History of Indonesia #6 – National consciousness

National consciousness emerged gradually in the archipelago during the first decades of the twentieth century, developed rapidly during the contentious 1930s, and flourished, both ideologically and institutionally, during the tumultuous Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, which shattered Dutch colonial authority. As in other parts of colonial Southeast Asia, nationalism was preceded by traditional-style rural resistance.

Thirty years of war in Aceh cost 60,000
Thirty years of war in Aceh cost 60,000 Acehnese lives, plus over 2,000 Dutch soldiers killed in battle, and over 10,000 Dutch soldiers dead from disease. Another 25,000 forced laborers under the Dutch died in Aceh in this period

The Java War, joining discontented elites and peasants, was a precursor

condition is stable.nocturnal or early morning erections; and his ability to generic viagra.

. Around 1900 the followers of Surantika Samin, a rural messiah who espoused his own religion, the Science of the Prophet Adam, organized passive resistance on Java that included refusal to pay taxes or perform labor service. Militant Islam was another focus of traditional resistance, especially in Sumatra.

Indonesian nationalism reflected trends in other parts of Asia and Europe. Pilgrims and students returning from the Middle East brought modernist Islamic ideas that attempted to adapt the faith to changing times. Other influences included the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885; the Philippine struggle for independence against both Spain and the United States in 1898-1902; Japan’s victory over tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), a major challenge to the myth of white European supremacy; and the success of Kemal Ataturk in creating a modern, secularized Turkey after World War I on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Revolution of 1917 also had a profound impact, reflected in the growth of a strong communist movement by the late 1920s. National consciousness was not homogeneous but reflected the diversity of Indonesian society. Dutch repression and the shock of war from 1942 to 1945, however, forged diverse groups into something resembling a unified whole.

The Ethical Policy

The priorities of both the VOC and the Netherlands Indies state after 1816 were overwhelmingly commercial. Not even in British India was the ledger book such a weighty consideration. But opinion in the Netherlands was changing. In 1899 a liberal lawyer named Conrad Théodoor van Deventer published a polemical essay, “A Debt of Honor,” the Dutch journal De Gids. Van Deventer, who had long experience in the Indies, argued that the Netherlands had a moral responsibility to return to the colony all the profits that had been made from the sale of cash crops following the Dutch Staten-Generaal’s assumption of fiscal responsibility for the islands in 1867. He estimated that this amount totaled almost 200 million guilders, which should be invested in welfare and educational facilities. When a liberal government was elected in the Netherlands in 1901, these ideas became the basis for what was known as the Ethical Policy. Its scope included expansion of educational opportunities for the population as a whole, improvements in agriculture, especially irrigation, and the settlement of villagers from overpopulated Java onto some of the Outer Islands.

'Colonization Land is Rich'. A propaganda postcard
‘Colonization Land is Rich’. A propaganda postcard distributed to transmigrants by the Netherlands Indies government. The settlers were supposed to write messages back to their home villages on Java telling about the ‘good life’ in the new transmigration colonies. By 1940 there were about 200,000 Javanese living in transmigration colonies

Filled with good intentions, the proponents of the Ethical Policy, like Daendels and Raffles before them, generally ignored the “feudal” political traditions that had bound together Dutch officials and Indonesian subordinates since the early days of the VOC. The rationalization and bureaucratization of the colonial government that occurred in the wake of new welfare policies alienated many members of the priyayi elite without necessarily improving the lot of the common people. Whereas Sumatra and the eastern archipelago were thinly inhabited, Java at the beginning of the twentieth century had serious population and health problems. In 1902 the government began a resettlement program to relieve population pressures by encouraging settlement on other islands; the program was the beginning of the Transmigration Program that the Republic of Indonesia would pursue more aggressively after 1950.

One Ethical Policy goal was improvement of education. In contrast to British (or pre-British) Burma and the Philippines under both the Spanish and Americans, the islands were poorly endowed with schools, and literacy rates were low. In 1900 there were only 1,500 elementary schools in the entire archipelago for a population of more than 36 million. In Christian areas such as Ambon, some Batak communities in Sumatra, and Manado in Sulawesi, conditions were better than average because missionaries established their own schools. In Sumatra there were a large number of village-level Islamic schools. But public education was virtually nonexistent until the government established a system of village schools in 1906. By 1913 these schools numbered 3,500 and by 1940, 18,000. Many local people, however, resented having to pay teacher salaries and other school expenses.

Even members of the Javanese elite, the priyayi, had limited educational opportunities at the beginning of the century. A school for the training of indigenous medical assistants had been established at Batavia as early as 1851, and there were three “chiefs’ schools” for the education of the higher priyayi after 1880. A handful of the elite, some 1,545 in 1900, studied alongside Dutch students in modern schools. But government policy maintained an essentially segregated system on all school levels. Dutch-Language Native Schools (Hollandsche Inlandsche Scholen), with 20,000 students in 1915 and 45,000 on the eve of World War II, have been described by the historian John R.W. Smail as “perhaps the most important single institution in twentieth century Indies history.” Through the medium of Dutch, graduates were introduced to the modern world; being “natives,” however, their subsequent careers were limited by racial bars, an injustice that stoked future nationalism.

