A Brief History of Indonesian Independence

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–By Katia Oltman–

Today is Indonesia’s 72nd birthday. Teachers and students across the country celebrate this day by participating in a number of performances, from singing and dancing to sack races and other games.

To learn more about the history behind Indonesian Independence Day, I spoke with Farley Binalay, a history teacher from SMA Kristen Eben Haezar, the school I am currently working at as an English teaching assistant. My school, nicknamed Benzar, is a private Protestant school located in Manado, the biggest city in North Sulawesi. Farley has been a teacher at this school for two years, one as a contract (short-term) teacher and one as a permanent teacher. He teaches tenth and eleventh graders and, in his lessons, he covers everything from the evolutionary origins of humankind to 20th century Indonesian history. Farley speaks a little bit of English, and I speak even less Indonesian, so our interview was made possible by our interpreter, Reyntje Giroth, who teaches English at Benzar.

Farley told me that when he teaches his students about Indonesian independence, he focuses on the heroes of the revolution. Of these heroes, the two most revered men are the first president and vice president of Indonesia, Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta. Hatta was an ethnic Minangkabau from Sumatra and was Sukarno’s top deputy throughout the independence movement. Sukarno, of Javanese and Balinese descent, became famous in the years leading up to independence for his passionate speeches about Indonesian nationalism. Pancasila, the five pillars of Indonesian democracy, was his invention.

On Independence Day, two of Sukarno’s creations are read aloud: the Pancasila and the Declaration of Independence.

Farley said that the central issue surrounding independence was a debate between Indonesia’s older generation of nationalist leaders and its more radical younger generation. The Netherlands had controlled Indonesia since about 1600, but Japan brought the archipelago under its rule during World War II. During its occupation of Indonesia, Japan had promised to eventually give the nation its independence, and the older generation wanted to wait for Japan to make good on its promise.

Sukarno, part of the older generation, was in position to become the first president of Indonesia because of the Japanese government’s support. They had made him the leader of the Preparatory Committee for Indonesian Independence (abbreviated as PPKI in Indonesian), the governing body responsible for all future plans to make Indonesia a self-governing nation.

Japan, while officially still ruling over Indonesia in the days leading up to independence, was severely weakened when it surrendered to the Allied powers on August 14, 1945. The younger generation of political leaders thought this was the perfect opportunity to secure their nation’s future. However, Sukarno was worried that both Japan and the Allied powers may attack Indonesia if its leaders were too hasty in establishing a national state. Indonesia’s political radicals similarly anticipated that the Japanese might have tried to attack Sukarno and the other leaders of the independence movement if they thought that the Indonesian revolutionaries were acting without them. To ensure independence, the radicals kidnapped Sukarno and Hatta to try to pressure them into issuing a proclamation of independence. Neither man was persuaded by the kidnapping itself, but the radicals’ drastic tactics did convince them that delaying independence could lead to a state of anarchy.

Sukarno eventually succumbed to the pressure and the proclamation was drafted on August 15, typed by Sayuti Malik on the 16th, and issued on the 17th. From 1945 to 1949, the Dutch waged a war to try to reestablish their imperial government. Like the Vietnamese against the French, the Indonesians prevailed and, by doing so, ensured that they would never be colonial subjects again. The international world only recognized independence at the end of 1949, when the Dutch released political prisoners and independence could be celebrated.

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