Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How Indonesia Became a Republic

The fate of modern Indonesia was, like so many countries, decided during the Second World War. Prior to the conflict, Indonesia was a colony of the Kingdom of the Netherlands known as the Dutch East Indies. It had grown in importance under the Dutch Crown, first as a center of trade and later as a major oil producer after the Dutch discovered this vast natural resource and set up the necessary infrastructure to extract and export it around the world. As long as they did not threaten the colonial authorities, the Dutch mostly left the native principalities alone, allowing them to carry on in a cultural capacity and to deal with certain legal issues on a very local level. There had been some anti-colonial agitation, some of it nationalist, some of it Islamic in motivation, but the professional Dutch colonial army had little trouble dealing with it. To most observers the Dutch East Indies seemed like a model colony, as good as or better than most other European colonies around the world at the time. There was even a Volksraad or “People’s Council” made up of Indonesians which was established by the Dutch government in 1918 to provide local political representation. Even when World War II broke out in Europe and the Netherlands fell under German occupation, life in the Dutch East Indies went on much like before under the direction of Queen Wilhelmina and her government-in-exile in England. However, all of that changed in 1941.

President Roosevelt
In order to put pressure on the Empire of Japan, whose forces were engaged in conflict with the Republic of China, the United States placed an oil embargo (along with other vital resources and a freezing of all Japanese assets) on the island nation. Japan had purchased most of its oil from the United States but, so that alternative sources could not be obtained in the Dutch East Indies or Malaysia, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged Great Britain and the Netherlands to join in the embargo as well. Both countries were eager to stay in the good graces of the United States for the assistance the American government was already sending them in their fight against the Germans and in hope that America would join the fight and bring its massive industrial, economic and military strength against Germany, the Churchill government and the Dutch government-in-exile quickly agreed to join in the boycott of Japan. As the Empire of Japan was placed in the position of submitting to American demands for a total withdrawal from China or to fight and take the resources they needed by force, the Dutch East Indies became a target. With its vast natural resources and limited defenses, it was an inviting one. With the homeland under occupation, there would be little the Dutch government-in-exile could do to further defend the East Indies in the event of an attack.

The decision was made in Tokyo to fight and the course of East Asian history was changed forever when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. What followed was a land, sea and air version of “lightning war” done the Japanese way. The Philippines were attacked, the British colonies of Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore came under immediate attack as well. Operating from bases in French Indochina, the Japanese quickly brought Southeast Asia under their control. The Dutch East Indies also came under immediate attack. As an archipelago, everything depended on the naval battle. The land forces of the Dutch colonial army were tough and determined but without naval mastery they would be isolated and unable to coordinate or keep themselves supplied. Still, they fought the invaders as best they could while another battle waged in the waters surrounding them. The Dutch resisted admirably, their tiny flotilla of submarines actually doing considerable damage to the Japanese fleet but the main fleet engagement proved disastrous. The Allies, hastily assembled, failed to coordinate properly and were soundly defeated by the Imperial Japanese Navy using the classic tactics of Britain’s Admiral Nelson.

General Hitoshi Imamura
After the naval defeat, the total Japanese conquest and occupation of the Dutch East Indies became inevitable and the island chain quickly fell to Japanese control. However, the Japanese had no clear plan about what to do with Indonesia once they had taken it. At first, as in other countries, the Japanese sought out nationalist, anti-European leaders to seek their collaboration. Some of these nationalist forces fought on against the Japanese just as they had the Dutch but others collaborated such as Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta. However, this was a result of the local Japanese commander operating on his own authority rather than based on a clear policy from the government in Tokyo. Lieutenant General Hitoshi Imamura released Sukarno from prison and, while making no promises regarding Indonesian independence, said that the occupation would go better if the locals learned to speak Japanese. Sukarno went to work at this and began organizing pro-independence forces in cooperation with the Japanese. However, not all Japanese were impressed by the way Imamura was running things and sent complaints up the chain of command. The result was an investigation which showed that Imamura was keeping order with only a minimum force and so advised Prime Minister Tojo and the Chief of Staff to allow him to continue. His policies were allowed to continue and he was even given command of an army group in the hope that he could send assistance to the beleaguered defenders of Guadalcanal.

