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Review: Recounting the revolution

Published: Dec 12, 2016

Two recently republished memoirs illustrate the divergence of experiences during the Indonesian Revolution

Kevin W Fogg

The Indonesian Revolution for independence, fought between August 1945 and December 1949, remains the most heralded moment in the country’s history. Very rarely, though, does Indonesian society recognise or concede the vast divergence in experiences of the Revolution. Separated by geography, experience under the Japanese occupation, social class, ethnicity, gender and even religion, Indonesians  could have wildly different – although equally legitimate – experiences of those crucial four and a half years.

The extreme breadth of experiences fighting for the Indonesian Republic is on display in two memoirs re-published in the past year. Although both authors were fully committed and deeply involved in the drive for Indonesia’s independence, they give entirely different versions of the key actors in that process and the key struggles along the way.

Suhario ‘Kecik’ Padmodiwiryo’s memoir, Revolution in the City of Heroes, was published in Indonesian in the 1990s and here translated and expanded by Australian journalist and academic Frank Palmos. It is a classically nationalist, grassroots account of the early Revolution in Surabaya. Suhario paints a picture of the Indonesian struggle from the ground up, narrating the post-by-post, almost street-by-street fighting that raged in Indonesia’s second-city for the four months following the proclamation of independence in 1945. These events are crucial to national consciousness today, immortalised in the commemorations of 10 November every year as National Heroes’ Day, for the contribution local fighters made to defending the city. Suhario paints the battle in all its gore, and is even surprisingly frank about some of the Indonesian excesses he witnessed. Most of the book, though, is building up to that moment: the nationalist fervor among youth, the creation of fighting units, the confiscation of Japanese weapons, the initial crushing defeat of British landing parties in October. This English translation of the memoir ends in 1945, although the original Indonesian version went on to recount Suhario’s longer career in the military.

On the other side

John Coast was a former British POW under the Japanese in Thailand, who became enamored with the Indonesian cause and committed himself to the country’s service in 1947 while largely living outside its borders. His account of the Revolution, originally published in the 1950s and here reissued with Laura Noszlopy as editor and with an introduction by Adrian Vickers, provides a more high-flying view of the struggle. It gives an account of government meetings, and elite plans to achieve independence through fierce negotiations and international pressure when military victory fell beyond reach. Coast’s book is ‘high-flying’ not least because he played a crucial role organising airplanes from Thailand to become blockade-runners down to Bukittinggi and Yogyakarta, the key government cities on Sumatra and Java, respectively, during the Revolution. He also circulated through several nascent Indonesian embassies or representative offices, met with foreign governments (especially the British) to promote the Indonesian cause, supported the Indonesian Ministry of Information in its propaganda, and directly observed the Round Table Conference where Indonesia negotiated the transfer of sovereignty. Incidentally, the significant amount of time he spent closely observing and sometimes involved in Thai post-war politics will make this book of casual interest for experts on that country, too.

Both accounts are very personal and risk overstating the author’s role in major events. This is no surprise in the genre of memoir. They are also rather exciting, heavy on adventure and light on politics. This may be the closest that historical sources will get to page-turning, summer beach reading, and they could be easily appreciated by non-experts. On the other hand, they are also quite clearly products of the times and places in which they were written. Both range from deep skepticism about the Left, to staunch anti-Communism, reflecting Britain in the 1950s and Indonesia in the 1990s. Suhario’s account also risks feeding the triumphalist, military-dominated, Java-centric narratives of the Revolution promoted during Suharto’s New Order. Indeed, his repeated assertions that Surabaya was the last free city in the Republic in early November 1945, seem especially strange considering several areas in Sumatra, including the city of Kota Radja (now Banda Aceh), were never reconquered by the Dutch even by the end of the Revolution.

The approach taken to publishing these works anew also differed markedly. Noszlopy, in preparing Coast’s memoir, left the text as it was, with a smattering of explanatory footnotes and four interesting but brief appendices including documents pulled from Dutch and British archives connected with Coast’s work for the Indonesians. This provides greater context for Coast’s story, but does not change it. Palmos, on the other hand, has actively worked to augment Suhario’s original text. In fact, Suhario’s memoir was already based not only upon his own recollections but also on memories solicited from friends and brothers-in-arms in the 1960s and 1970s. These were all folded into the original memoir to fill out events he did not witness directly. Palmos has, according to his introduction, gone a step further, incorporating further recollections from Suhario as shared in interviews or by email. He also included contributions from another leading Indonesian source, Ruslan Abdulgani, who was active in Surabaya politics at the same time. This was clearly intended to provide a fuller picture for those reading out of pure interest, but for historians it creates a tricky situation where one cannot know exactly where particular anecdotes and opinions originate.

Read together, these memoirs speak to the breadth of the Revolution – something far too often forgotten. They both, though, repeatedly emphasise the strong will of the Indonesian people to end foreign oppression and take control of their own country. When searching for the ‘real’ revolutionary experience, one should be willing to look for any and all who shared and joined the struggle.

Suhario Padmodiwiryo, Revolution in the City of Heroes: A Memoir of the Battle that Sparked Indonesia's National Revolution, trans. Frank Palmos, Singapore, Ridge Books, 2016

John Coast, Recruit to Revolution: Adventure and Politics During the Indonesian Struggle for Independence, ed. Laura Noszlopy with an introduction by Adrian Vickers, Copenhagen, NIAS Press, 2015

Kevin W Fogg (, is the Albukhary Foundation Fellow in the History of Islam in Southeast Asia at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, William Golding Junior Fellow at Brasenose College, and the Islamic Centre Lecturer in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford.


Inside Indonesia 126: Oct-Dec 2016{jcomments on}

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