May 29, 2023 Last Updated 3:00 AM, May 26, 2023

The forgotten killings

Monumen Bambu Runcing (Bamboo Spear Monument), Surabaya Credit: Lidya Mewengkang
Published: Aug 01, 2016


Rosalind Hewett 

Two key monuments in the city of Surabaya commemorate the actions of the pemuda (young Indonesian freedom fighters) in Indonesia’s 1945–49 revolution against the Dutch. The Monumen Bambu Runcing (Bamboo Spear Monument) celebrates the bamboo spear, the weapon typically associated with the pemuda. The second is a plaque outside the Gedung Balai Pemuda (Youth Hall), the former Simpang Club, which outlines the building’s importance in Indonesian history. According to the English version of the plaque:

‘This was an exclusive Dutch club, forbidden for natives and dogs. From September-November 1945 the PRI (Pemuda Republik Indonesia) used it as their main headquarters in the fighting against the combined Allied forces, which startled the world by its duration and tenacity.’

 Both monuments celebrate the pemuda as independence heroes who took action to expel the Dutch and their allies from Indonesia. Both are also problematic in the fact that they represent only one version of history, written and shaped by the winners to portray their actions as contributing to the greater good of the nation. 

 Excusing mass murder

Like the 1965 communist massacres, in Indonesian historical writing, the 1945-47 killings – if mentioned at all – have generally been portrayed as unfortunate but necessary for the sake of the nation. Autobiographies and popular histories in Indonesia portray pemuda actions against gangs of armed Dutch and Indo (Eurasian) men and former Japanese colonisers as an extreme but necessary response to colonial oppression, and one that was vital to prevent colonial rule from taking hold again after the Japanese surrender. These accounts do not mention that the victims included unarmed women, children and the elderly. Nor do they mention that a significant number of victims were from ethnic groups now considered to be Indonesian. The few mentions of incidental killings that were not part of clashes between armed groups are explained as unfortunate incidents that were perpetrated by an out-of-control rakyat (populace), just like the 1965 killings.

Dutch and British archives tell a different story. These indicate that the pemuda deliberately rounded up and killed or forced other Indonesians to kill unarmed men, women and children, and that a good proportion of victims were from groups that are now considered Indonesian – they formed perhaps a greater percentage than the Dutch and Indo victims. Most of these were Ambonese and Manadonese, but some were also Timorese, Chinese Indonesians, Javanese and Sundanese women married to European men, adopted Indonesian children of Dutch families, and Indonesians who had served as colonial administrators. Autobiographies and personal accounts suggest that pemuda groups targeted European, Indo, Ambonese and Manadonese families in Java based on their appearance, whether they were loyal to the Dutch or not. Further research is needed to show whether perpetrators deliberately intended to eliminate these specific ethnic groups, but the killing of infants and young children signifies that this was so.

 Enacting mass murder

During the worst of the violence in 1945, pemuda groups typically entered villages, shouting words like ‘siap, siap!’ (‘get ready!’). The Dutch-Indonesian name for the period, the Bersiap, originates from this term. They spread propaganda via leaflets and loudspeakers and then rounded up local families who they considered loyal to the Dutch on the basis of their ethnicity. In one notable case, in the early hours of the morning on 10 October, a car drove slowly through the streets of Garut in West Java, with a fitted loudspeaker broadcasting the call for the murder of Europeans, Ambonese, Manadonese and Japanese. About an hour later, members of these groups were dragged from their homes and taken to the village square where a mob had gathered. According to eyewitnesses, members of the mob turned on the prisoners and killed them. The pemuda leader then paid the killers with jewels and gold taken from the victims.

Plaque outside the Gedung Balai Pemuda (formerly the Simpang Club) Surabaya Credit: Lidya Mewengkang
Plaque outside the Gedung Balai Pemuda (formerly the Simpang Club) Surabaya Credit: Lidya Mewengkang

Several accounts from Surabaya and Kuningan in West Java reveal that to reach the prisons, male prisoners were forced to run through lines of pemuda armed with bamboo spears and knives. Reports from across Java state that many prisoners disappeared in the middle of the night from their prison cells and were buried in hastily dug mass graves. Women and children were usually sent to internment camps, and surviving male prisoners were sent to separate camps. A number of camps in East Java became notorious killing and torture grounds, most infamously Pacet, located between Malang and Surabaya. Other pemuda gangs in West Java did not round up their victims but rather killed entire families in their homes, usually spearing them with bamboo spears, but also burning victims and burying them alive. Pemuda groups across Java enforced a food boycott against Dutch and Indos. Families were forced to rely on Indonesian servants to smuggle them food, but propaganda spread by the pemuda also targeted former servants and warned them against assisting Dutch and Indo families.