In 1900 the old medical school became the School for Training Native Doctors, whose students also played a major role in emergent nationalism. A technical college was established at Bandung in 1920, and four years later a law faculty was set up at Batavia. A very small but highly influential group of graduates matriculated at universities in the Netherlands, especially the University of Leiden and the economics faculty at Rotterdam.

R. A. Kartini
R. A. Kartini is remembered today for her collected letters, works of high literary quality.

Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1905), daughter of the regent of Jepara on Java, was one of the first women to receive a Dutchlanguage education. In letters written to Dutch friends, published in 1911 as Door duisternis tot licht: gedachten over en voor het Javanese volk (From Darkness to Light: Thoughts About and on Behalf of the Javanese People) and later translated into English as Letters of a Javanese Princess, Kartini called for the modern education of Indonesian women and their emancipation from the oppressive weight of tradition. These letters were published for the purpose of gaining friends for the Ethical Policy, which was losing popularity. As a result, a number of Kartini schools for girls were established on Java in 1913 from private contributions.

The Ethical Policy was at best modestly reformist and tinged with an often condescending paternalism. Few Dutch liberals imagined that the islands would ever be independent. Most assumed a permanent, and subordinate, relationship with the Netherlands which was in striking contrast to American “Philippines for the Filipinos” policies after 1900. Thus the Indies’ political evolution was extremely tardy. The Decentralization Law of 1903 created residency councils with advisory capacities, which were composed of Europeans, Indonesians, and Chinese; in 1925 such councils were also established on the regency level. In 1918 the People’s Council (Volksraad), a largely advisory body to the governor general consisting of elected and appointed European and Indonesian members, met for the first time. Although it approved the colonial budget and could propose legislation, the People’s Council lacked effective political power and remained a stronghold of the colonial establishment.

Early Political Movements

Centuries of Dutch cooptation made the highest ranking priyayi on Java and their counterparts on other islands politically conservative. But lower ranking members of the elite – petty officials, impoverished aristocrats, school teachers, native doctors, and others–were less content with the status quo. In 1908 students of the School for Training Native Doctors in Batavia established an association, Budi Utomo (Noble Endeavor), which is considered by many historians to be the first modern political organization in Indonesia. Java-centered and confined largely to students and the lower priyayi, Budi Utomo had little influence on other classes or non-Javanese. Because of its limited appeal and the suspicion of many members of the high-ranking priyayi, the organization did not thrive. Similar eliteoriented groups, however, were established during the 1910s both inside and outside Java.

Significantly, Budi Utomo adopted Malay rather than Javanese as its official language. Malay, the lingua franca of the archipelago, became a symbol of its unity and the basis for the national language of independent Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia*. Unlike Javanese, which was laden with honorific language emphasizing status differences, Malay was linguistically democratic as well as free of Java-centeredness, although Bahasa Indonesia itself does not abandon status-conscious forms altogether.

A more assertive political movement than Budi Utomo appeared with the establishment in 1910 of the Indies Party (Indische Partij) by E.F.E. Douwes Dekker (known after 1946 as Danudirja Setyabuddhi), a Eurasian and descendant of the author of Max Havelaar. A veteran of the Boer War (1899-1902) fighting on the Afrikaaner side and a journalist, Douwes Dekker criticized the Ethical Policy as excessively conservative and advocated selfgovernment for the islands and a kind of “Indies nationalism” that encompassed all the islands’ permanent residents but not the racially exclusive trekkers. In July 1913, close associates of Douwes Dekker, including physicians Tjipto Mangunkusumo and R.M. Suwardi Surjaningrat (known also as Ki Hadjar Dewantara, later founder of the Taman Siswa or Garden of Pupils school movement), established the Native Committee in Bandung. The committee planned to petition the Dutch crown for an Indies parliament. In 1913 it also published a pamphlet written by Suwardi, “If I were to be a Dutchman,” that gained almost instant notoriety. Regarded as subversive by the colonial government and impudent by Dutchmen in general, the pamphlet, which was translated into Malay, led to the exile to the Netherlands of Douwes Dekker and his two Javanese associates. In exile, they worked with liberal Dutchmen and compatriot students. It is believed that the term Indonesia was first used in the name of an organization, the Indonesian Alliance of Students, with which they were associated during the early 1920s.

H.O.S. Cokroaminoto (or Tjokroaminoto)
H.O.S. Cokroaminoto (or Tjokroaminoto)

The responses of Islamic communities to the new political environment reflected their diversity. Hard-pressed by ethnic Chinese competition, especially in the batik trade, Muslim merchants formed the Islamic Traders’ Association in 1909. In 1912 this group became Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union) under the leadership of a former government official, Haji Umar Said Cokroaminoto. Sarekat Islam became the first association to gain wide membership among the common people. By early 1914, its membership numbered 360,000. Committed in part to promoting Islamic teaching and community economic prosperity (anti-Chinese sentiment was a major appeal), the organization also drew on traditional Javanese beliefs about the return of the “Just King,” and Cokroaminoto went so far as to cast himself in the role of a charismatic, if not divine, figure. Cokroaminoto’s advocacy of Indies self-government caused the Dutch some anxiety. By 1916 Sarekat Islam had some eighty branches both on Java and in the Outer Islands.

