Published: Jul 30, 2007

Fifty years ago, Indonesian nationalism was open to the world

Goenawan Mohamad

On 29 July 1949, a Dakota aircraft crashed near Maguwo, Yogyakarta, killing three officers of the Republic of Indonesia Air Force. A civilian aircraft, on a flight from New Delhi, it was carrying medical supplies donated by the Republic of India to the Republic of Indonesia. Its broken fuselage still bore the letters 'VT-CLA'. Reports suggested the Dakota had been pursued and shot down by fighter planes of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, which controlled the northern part of Java.

A youth of 17 visited the crash site. He was not a photographer, but he wanted to record what had happened. He was a painter, and he made a drawing of what was left of the plane, hoping that it would stand as a witness: a civilian aircraft shot down without compunction by Dutch troops intent on using military might to take back control of Indonesia.

Now, in 1999, that young man is recognised as one of Indonesia's foremost painters, Srihadi Sudarsono. But it has taken 50 years, until his first exhibition at the Lontar Gallery in Jakarta last week, for Srihadi's priceless collection of drawings of the battles and negotiations of the revolution to become widely known. Not all of his work has survived. Most of it in fact was lost in a fire that destroyed one of the buildings which played a key role in the events of the revolution. But at the Lontar Gallery I was privileged to see not only the remains of the Dakota, but also the figure of a guerilla fighter riding on a train, a group of Dutch soldiers ransacking a private home in Solo, the face of Bung Karno, the face of Moh. Roem, and a group of foreign diplomats at Kaliurang, Yogya, people who - thanks to the UN - were trying to deal with the problems that arose with the end of colonialism in Indonesia.

Indonesia 1949, Indonesia 1999. Srihadi himself is maybe unaware of this, but someone looking at his drawings will easily pick up on a difference, a depressing contrast between then and now.

Half a century ago, the outside world - together with a young and vigorous UN - came to the aid of Indonesia, a weakling in the face of overwhelming odds. Now all we hear is pointed criticism from the rest of the world, directed at a big and brutal Indonesia intent on destroying little Timor Leste (and failing in the effort).

Indonesia then, Indonesia now. A half century ago the leaders of the Indonesian Republic noted with conviction and emotion in the preamble to their new constitution: 'Whereas freedom is the right of all nations...'. They stood firm in their belief that freedom was a right that everyone had to recognise because it was one expression of universal values. Now we only ever hear the phrase recited with indifference. For the last 40 years, the leaders of Indonesia have tried to proclaim that there is no such thing as universal values. We cannot be measured by 'Western' standards, they cry. We have our own democracy, we are unique, you know, you must understand Javanese culture, Asian values.... It's as though for oppressed peoples there is some essential difference between Indonesian military cruelties and, say, the tyranny of the Portuguese.

The crash of a Dakota aircraft carrying medical supplies from the outside world. A number of foreign faces at a meeting in Kaliurang. In Srihadi's 1946 drawings there is no implication in the way foreigners are drawn that they are something to be feared, something weird or distant from ourselves. When he makes a drawing, Srihadi doesn't only record an event. As a soldier who knows what a war of independence means, he also records an attitude. In the lines of his drawings, we can sense that the Indonesian revolution - and Indonesian nationalism - contained no suspicion of the 'outside', was not closed to what was 'foreign'.

From Srihadi we learn that the Indonesian revolution was not something 'inward looking', the kind of revolution that could emerge from, for example, the ideology and actions of the Khmer Rouge when they went about building a republic in Cambodia. Srihadi's record of events shows that even in the midst of its war of independence, Indonesia was an open book. The outside world came and looked, and skinny little Indonesia stood up boldly before it.

On a street wall in Jakarta, around November 1945, the young independence fighters wrote in large letters, in English: 'Give me liberty or give me death'. They were not addressing Indonesians themselves. The words were those of Patrick Henry, an American, spoken in the face of British colonialism in the 18th century. By quoting them, the young Indonesians seemed to want to remind the outside world: the voice of an American patriot in the 18th century is the same as the voices of Indonesian patriots in 1945.

How eloquent they were, how different from the gun-bearing, speechless wearers of safari suits we see all around us now. The outside world had to be convinced, because we were right. There was nothing that needed to be covered up, because we had no cause to be ashamed. Just like the conviction of the revolutionary troops of the 1940s who mobilised painters like Srihadi: they wanted to make a record of events, even if only in painting, at a time when they didn't own cameras. They didn't want to lose the traces of where they had stood. They were not thieves. They were making a history, one that also has meaning for people in a different place, at a different time, in a new millenium.

Goenawan Mohamad is a poet and senior journalist. This article appeared in Tempo magazine, 10 October 1999. It was translated, with permission from the author, by Keith Foulcher (

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000