Merdeka! Indonesia’s Independence – 70th anniversary
On 17 August 1945, two days after Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War, Indonesia’s nationalist leaders, Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta, proclaimed the independence of Indonesia. Previously known as the Netherlands East Indies, Indonesia had been under Dutch rule for about 350 years. The Japanese had invaded and occupied the archipelago since 1942.
The Dutch government’s bitter armed opposition to Indonesian independence resulted in a four year struggle by the nationalists that culminated in victory when the Netherlands formally transferred sovereignty to the ‘United States of Indonesia’ on 27 December 1949.
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Independence proclamation, it is worth reflecting on Australia’s role in support of its northern neighbour’s Merdeka (Freedom) struggle.
The Australian government of the time, headed by Prime Minister Ben Chifley, sympathized with the cause of post-war decolonisation and, when the Dutch launched an intensified military offensive in July 1947, Australia referred the matter to the United Nations Security Council, blaming the Dutch for the breach of peace. In referring the conflict to the UN, Australia made history by presenting the first case for resolution by the new international body. And the move encouraged the United Kingdom and the United States to take a position: against their European ally. A negotiated settlement was sought by the UN.
A conference assembled at The Hague in August 1949 under the chairmanship of the Dutch prime minister, with the Indonesian delegates led by Hatta. On November 2nd, after ten weeks, the conference reached the agreement which transferred Dutch sovereignty to the United States of Indonesia, with Queen Juliana of the Netherlands as titular head of a new Netherlands-Indonesian Union, Sukarno as Indonesian president and Hatta as prime minister.
Following the transfer of sovereignty at the end of 1949, Australia’s new Liberal/Country Coalition Government, led by Prime Minister Robert Menzies, promptly recognized the new State de jure.
However, Australian support for Indonesia did not just occur at the governmental and diplomatic levels. Trade unions, especially in the maritime industries, and Asian seamen from British, French and Dutch boats who sought refuge in Australia, combined with prominent citizens to advocate for solidarity with the Indonesian people.
As early as July 1945, an Australia-Indonesia Association had been established in Sydney with Anglican Bishop, George Cranswick, and anthropologist A. P. Elkin, among its representatives.
The Waterside Workers’ Federation and the Seamen’s Union imposed black bans on Dutch vessels and cargo, refused to undertake repairs to Dutch boats and boycotted Dutch depots. The practical consequences of the workers’ campaign are summed up in an article on the University of New South Wales’ History Department’s webpage:
Thirty-one Australian trade unions and four Asian trade unions directly immobilized 559 ships that were supposed to supply the Dutch effort. As late as March 1946, for example, 1000 Dutch trucks intended for shipment to Indonesia still remained in Australia.
The subsequent story of Indonesia’s democratic development reveals ebbs and flows, the deepest ebb being in the second half of the 1960s when members and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party were massacred. Estimates of the slaughter vary from 78,000 to two million.
The bilateral relations between the two countries have also had ebbs and flows, including Australia’s assistance to Malaysia during the Indonesian-Malaysian Konfrontasi from 1963 to 1966 and Australia’s leadership of INTERFET (the International Force for East Timor) to stabilise East Timor after its independence referendum result in 1999.
Today, Indonesia is widely regarded as a model of Muslim-majority democracy, especially since the political reforms that were introduced after the success of the pro-democracy mass movement known as the Revolution of 1998. The Reformasi (Reformation) that followed has established Indonesia as the world’s third most populous democracy.