May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Moluccan separatism

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Richard Chauvel has written what must be the definitive study of the colonial history of Ambon.

Ron Witton

Richard Chauvel, Nationalists, soldiers and separatists: The Ambonese Islands from colonialism to revolt, 1880-1950, Leiden: KITLV Press, 1990. 432pp. Rrp: AU$45.95.

Richard Chauvel has written what must be the definitive study of the colonial history of Ambon. The book concludes with the event that concluded that period, the ill-fated and short-lived 1950 separatist movement known as the Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS) or the Republic of the South Moluccas. He begins his final chapter by stating: 'The RMS and its suppression was a tragedy for Ambonese society. It was the worst possible way in which Ambon could have become part of independent Indonesia' (p.393).

A study such as this reminds us how much of Indonesia's regional history still needs to be researched, analysed and understood if the totality of the nation's history is to be approached.

Ambon, the present capital of the province of the Moluccas Islands, or Maluku to give them their Indonesian name, is of particular interest to Australia for several reasons. Australian soldiers fought valiantly there before being overwhelmed by the Japanese who took Ambon in January 1942. More recently, as part of eastern Indonesia, it is a region of Indonesia in which Australia is playing an increasing role as aid provider, investor and neighbour. The annual Darwin-Ambon sailing race appropriately symbolises the growing links between Australia's 'Top End' and Indonesia's 'Bagian Timur'.

So what is Chauvel's story? It is the tale of European contact with, and transformation of, this 'homeland' of the fabled Spice Islands. Nearly five hundred years ago these islands attracted Spanish and Portuguese explorers and traders to the 'Far East'. They made fabulous profits from selling cloves and other spices to Europe, where the better-off desperately needed such commodities to mask the taste of meat which, prior to refrigeration, was often less than fresh. Hence we already find St. Francis Xavier there in 1546. A desperate race followed between Islam and Christianity for the souls and wealth of the region. This competition saw the communities of Maluku split early on between these two great world religions, a split that has haunted Maluku society ever since. The local raja became compromised by their close association with the Dutch rulers, having turned to Christianity to safeguard their feudal position. From now on Christian Ambonese became an important element of the Dutch civil service and of the Dutch colonial military throughout the archipelago.

Against this background Chauvel meticulously examines the rise of the nationalist movement earlier this century, particularly among Muslims in the region who had been effectively excluded from the benefits of colonial society. The sudden and complete collapse of the Dutch before the Japanese onslaught in World War II laid the basis for a complete transformation of Ambonese society.

By the time the Japanese had been defeated, there were sufficient nationalists throughout Indonesia, including Maluku, to rise and oppose the Dutch-sponsored Republic of the United States of Indonesia (RUSI), which was created to counter the threat posed by the nationalist Republic of Indonesia to a continued Dutch presence.

How southern Maluku, and particular Ambon, was hastened into declaring its independence from the Republic of Indonesia when the puppet state of RUSI collapsed, makes very sad reading indeed. The many Dutch-educated and 'loyalist' Moluccan soldiers and civil servants, who had devoted their lives to running the former Dutch East Indies, could see no future in a Republic dominated by what they perceived as a Muslim majority hostile to them and to their former role as colonial servants. Their administrative and military skills, and their large numbers, could only have been effectively put to use if they had been absorbed into the sprawling and newly independent Republic. There was no real future for them in the small society of Maluku, whether independent or not. Moreover, this poor backwater had become dependent on the wages they had regularly remitted to their families and villages.

With the suppression of the RMS, many thousands of these Christian Ambonese were repatriated to Holland where, ever since, they have remained in a barrack-like society on the fringes of Dutch society, dreaming of an eventual return to their homeland which they had hoped one day to 'liberate'. Encouraged by the Dutch for many years as a weapon against Indonesia, particularly for the many years during which Indonesia and Holland fought over the sovereignty of Irian Jaya, they have now been completely abandoned by the Dutch as Holland and Indonesia seek to forge a close partnership in the modern world. The last time they gained world attention was in the mid- seventies, when in desperation they hijacked a Dutch train and held the passengers at gunpoint to publicise their plight.

The story of Ambon and Maluku is one that shows in microcosm the exploitation and social divisions that resulted from colonialism. It also shows the way such historical processes can impinge on a society long after independence.     ii

Dr Ron Witton is a sessional lecturer in Indonesian at the University of Western Sydney and the University of Wollongong.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

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