 Contemporary accounts of the violence are mostly limited to first-hand statements from witnesses and interrogation reports compiled by Dutch intelligence in 1947 and 1948. Most of these deal with the killing of Dutch citizens. Estimates of the total number of Dutch and Indo deaths from the period, based on these accounts and interviews in the Netherlands, range from 3500 to 30,000. In the memories of many Indos who left Indonesia and had little to do with other groups who were also victims during the same period, the Bersiap became an attempted genocide of Indos. However, Ambonese and Manadonese names are also present in the lists of victims, possibly because individuals from these ethic groups were often members of the Royal Netherlands Indies Army (KNIL) and the colonial civil service and thus linked with the colonial regime.  

 The Simpang Club

The best-documented killings took place in Surabaya between September and November 1945. European, Indo, Ambonese and Manadonese men and women were rounded up, ostensibly to protect them from violence, and then imprisoned in the Simpang Club. If they were found in possession of items linking them to the Dutch, like flags, pins and so on, they were often beheaded on the spot. If not, they were further interrogated, and sent from the Simpang Club to the Kaliosok and Bubutan prisons. Those sent to Bubutan were never seen again. According to one account, the only trace ever found of these prisoners was a pile of severed legs, shoes still attached. Eyewitnesses from the Simpang Club reported the systematic interrogation, torture and murder of hundreds of people, particularly from 15 to 17 October. Prisoners were regularly forced to clean the thick layer of blood off the floor of the execution room. 

The most controversial account of the Simpang Club violence, from an Indonesian woman, names revolutionary hero Sutomo, most famous for his revolutionary radio speeches, as the executioners’ ringleader. In his autobiography, Sutomo claimed that he was present at least once in the Simpang Club during this period. However, he wrote that he was brought there by other pemuda as a ‘prisoner’, and became worried for his own safety after seeing that the pemuda had succumbed to their bloodlust and killed Dutch prisoners. His version contrasts sharply with accounts from other pemuda in East Java which cast him as a key pemuda leader. Publicly questioning the account of one of the major leaders of the independence struggle, however, remains problematic – particularly because Sutomo is a named Pahlawan Nasional (National Hero).

 Forgetting mass murder

Finding evidence of this violence within Indonesia is difficult because of the almost complete silence on the topic in official and popular accounts. History books, autobiographies, films and even comics portray the pemuda as the heroes of the revolution who forced more cautious republican leaders like Sukarno and Hatta to take action. Occasional references in autobiographies confirm that Manadonese and Timorese men and women on Java ‘disappeared’ or were killed, but these are fleeting. Further complicating the search for first-hand accounts from Indonesia is the fact that most members of the generation old enough to remember the Bersiap have died. In my interviews with Indos on Java, no one was willing to admit that they witnessed violence first-hand, though they acknowledged that they had heard of others experiencing it. 

The main problem is that the reporting of the killings is clouded by ideological considerations. The killing of groups now considered Indonesian did not support the narratives of national unity that successive governments promoted. As a result, after the revolution ended, there was little inclination in Indonesia to investigate the killings. Public commemoration of the pemuda in East Java further restricts what can be said about their actions during the period. If we consider just how much the independence struggle has been romanticised in the popular imagination, it is clear why the truth about the killing of civilians, among them a significant number of Eastern Indonesians, might remain completely silenced. 

Without a broader historical narrative for individuals to refer to, disappearances from the period are attributed to the general lawlessness in Java and remembered as accidental, unfortunate deaths. Awareness that something much more widespread was taking place – the deliberate imprisonment and slaughter of groups whose appearance or family connections marked them as supporters of colonialism – is clouded by the passage of time, ideological considerations and a lack of documentary evidence. Pointing out that the beginnings of the revolution in Java and Sumatra involved the mass murder of members of groups now included as Indonesian by other Indonesians means questioning the traditional divide in nationalist history between ‘indigenous’ Indonesian victims and ‘foreign’ colonisers. The true extent of the Bersiap killings may never fully come to light for all these reasons. 

Rosalind Hewett ( is a PhD candidate in Indonesian History at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 125: Jul-Sep 2016



#13 +3 Willem ten Wolde 2016-10-14 01:15
Another source:

A book by Inez Hollander,Silenced Voices: Uncovering a Family's Colonial History in Indonesia, ncovering-Indonesia-Southeast/dp/0896802698
This book is also Dutch, Verstilde Stemmen en Verzwegen levens.
#12 +3 Willem ten Wolde 2016-10-14 01:14
The Bersiap killings by the Pemuda's against unarmed children, women, old man, and other Indo and Dutch civilians. About 20,000 casualties.