The fate of Indonesia, however, was certainly not something that had been decided at that point. When Japan hosted the leaders of The Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Manchuria and the pro-Japanese government of China at the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere conference Sukarno was noticeably absent as were any leaders from Indochina where Japan was allowing the French colonial regime (answerable to Vichy) to remain in charge. Kenryo Sato, chief of the Army Affairs Bureau, said this was because Prime Minister Tojo was reluctant to see Japan give up control of the vast resources of Indonesia, saying that the locals were not “quite ready to handle all that treasure”. This would not be surprising given how, particular in the war situation, Japan vitally needed those resources. Even without it, Sukarno was working in collaboration with the Japanese and there was no shortage of talk and speculation about what the future might hold in the event of a Japanese victory. One idea was to merge Malaysia (minus the border territories handed over to Thailand) with the East Indies to create a “Greater Indonesia”. Sukarno, of course, presumed he would be in authority over such an entity.

Indonesian Homeland Defense Volunteer Army
None of this boded well for the cause of monarchy in the East Indies. The Dutch had taken a casual attitude toward the local princes. Coming from a constitutional monarchy themselves, they had no problem with the local princes as long as they caused the Dutch no trouble and stayed out of politics above the most local level. Such a situation could have endured under the Japanese were it not for the person of Sukarno. He detested all things traditionally Indonesian and was a very anti-capitalist, pro-egalitarian socialist. Although he was perfectly willing to make use of religion as a tool against the Dutch (just as he was willing to make use of the Japanese if it could aid his cause) he was himself no devout Muslim but an ardent secularist. He despised the native monarchies of Indonesia, blaming them and what he termed as “feudalism” for allowing Dutch colonial rule to ever take hold in the first place. Any future for Indonesia with him in charge was a future that would have no place for the traditional monarchies of the region.

Sukarno established a militia force allied with Japan and helped organize a huge force of Indonesian laborers to build, to clear land and to gather resources for the Japanese war effort. Not everyone in the Japanese leadership trusted him but he seemed the only option to work with and none could complain about how the occupation was going. As the war dragged on and the situation became increasingly worse for Japan, there was also more talk about independence to keep Indonesia on side. By the end of 1944 Japanese Prime Minister Kuniaki Koiso promised Sukarno that independence would come but would not set a definite timeline. The Japanese military authorities began to allow the establishment of an Indonesian government, under Sukarno, but Sukarno himself was not given the green light to declare independence until the summer of 1945. He was actually brought to Tokyo, heaped with praise and honors and told he had the full blessing of Japan to establish an independent Indonesia but this was not until after the first atomic bomb had been dropped and negotiations for surrender were under way. Of course, Sukarno was not told about this at the time and did not learn about it until after he returned to Indonesia and was informed by some of his followers who heard about it from an Allied broadcast on a hidden radio.

Sukarno declaring independence
Sukarno was, given this, rather reluctant to declare independence for feat of how the Allies would react given that they had just won the war. In fact, he had to be practically forced to make the declaration. However, his reluctance was rather pathetic as he had already collaborated as closely as anyone could, even more than some leaders whose countries actually were given their independence by Japan, and so he should have been just as “tainted” as other leaders like the Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, in fact even more so since the Vietnamese Emperor collaborated with the Japanese for only a few months in 1945 between the time that the Japanese removed the French administration and their final surrender. In any event, Sukarno did declare independence and no one at the time paid any attention other than the Japanese authorities. The Dutch actually requested that the Imperial Japanese Army stay in place in Indonesia rather than be surrendered and repatriated to Japan until their own colonial forces could return. The British did something similar in southern Vietnam which is the only reason South Vietnam remained free of communist control post-war. Unfortunately, unlike in Vietnam, the Japanese refused to cooperate and a few thousand even stayed in Indonesia to fight for independence under Sukarno. Of course, the fact that he would have spent the war in prison rather than rising to a position of national leadership thanks to the Japanese, and in spite of the fact that they basically trained the hard core of the army he would lead against the Dutch in the war for independence, Sukarno still had the audacity to demand (and receive) more than a billion dollars in compensation from Japan for all that Indonesia had suffered under their occupation -an occupation he fully endorsed and collaborated with.

