indonesian leaders Sukarno, Hatta and Radjiman were flown to Vietnam to meet with Japanese Air Marshall Terauchi. They were informed that Indonesia would be granted full independence on August 24. However, events overtook a planned, smooth transfer of power. The Americans dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 and followed up with another bomb on Nagasaki on August 9.
Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. The draft constitution of Indonesia was not yet ready. The news of Japan’s surrender had not reached the Indonesian masses. The political situation appeared confused and muddy. But the youth in Jakarta were impatient. There was the possibility that the Dutch would return in force after the cessation of hostilities. There was a historic sense of urgency. On the night of August 17, a group of nationalists met at the house of Sukarno, hoisted the national flag and declared the independence of Indonesia. The moment had come that Sukarno had dreamed of. The long servitude was over. The nightmare was dispelled, and the Indonesians cried out, “we are free at last”. Sukarno became the Father of the Nation and Hatta became a Proclamation Hero. Indonesia became a Republic.
The Dutch had no intention of relinquishing their colonies. For the European colonists, the war was a struggle to preserve their colonial empires for which the colonized people themselves were to shed their blood. On September 1, the Dutch governor for the , Van Mook requested the British commander in the Pacific, Mountbatten to occupy and hold the islands until Dutch forces arrive. On September 19, a contingent of British Indian troops landed in Jakarta and after fierce fighter occupied the city. Dutch prisoner of war, recently released from prison, formed the vanguard of Dutch troops and attacked Indonesian civilians. Facing the Dutch was the newly formed Republican army assembled from the cadets trained by the Japanese. The Republicans enjoyed broad mass support. For instance, early during the war the Nahdatul Ulama declared the independence struggle to be a national duty and proclaimed it a Jihad. The sultans of Yogya, Solo, Bone and the rajas of Bali declared their support for the Republic.
At the behest of the British, negotiations were held between Sukarno and the Dutch but they quickly broke down. On October 30 the British bombarded and occupied Surabaya. British led Indian troops arrived in November. Nehru strongly protested the use of Indian troops against the Indonesian Republic. As hostilities ensued, a large number of these troops defected to the Indonesian side. The unreliability of the Indian troops and the strong protests from the Indian nationalists was one reason the British withdrew from the islands. The Dutch took over from the British. At the beginning of 1946 there were as many as 20,000 Dutch troops on the island, a number that increased to more than 200,000 by July 1949. On July 4, 1946 the Philippines obtained its independence from the United States providing further impetus to the Indonesian struggle. In November 1946, by an agreement termed the Lingajatti agreement, the Dutch transferred Java, Sumatra and Madura to the Republic while setting up a Dutch ruled government in the eastern islands. This was totally unacceptable to the nationalists. The Dutch never implemented the Lingajatti agreement and in the summer of 1947 initiated hostilities against the republic and occupied Java and Madura and bombed the principal cities. A ceasefire was called and negotiations were held aboard the USS Renville under American auspices. The Renville agreement was favorable to the Dutch and recognized their control over forward positions occupied during their military thrust at the Republic. The major political parties in Indonesia rejected the agreement. Hostilities broke out again later that year and the Dutch made further advances. The United States which concerned that a prolonged colonial war may drive Indonesia into the Soviet orbit The US Senate passed a resolution to withhold funds allocated to the Netherlands under the Marshall Plan. The Dutch caved in under relentless diplomatic and economic pressure.
The war came to a negotiated end on December 27, 1949 and the Netherlands recognized the independence of Indonesia.
Sukarno was not only the father of Indonesian independence but was also the architect of political reconciliation between the Islamic, communist and secular modernist elements in Indonesia. Independence had been declared but there were competing visions for the future of Indonesia. The Islamic political parties pressed for an Islamic state with the Shariah as the basis for jurisprudence in the country. The communists were more concerned with the rights of the workers and the exploited peasants. The modernists sought a compromise between the secularism of the west and the religious leanings of the Islamic parties, focusing on development using western technology. Sukarno was a master compromiser. He was a democrat but a democrat with a difference. He felt that the one man vote democracy of the west would not be suitable for the vast and diverse population of Indonesia. Instead, he sought compromise and consensus between the various stakeholders including the Islamic ulema, the merchant community, the minority Christians, Chinese and Hindus, the army and the workers unions. He placated the religious elements by incorporating “belief in one God” in the constitution. He enlisted the support of the workers and peasants by emphasizing welfare programs for the poor and development programs for villages. His method of consensus building was dubbed “guided democracy”. Political parties were tolerated but without the paradigm of a national consensus.