Some sources:
Litterature, a short story by Hans Vervoort, Death March Through The Mountains,

He wrote the story after visiting the cemetery Kembang Kuning in Surabaya twice, where his brother lies. Quote "Both times I was struck by how many children Engelenburg were around him, eight in total, five girls and three boys, ranging in age from 3 to 11 years. What kind of disaster had befallen them? All deceased on October 29 1945. That must have been in the Bersiap period. "
#11 +3 Rosalind Hewett 2016-09-07 02:10
For those interested in further reading and evidence (among other sources):
Nationaal Archief, Netherlands Forces Intelligence Service (NEFIS)
Sutan Sjahrir, Onze Strijd/Perdjuangan Kita/Our Struggle
William H. Frederick, Visions and Heat: The Making of the Indonesian Revolution
Frank Palmos and Suhario Padmodiwiryo, Revolution in the City of Heroes
Anthony Reid, The Blood of the People
Robert Cribb, Gangsters and Revolutionaries
Bung Tomo (Sutomo), Pertempuran 10 November 1945: Kesaksian dan Pengalaman Seorang Aktor Sejarah.
William H. Frederick, 'The Killing of Dutch and Eurasians in Indonesia‟s National Revolution (1945-1949)', Journal of Genocide Research
Richard McMillan, The British Occupation of Indonesia, 1945-1946
Hans Meijer, In Indie Geworteld: De Twintigste Eeuw
#10 +2 Refan Ezekiel 2016-08-11 02:21
I (pretending ) not to know why, but it is typical for western academic and politician to cover just one side of the story. when I read the title of this article ¨the forgotten killings¨, I was expecting to see many of those massacres done by both sides, especially the dutch and their ëuropan military allies toward ¨inlanders¨/native population during the ¨bersiap¨period. I was trying to be wise, hoping that this biased article might be because of your lacking of literature, but more I read the article, the more I feel like you are trying to put a stamp of indonesian as ¨barbaric¨. I even came to a stage where I have to questioning your research method. and your mentality as a researcher. I am sorry to say, but your research is more provocative than scientific. please look at this book by: LUTTIKHUIS, Bart; MOSES, A. Dirk
#9 +7 Axel Heyst 2016-08-09 14:19
The massacre at Gubeng train station was one of the most notorious incidents. Indeed Pramoedya Ananta Toer directed a film about the massacre in the 70's. Japanese soldiers tried to defend European and Indos released from Ambarawa and other camps against the Pemuda in vain.

Sutomo was the key agitator but never forgave himself for inciting the Surabaya youths at Gubeng and went into self-exile from Indonesian politics.
#8 +5 Priscilla McMullen 2016-08-08 20:37
To Jennifer Lie, for reputable sources on the Bersiap, go to the following links::
#7 +1 Tim Hannigan 2016-08-08 07:48
This is a very interesting article, highlighting a murky aspect of a murky period, which could certainly use some more research (though Pemuda violence is certainly no secret, thanks to Dutch and British sources - the latter of which also sometimes give some indication of the behaviour of paramilitary groups of Dutch and Indo men in the early months of the Allied reoccupation). I do, though, feel a little nervous of phrases like "an attempted genocide of Indos" and "deliberately intended to eliminate these specific ethnic groups" without seeing a little more source material.
#6 +2 Tim Hannigan 2016-08-08 07:46
Dr Frank Palmos, above, has already mentioned the excellent Revolution in the City of Heroes, by Suhario Padmodiwiryo (and translated by Dr Palmos himself, as he was too modest to say), which gives an insightful, and seemingly honest, account of this period in Surabaya. It's worth noting the striking contrast between portrayal of "Bung Tomo" in Suhario's account, and that given in the article here - the former is just as critical, but in its way rather less conventional.
#5 +2 ing.R.L.Mertens 2016-08-06 21:15
What is/ are the main reason(s) of the hate/ bersiap explosions at that time?
#4 +2 ing.R.L.Mertens 2016-08-06 20:55
At that periode in Ambarawa, I was a 10 yr.old boy (Indo) living with the 2 families/ mother/sisters/oma and childeren in a house opposite the railway station. During the Japanese period we were treated as enemies (belanda boesoek etc. ) but with no harms. We suffered like anyone. No food etc. In sept. 1945 , when the war was over, there were food (air)droppings on the aloon2 and the TNI soldiers help to carry the droppings to the camp. But at the end of sept. the sphere changed. Marching Pemoeda's shouting siaaap! There was also a food boycot. And a hate explosions started! -My question(s) is what is/are the main reasons of this Belanda hate? The Dutch/Indonesian gouvernement meeting/talkings; vdPlas/Hatta in Batavia/Jakarta?
#3 +7 Ronny Geenen 2016-08-06 20:18
I was born in 1936 on Sumatra, Sawahlunto and not far from the city of Padang.
I lost during that period many family members. My wife was 2 years when she became an orphan. On August 19, 1945 her father was killed by 3 Indonesiers in front of their home. Her older 12 year brother and mother, who was pregnant from her daughter, today my wife, saw it all. I collected a lot of info about that period and you will find many articles in English as well as in Dutch on my website
#2 +5 Dr Frank Palmos 2016-08-03 05:30
The Monash University Press 2016 edition of "Revolution in the City of Heroes" has original Indonesian witness and source material covering most of these events in East Java during September-December 1945. Contact ;
#1 +1 Jennifer Lie 2016-08-03 05:05
I'd love to know the source of data. As Indonesian, I've never heard about this issue. But yeah, never heard doesn't mean doesn't exist.

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