However, as it turned out, Sukarno did not need to be too worried about how his collaboration would look to the Allied powers because, ultimately, the only Allied power whose approval mattered was the United States but we will come to that in a moment. The Netherlands certainly did not recognize his declaration of independence and were soon returning to reestablish control of Indonesia. Many Dutch people and certainly Queen Wilhelmina herself, were full of righteous indignation over the whole affair. They viewed the entire invasion, at a time when the homeland was occupied and in a fight for its survival, as a stab in the back and had not forgotten the extreme misery suffered by the Dutch people who had been living in Indonesia with many suffering horrifically at the hands of Sukarno’s followers who took sadistic glee in tormenting their former rulers when the Dutch were helpless and the Indonesians were backed up by the Imperial Japanese Army. For Queen Wilhelmina, there was no debate on the subject; the Dutch Crown would be restored but even after all that had happened, she was willing to grant full self-government to a proposed “United States of Indonesia”. When Sukarno and his party rejected this, the Dutch Queen determined to go to war and deal with the nationalists as both rebels and collaborators.

Queen Wilhelmina
This would not, in most cases, have included the Indonesian principalities. Their suffering came entirely at the hands of Sukarno who was as anti-monarchy as one could be and he made no secret of that with the basis of his government being a sort of pan-Indonesian nationalism, democracy (under his control of course) and Marxist style socialism. When he gained power and where and when he had the ability he carried out a horrific sort of “cultural revolution” all his own. He called this a campaign for “social justice” but it was simply the sort of repression seen in leftist revolutions all over the world with the traditional elites and princes being persecuted or killed off. When the Dutch launched a military campaign to regain control of Indonesia, some of the local princes tried to stay out of it while others tried to join the revolution and so most ended up being punished by one side or the other and some by both. The princely states were wiped out in the course of the conflict or in the immediate aftermath in the usual round of “land reforms” which meant the confiscation of royal estates and princes and aristocrats being punished in show-trials meant to display the egalitarianism of the Sukarno regime.

It must be said, in all fairness, that to an extent the native monarchies made their cause an almost hopeless one because of their lack of unity. There were a large number of them, many had conflicting territorial claims and a great many had disputed successions. In fact, many had succession disputes that went back hundreds of years and which are still around today. Even during World War II and the revolution there were some that were still carrying on private little wars of their own against royal rivals to reclaim a certain state or overthrow some other branch of the royal family in question. Often, third parties, whether the Japanese, Dutch or native republicans, found it all a disorienting mess that it was better to just ignore or sweep away. Sukarno largely swept them away, though some who supported him sufficiently were allowed to survive and eventually some of the princely states were recognized by the Indonesian government in less oppressive times. That the country overall would be a republic was a forgone conclusion, at least so long as Sukarno won his war for independence against the Dutch.

Queen Juliana
What was extremely frustrating to at least some people in the Netherlands, and certainly to Queen Wilhelmina, was that the Dutch practically won the war. Full of understandable anger over all that had happened to the Dutch in Indonesia, they fought the war with zeal and tenacity. In virtually every major engagement the Dutch military forces were victorious, almost every operation was successful and even Sukarno himself was, at one point, taken prisoner by the Dutch. The communists even came out to try to take advantage of the chaos and seize power but they were defeated as well. Unfortunately, at this point of victory, the Netherlands was undercut by its former wartime ally; the United States. The Truman administration basically ordered the Netherlands to give up their victory and threatened to cut off Marshall Aid to the war torn country if the Dutch did not desist in all military operations in Indonesia. This, combined with growing complaints at home by the wealthy elites who opposed the war, forced the Dutch to give in. Queen Wilhelmina, exhausted and embittered, abdicated in favor of her daughter Queen Juliana. The new Queen recognized the independence of the Indonesian Republic the following year. It was an economic disaster for the Netherlands and a social one as well as the entire Dutch population of the archipelago (as well as many Indonesians) were deported back to the Netherlands, many of whom had never even visited the country.