Sukarno was equally innovative in foreign affairs. He realized that Indonesia, as a large but a newly emerging country, had a role to play in world affairs but not as part of a power bloc. The cold war took off just as Indonesia emerged from colonial domination. The principles on which he based his foreign policy were based on “Panch Sheela” (the five principles): (a) Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity (b) Non-aggression (c) Non-interference in each other’s affairs (d) Equality and mutual benefit, and (e) Peaceful co-existence. These principles were accepted as the basis of international relations by China, India, Egypt, Yugoslavia and a hosts of other countries. They formed the foundation of the so called “non-aligned movement” of which India’s Nehru, Egypt’s Nasser and Yugoslavia’s Tito were principal architects. Sukarno’s finest moment in foreign affairs came in 1955 when he played host to the non-aligned leaders at the Bandung conference. The non-aligned bloc played a significant part in the cold war preventing a total polarization of the world into two hostile blocs.
The communist party had its own checkered history in Indonesia and its involvement in the political process was not insignificant. The ruthless exploitation of the Indonesian peasants and workers by the Dutch spawned the communist movement on the islands. The peasants in Java worked as bonded labor, forced work long works in slimy conditions, subject to the whip or worse if they tried to escape, cowering before the merciless plantation owners and henchmen. The farmers were forced to cultivate cash crops at the expense of food and sell the cash crops to a Dutch monopoly. The Netherlands grew rich at the backs of the Indonesian peasants.
In 1912 Sarekat Islam as formed to protect the interests of the Muslim batik merchants. It was an all-inclusive organization that provided an umbrella for the nationalists, the socialists, the Islamists and the labor leaders. However, the tensions inherent in such a composite organization led to its gradual fragmentation. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 encouraged the labor movement in Indonesia and in 1920 the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was formed. Attempts to organize the peasants and the workers alarmed the Dutch who banned the party and expelled its leaders. In response, the communist movement went partially underground and local.
In 1925-26 some units of the communist party staged minor rebellions in Metan, Jakarta and Surabaya. These insurrections were crushed and the party was disbanded.
It was not until the Second World War that the party made a serious attempt to reorganize. The Germans invaded Russia in June 1941 and Stalin formed an alliance with Great Britain and France. The Netherlands was a part of this alliance. This placed the communist party of Indonesia in a quandary. They had to choose between supporting their colonial masters or the nationalists who were opposed to them. The choice was made even more difficult when Japan entered the war and occupied Indonesia in March 1942. Many Indonesians welcomed the Japanese as liberators and offered to cooperate with them in return for a promise of independence. The KPI chose the path of resistance to the Japanese occupation. It cooperated with the Dutch to wage a sporadic guerrilla war against Japanese forces. For instance, Sjarifuddin, one of the leaders of the independence movement, worked covertly with the Dutch against the popular will of the people, and provided intelligence and other help to the allies.
After the declaration of independence in August 1945, a leftist organization, Barisan Tani Indonesia, was organized to help the farmers. Later, the same year, Sjarifuddin and others formed the Patai Socialis. The communists were slowly coming into their own. However, their leadership, Sjarifuddin and others, were not popular with the Indonesian army officers who had Islamic sympathies. The communists did not succeed in forming a strong central structure. In September 48, local elements of the PKI attempts a coupe in Madiun. The rebellion was crushed by the Republican army. The communist leaders either fled or were executed. The decisiveness with which the Republicans crushed the communist uprising paid off its dividends. It reinforced the perception in Washington that the independence movement in Indonesia was anti-communist, not communist inspired as Dutch propaganda was trying to portray. Ultimately it was the strong jawboning from Washington that compelled the Dutch to give up their Indonesian colonies.
The communists tried one more time to organize. In the early 1960s they were one of the largest and best organized political organizations in the country with over a million members. However, the party was implicated in a coupe attempt in September 1965. This time, the party and its sympathizers were obliterated by the army led by Suharto. Over a million people perished in the bloody retributions. It was not clear if the communists had a hand in the events of 1965. Some political analysts suspect an American hand in the attempted coupe and its aftermath. However, the proof for foreign involvement in the events of 1965 is not as compelling as it is for instance in the overthrow of Musaddaq in Iran in 1953. The communist party never recovered from the debacle of 1965.
Indonesia prospered under Suharto but ultimately lost its economic independence to the IMF and the World Bank in the crash of 1995. We shall cover this part of the Indonesian story in another chapter.