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Review: Refugees and Rebels

Review: Refugees and Rebels
Published: Dec 07, 2008

Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia

By Jan Lingard

Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008, 312pp.,
ISBN 978 1 74097 163 8

Between 1942 and 1947, 5000 Indonesians lived in hostels, prison and labour camps, in major cities and country towns, along Australia’s eastern seaboard. Most were merchant seamen from Dutch ships and men serving in the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. Their wartime work ferrying supplies to Allied Pacific forces, conducting reconnaissance missions into Japanese-occupied territory and as militarised labourers in strategic industries, made important contributions to Australia’s national defence. In June 1943 political internees from Boven Digul prison camp in West New Guinea, with their wives and children, were brought by Dutch forces into Australia ahead of advancing Japanese troops to prevent their aiding the enemy invader. Experienced political activists, the Digulists injected a political dimension into their compatriots’ complaints against their working conditions in Australia (wages half that of white workers, for example). They fostered among Indonesians who found themselves in wartime Australia a conviction that the Netherlands Indies had ceased to exist and a commitment to a future self-governing Indonesia.

Refugees and Rebels chronicles the history of those years in three dimensions. First, there is a detailed account of the Indonesians, their daily life, their social encounters with Australians of city and country towns, their clubs and cultural performances, their births and, most poignant, their deaths. Second, there is the history of the Indonesians’ relations with Australian and Dutch officials, civilian and military, and third, an analysis of the Australian government’s “Indonesia problem”. This is micro-history. Jan Lingard has been indefatigable over a decade in pursuing every possible source. She interviews women who, as teenaged girls, met Indonesians in the country town of Casino. She reads The Bundaberg Daily News for 1945 to gauge local opinion on clashes between Indonesians and Dutch army personnel at the Bundaberg aerodrome, and she examines how the major newspapers in state capitals reported on Indonesians. She tracks down Australians who were founding members of the Melbourne and Sydney branches of the Australia-Indonesia Association in 1945 and 1946. She travels to Indonesia to talk with former Cowra prisoner-of-war camp internees about their experiences in Australia, and she finds war brides long since divorced.

Lingard mines Australia’s National Archives to chart government policies and decisions. Government faced a dilemma. Under the terms of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, the 5000 Indonesians were illegal immigrants, but none could be deported as the Netherlands Indies was under enemy rule. Moreover, Australia could not disoblige the Dutch: they were allies in war and their Indies government had official representation in Australia. Yet it was unprecedented for a sovereign state to allow officers of another country to exercise military control over foreigners they had brought (without permission) into Australia, including the right to court martial workers striking over employment conditions. And it was unprecedented that the Australian government should accede to demands to imprison foreign nationals for unspecified political acts a decade and more ago in the Indies. In particular, Australian civilian and military officers were troubled by imprisoning women and children whose only “crime” was that of family relationship to men who had fallen foul of the Dutch. From the Dutch standpoint, Indonesians who protested against half pay and pay withheld were mutineers and the Digul internees were criminals and communists.

Lingard charts the Indonesian role in all of this. Far from being passive victims, their leaders constantly advocated their causes – right to release from Dutch control, right to equal pay, right to refuse to recognise Dutch political authority. They garnered Australian sympathisers among communist, union and church groups. As soon as news of Sukarno’s declaration of independence reached Australia, Indonesians formed Indonesia Independence Committees in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Lingard documents a gradual shift in government policy from concessions to the Dutch, to covert and finally overt support for the Indonesians and their right to self-rule. Concretely, the change in sentiment was expressed through championing the Indonesian cause through the United Nations.

In this policy change Australia’s government was not reflective of Australian public opinion. Indonesia’s fate was of no concern to 42 per cent of Australians, according to a national opinion poll conducted in February 1949. Twenty-three per cent supported continuing Dutch rule over the archipelago, 11 per cent favoured power sharing between Dutch and Indonesians; only 19 per cent supported Indonesians’ right to self-determination. Indeed, this book is a barometer of Australian social and political life. Lingard chronicles the isolation of pre-war Australia, the virtual absence of contact before 1942, the curiosity of some towards the “dusky”, “child-like” Indonesians, the lack of knowledge about Indonesia from the person in the street to government and security circles. Lingard quotes the casual racism of newspaper reporting and cartoons. The great milestones in this history are Australian: government insistence on repatriating Indonesians only to Republican-controlled territory in 1946 and 1947 against strong opposition from the South East Asia Command and the Dutch; and its decision to support Indonesian independence, taken without reference to Great Britain. This, says Lingard, was the beginning of Australia’s engagement with Asia.

Mini biographies intersperse Lingard’s narrative. R.M. Roeslan, a Javanese trainee pilot; Moh Hadrie, a seaman; James Baillie, a sergeant guarding the surgical theatre block of Prisoner of War Camp Number 12 in Cowra; Siti Chamsinah, a child internee; Phyllis Johnson, a Communist Party of Australia activist who walked the wharves shouting “Indonesia Calling!”; and Sheila Soegito (née Fitzgerald) are some of those who reflect on this past. Their voices form a counterpoint to the views of Australian and Dutch officials in reports and correspondence. The many photographs culled from contemporary magazines and newspapers, from library and personal collections make this the history of ordinary people. We see Indonesian kindergartners at a Melbourne Methodist church in 1942, ludruk performers from 1943, Jean Wachjo on her wedding day in 1944, Jim Lumanauw, spokesman for repatriating Indonesians in 1945, and the Indonesian prisoners’ compound ringed in barbed wire in Casino in 1946. What strikes me forcibly from this record is the high level of literacy and legal skills of the Digulists, their ready and competent recourse to advocacy, their astute forging of connections, their petitions to Australia’s government, the International Red Cross, and the UN, as well as to local bodies to understand their complaints and the justice of their cause. Also striking is the record of long-persisting and deep-seated Australian apprehension of Indonesia and Indonesians as evidenced by the national polls from the 1940s that Lingard cites to the Lowy Institute Poll of 2006 which found 50 per cent of respondents considered Indonesia a military threat.

Refugees and Rebels shows what micro-history can produce. Jan Lingard writes that, one-on-one, Australians and Indonesians are good at getting along with each other. This book is the labour of one fully engaged in Australian-Indonesian relationships personally and professionally over many decades. It is evidence of Lingard’s conviction and a meticulously documented contribution to a little known aspect of relations between the two countries in the crucial years leading up to Indonesia’s birth.     ii

Reviewed by Jean Gelman Taylor ( who teaches history at the University of New South Wales

Inside Indonesia 94: Oct-Dec 2008

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