Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Revolusi revisited

Published: Feb 11, 2023

Yatun Sastramidjaja

Indonesia’s National Revolution (17 August 1945 – 27 December 1949) was made up of a series of complex and chaotic events that it is impossible to capture in a single narrative. Yet, for almost eight decades, the historical record of Indonesia’s struggle for independence has been dominated by two standardised narratives: an Indonesian version and a Dutch version, serving the interests of the respective nation-states. Neither left much room for the myriad of stories reflecting the experiences and actions of people who lived through messy situations on the ground. As these stories faded from official history nonetheless they escaped historical erasure, surviving in art works, in family heirlooms and mundane objects stored in attics, and in personal anecdotes told by grandparents and parents to their children. Those stories constitute the fibres of revolution as living history. Yet they never made the history textbooks or national museum displays.

This changed when Dutch curators of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam collaborated with two guest curators from Indonesia, historian Bonnie Triyana and art historian Amir Sidharta, to create a groundbreaking exhibition at the Netherlands’ most important national museum. The exhibition, which ran from 11 February to 6 June 2022, was titled Revolusi! Indonesië Onafhankelijk (Revolution! Indonesia Independent). The mixed use of Indonesian and Dutch languages in the title, and the collaboration between Indonesian and Dutch curators, indicates that the exhibition sought to bring together the hitherto separated stories of Indonesian and Dutch experiences of the revolution. The aim was to offer new perspectives on the Revolution by foregrounding the personal stories of people in different positions. As the blurb for the accompanying book states, ‘Revolusi! presents a range of personal and collective experiences, told from multiple points of view: from Indonesian and Dutch perspectives as well as those of the groups and individuals in between, with an eye towards the international power arena.’

However, from the start to its closing, controversy surrounded the exhibition. First, an opinion piece by Bonnie Triyana, published on 10 January 2022 in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, caused a public stir as he argued for removal of the ‘racist’ term Bersiap from the exhibition. Bersiap was the name given by the Dutch to a period of violence (August 1945 – December 1946) during Indonesia’s Revolution. Until this day, it is typically the only period and aspect of the Revolution highlighted in Dutch history textbooks. Dutch right-wing politicians fiercely denounced Triyana’s ‘Bersiap denial’ and the Federation of Indo-Dutch (Federatie Indische Nederlanders) reported Triyana to the police. While the Dutch public prosecutors did not pursue the charges, the Rijksmuseum quickly distanced itself from the controversy, stating that Triyana had expressed his personal opinion in the article.

The controversy was a stark reminder of the persistent sensitivities around this shared but separated history of colonialism and decolonisation. Bridging Dutch and Indonesian perspectives on Indonesia’s Revolution proved to be a complex and painful affair, and one bridge too far for the Rijksmuseum once it met with reproach from a small group of citizens and politicians. Moreover, the Rijksmuseum came unprepared for the criticism and protest coming from minority and marginalised groups among the Indonesian diaspora in the Netherlands. This included people of Papuan descent and others who felt the exhibition failed to acknowledge their histories and the impact of Revolusi on contemporary lives and social and political conditions, both in Indonesia and the Netherlands.

In the end, the exhibition did not stray that far from the established grand narratives of the Revolution, either the Dutch or the Indonesian versions. While breaking new ground by accentuating personal stories from multiple perspectives, it did not fundamentally challenge the nationalist framework for understanding history on either side. As culture historian Caroline Drieënhuizen wrote, this is partly due to the minimal historical context it provided to the objects and stories on display, which resulted in ‘a rather uniform representation of the position of the Indonesian population in the war.’

Given its objective of multivocality, the exhibition was one first institutional step towards unlocking a diversity of historical experiences around the Revolution in a museal setting. Yet, as the museum’s wavering response to the uproar around Triyana’s article indicates, the bastions of historical representation still have a long way to go in recognising the decolonial implications of this objective; this includes a responsibility to confront the power relations enshrined and perpetuated in grand narratives. Still, a diversity of experiences were visible in the closing section of the exhibition in a series of film portraits called Afterlives of Revolution, created by the independent art and research collective Beyond Walls. Featuring the personal stories of ‘descendants of the Revolution’ from various groups in Indonesia and the Netherlands, these portraits invite us to rethink the meaning of contested history by illustrating the multiple legacies of the Revolution in the present, where the personal and political meanings of this messy history intersect.

One year after the opening of the exhibition, this edition of Inside Indonesia revisits the exhibition itself and the discussions it triggered. Contributors include people who were involved in the making of the exhibition and observers who highlight different aspects of the Revolution and its aftermath, which the exhibition did not cover.