Some of the Dutch and pro-Dutch forces tried to hold on in Eastern New Guinea, declaring it a separate colony as Netherlands New Guinea but the Sukarno regime claimed the territory of course and sent in military forces to seize it. These were defeated by Dutch troops and supportive natives. However, once again, a liberal American administration came to the rescue when President Kennedy (a long-time admirer of Sukarno) sent his brother Robert to the Netherlands to brow-beat the Dutch into abandoning West New Guinea, which took shape after an agreement signed in 1962. In the aftermath, Sukarno became even more vociferous in his anti-western rhetoric, first opposing the British in Malaysia, drawing closer to Communist China and the Soviet Union and then finally becoming more openly anti-American. He even withdrew from the UN for a time when America supported Malaysia taking a seat on the Security Council. About the only monarchy the Republic of Indonesia has remained on consistently good terms with has been Japan. Indonesia has been largest recipient of Japanese investment and charity and has been largely economically dependent on Japan ever since independence.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the aftermath of a failed coup that still managed to see Sukarno removed from power with America backing his successor Suharto who led the country until 1998. Some local monarchies still exist in a ceremonial capacity with their status recognized by the government (though they have no official position) while others have been swept away. Despite being virtually irrelevant in an overall republican system, plenty of the old titles are still being fought over by feuding claimants. Indonesia itself, despite its vast wealth in resources, has remained far from prosperous, peaceful or stable with various minor factions, some driven by political ideology, others by religion, continuing to cause trouble. What would seem to be most in order for the cause of monarchy in Indonesia would be some recognized judicial body to sort out royal claims and a greater political unity amongst the various princely families. Some such organizations already exist but they need to be mobilized for political action. This could then push for a conversion from republicanism to monarchy on a national scale with Malaysia providing an example for a sort of federal system that could work in Indonesia.


  1. Happy 5th November, MM. A monarchist's holiday if ever there was one.

    I trust that neither you nor your American readership will take offence when I say that the United States has a lot to answer for. America's willingness to prop up any tinpot dictator who talks the right kind of talk whilst balking at the idea of any crowned head of state is almost humorous. Emperor Bao Dai? Untouchable. Pol Pot? Is he a communist? Well, yes, but he's against the Soviets so we can trust him! Never mind the genocide. And of course a Left-wing dictator who collaborated with our enemies in the Second World War would be a better friend than the Queen of one of our allies in said war, because, you know, he calls himself "President" and not "King."

    1. The sell-out of the Dutch was positively dastardly and it's no wonder most Americans have no idea it happened because it's absolutely shameful. That probably won't change though because Truman is so admired by Democrats and of course the Kennedy's got involved and JFK has been deified, especially in liberal circles. With Cambodia, that's a more complicated issue. America certainly has some culpability there but it's not so clear-cut as in Indonesia. The US certainly opposed him during the war but inadvertently helped him out by supplanting the King with Lon-Nol, though King Sihanouk was playing a dangerous came himself. Though, as with most of these problems in the region, one could make a pretty good argument that if not for the war with Japan, none of this stuff would have happened or at least not in the way it did.

    2. And don't forget Laos. Under neutrality act, if memory serves, US "must" stop any kind of plot to restore Laotian Monarchy which being plotted on US's soil.

    3. That's not quite true. The neutrality act prohibits activities to take down any foreign govt the US recognizes, monarchy has nothing to do with it and most countries have such laws. Of course, it does prevent the filibuster invasions of Latin American countries by private armies that was once the great American past-time (or the Fenian invasions of Canada). There are also ways around it.

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    1. Never heard such a thing about Sukarno. Suharto was often called the "Javanese King" (presumably by opponents) because of his 'style' of leadership.

      I suppose it is just ignorance that causes so many people to view Indonesia as stable and peaceful when, as you point out, it has been far from that. In spite of all their mineral wealth, most seem to prefer living elsewhere.


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