Race, Genocide, and Memory: Indonesia in the 1940s

Race, Genocide, and Memory: Indonesia in the 1940s, by Philip Jenkins. The Dutch East Indies, later the nation of Indonesia, had been dominated by the Dutch since the 1600s.

When the Japanese invaded in 1941, they interned Dutch civilians and coerced European women into prostitution. They also targeted mixed-race Eurasians, the Indos. Far from ending with the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Dutch agony actually grew still worse as much of the country fell under the sway of radical nationalists. Besides a reasonably organized nationalist government and army, there were also legions of irregulars and youth militias, called the Pemuda. Meanwhile, other military forces were in play. The Dutch attempted to restore their rule, fighting a savage colonial war that lasted until 1949. Into this cauldron then came the dominant regional power, namely the British Empire, which wanted to supervise a peaceful transition from Japanese occupation.

From mid-1945, as Dutch and Indo civilians began to be released from the prison camps, they faced brutal persecution — massacres, rapes, torture, and mutilations at the hands of Pemuda groups. Militias organized under the dreaded slogan Siap! (Get ready!), which became a signal for slaughter regardless of the age or sex of the victims. This was explicitly a race war, directed against whites and Indos, as well as other groups the rebels regarded as supportive of Dutch authority—the Ambonese, native Christians, and also the Chinese. In the worst of the Bersiap pogroms, in late 1945, at least 30,000 people were murdered. Other Bersiap outbreaks would recur later in the decade, but 1945 was by far the bloodiest period. …

In November 1945, the British and their allies fought an apocalyptic battle against the rebels in the city of Surabaya. … Although the British conquered the city, they had no desire to restore Dutch colonial rule, which duly ended in 1949. Indonesia was born.

So how are these events remembered today? For Indonesians, the revolution of the 1940’s remains an heroic time, and the battle of Surabaya is especially treasured and idealized. Sutomo, the thoroughly evil terrorist leader, is a national hero. The Dutch government, meanwhile, has painful memories of its army’s role in the guerrilla war, and it has apologized for massacres undertaken against nationalist villages, paying compensation to survivors.

But what about the Bersiap, and its victims? For many years, they remained forgotten outside the families affected, and as the story was never told in the English-speaking world, it made no impact in film or fiction. Postcolonial guilt made the Dutch themselves fearful of being accused of racist and imperialist arrogance. How could anyone criticize the righteous anger of an oppressed colonial people rising in arms? Far better just to forget the whole affair.