In her review of the exhibition, Kate McGregor notes how it perpetuates established biases and imbalances in Dutch and Indonesian representations of the Revolution, notably with regard to gender and violence. This is despite the fact that the exhibition sought to give more attention to the role of women in the Revolution – indeed, the exhibition poster and book cover picture three Indonesian nationalist women – and to give a ‘more balanced’ view of the perpetrators and victims of violence. ‘More’ balance, however, is not necessarily enough to break institutional imbalances in historical representation. In her article adapted from an opinion piece published in NRC Handelsblad on 18 January 2022, Yvette Kopijn points to the missed opportunity to break the institutional silence imposed on all those groups affected by the Revolution that could not be categorised as either Indonesian or Dutch. Reconstructing the controversy around Triyana’s article and the Rijksmuseum’s response, Kopijn shows that much more work needs to be done to decolonise the narrative.

Decolonising the narrative is certainly a key concern of the collective Beyond Walls. In their article, they describe the process of producing the film portrait series Afterlives of Revolution and their underlying motivations for highlighting personal stories of the Revolution’s aftermath. They point to the tension between personal and national identity when family and community histories are erased in nationalist narratives. In a decolonial project, then, the personal becomes deeply political, demanding recognition of neglected, marginalised and oppressed histories that do not fit or challenge the Dutch and Indonesian grand narratives.

One of the personal stories featured in Afterlives of the Revolution is that of Ibu Martha Anthony-Akihary, who recounts the story and her memories of her father, Petrus Akihary, a Moluccan sergeant major instructor in the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL). In his article, Huib Akihary – who is Petrus Akihary’s grandson and Ibu Martha’s nephew – offers an intimate account of what the Revolution meant for his grandfather and his family. He also recounts how he had to persuade his aunt to loan her father’s belongings to the Rijksmuseum, illustrating that the historical objects on display in the exhibition have profound personal meaning to the families they belong to. For the descendants of the Revolution, protectiveness towards those objects might reflect a desire to keep control of stories and histories that are otherwise lost and unrecognised in the grander scheme of history. They are material testimonies of people’s lived histories that otherwise remain without voice.

Lea Pamungkas, in her article on ‘the generation that breaks the silence,’ highlights the process of reclaiming voice by all those groups, in the Netherlands and in Indonesia, who were most afflicted by the silencing of their experiences in the aftermath of colonialism and Indonesian independence. Having lived through the trauma and stigma embodied in their parents’ generation, the ‘third generation’ is now speaking up and taking a stance against historical marginalisation, racism and oppression. Beyond recognition of silenced histories, they demand social and political justice based on historical truth.

Evidently, ‘historical truth’ necessitates expanded historical knowledge, and here it becomes clear that historians of the Revolution still have a lot of ground to cover. Much remains unknown about actual events that happened on the ground, especially in locations outside the recognised centres of the Revolution in Java. Anne-Lot Hoek is one historian who seeks to uncover and analyse the unknown and lesser known histories of the Revolution, focusing on events in Bali. In her article, she reveals the existence of a network of Dutch ‘terror camps’ in Bali during the Revolution, as recounted by the son of a Balinese teacher whose nationalist views had him imprisoned and tortured in one of these camps. Hoek’s book on The Struggle for Bali: Imperialism, Resistance and Independence, 1846–1950 (De Strijd om Bali, 2021) is one in a series of recent publications by Dutch historians that seek to shine new light on the Revolution. Another such publication is Merdeka: The battle for Indonesian independence and the unexpected rise of the Republic (2022), by Henk Schulte Nordholt and Harry Poeze. In his review of this book, Joost Coté shows that the authors’ main concern is to acknowledge the complexity of the Revolution, in which Indonesians were far from a united bloc in an ‘imagined political community’ but were in fact divided into political factions with different visions of the Indonesian nation-state.

Historical knowledge, however, is not merely about facts. It is also about awareness and engagement and taking lessons from the past to act in the present. This was the message conveyed to me in my interview with Bonnie Triyana, which concludes the articles in this edition. According to Triyana, who is the founder and chief editor of Indonesia’s popular history magazine Historia, history is a social movement that connects the struggles of the past with those in the present. For Triyana, being at the centre of controversies is an inevitable effect of engaging in activist history, in particular when this activism touches on issues of identity and social justice. He states that in tackling these issues today we can take inspiration from the works and actions of the likes of Multatuli, Sukarno, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, as well as lesser known figures in the history of Revolution, such as the leftist painter Trubus, or the Indo-European woman Tanja Dezentje who chose to be an advocate for Indonesian independence. History, Triyana concludes, is made by people who make a choice that is at once personal and political.

Yatun Sastramidjaja (y.sastramidjaja@uva.nl) is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and an Associate Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

Inside Indonesia 150: Oct-Dec 2022

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