The modernist or reformist trend in Islam was represented by Muhammadiyah (Followers of Muhammad), a group established at Yogyakarta in 1912. It was particularly strong among the Sumatran Minangkabau, and a number of modernist schools were established there. Its importance is reflected in the fact that Minangkabau, such as Mohammad Hatta, were surpassed in numbers only by Javanese among the leadership of the Indonesian revolution. In 1926 the Nahdatul Ulama (Revival of the Religious Scholars and sometimes known as the Muslim Scholars’ League) was organized as a conservative counterweight to the growing influence of Cokroaminoto’s syncretism and modernist ideas among believers.

In May 1914, Hendricus Sneevliet (alias Maring) established the Indies Social-Democratic Association (ISDV), which became the Communist Association of the Indies (Perserikatan Komunisi di Hindia) in May 1920 and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1924. Backed by the Communist International (Cominterm) in Moscow, the PKI became active among trade unionists and rural villagers. In 1926 and 1927, despite advice by Tan Malaka, a Comintern agent from Sumatra, to the contrary, local leaders instigated rural insurrections in western Java and Sumatra. The government moved decisively to crush the insurrections and imprison communist leaders. Some, like Tan Malaka, fled into exile. But 1,300 communists were exiled to the grim Boven Digul penal colony in West New Guinea. The PKI all but disappeared, not to be an important actor on the political stage until after independence.

Sukarno and the Nationalist Movement

The late 1920s witnessed the rise of Sukarno to a position of prominence among political leaders. He became the country’s first truly national figure and served as president from independence until his forced retirement from political life in 1966. The son of a lower priyayi schoolteacher and a Balinese mother, Sukarno associated with leaders of the Indies Party and Sarekat Islam in his youth and was especially close to Cokroaminoto until his divorce from Cokroaminoto’s daughter in 1922. A graduate of the technical college at Bandung in July 1927, he, along with members of the General Study Club (Algemene Studieclub) established the Indonesian Nationalist Union (PNI) the following year. Known after May 1928 as the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), the party stressed mass organization, noncooperation with the colonial authorities, and the ultimate goal of independence.

A young Sukarno poses for the camera
A young Sukarno poses for the camera

Unlike most earlier nationalist leaders, Sukarno had a talent for bringing together Javanese tradition (especially the lore of wayang theater with its depictions of the battle between good and evil), Islam, and his own version of Marxism to gain a huge mass following. An important theme was what he called “Marhaenism.” Marhaen (meaning farmer in Sundanese) was the name given by Sukarno to a man he claimed to have met in 1930 while cycling through the countryside near Bandung. The mythical Marhaen was made to embody the predicament of the Indonesian masses: not proletarians in the Marxist sense, they suffered from poverty as the result of colonial exploitation and the islands’ dependence on European and American markets. Beyond the goal of independence, Sukarno envisioned a future Indonesian society freed from dependence on foreign capital: a community of classless but happy Marhaens, rather than greedy (Western-style) individualists, that would reflect the idealized values of the traditional village, the notion of gotong-royong or mutual self-help. Marhaenism, despite its convenient vagueness, was developed enough that by 1933 nine theses on Marhaenism were developed in which the concept was synonymous with socio-nationalism and the struggle for independence. Mutual self-help in diverse contexts became a centerpiece of Sukarno’s ideology after independence and was not abandoned by his successor, Suharto, when the latter established his New Order regime in 1966. Considering himself a Muslim of modernist persuasion, like Ataturk in Turkey, Sukarno advocated the establishment of a secular rather than Islamic state. This understandably diminished his appeal among Islamic conservatives in Java and elsewhere.

The Minangkabau Sutan Syahrir (1909-66) and Mohammad Hatta became Sukarno’s most important political rivals. Graduates of Dutch universities, they were social democrats in outlook and more rational in their political style than Sukarno, whom they criticized for his romanticism and preoccupation with rousing the masses. In December 1931 they established a group officially called Indonesian National Education (PNI-Baru) but often taken to mean New PNI. The use of the term “education” reflected Hatta’s gradualist, cadre-driven education process to expand political consciousness.

By the late 1920s, the colonial government seemed to have moved a long way from the idealistic commitments of the Ethical Policy. Attitudes hardened in the face of growing Indonesian demands for independence. Sukarno was arrested in December 1929 and put on trial for sedition in 1930. Although he made an eloquent speech in his own defense, he was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison. His sentence was commuted after two years, but he was arrested again and exiled to the island of Flores, later being transferred to the town of Bengkulu in Sumatra. In April 1931, what remained of the PNI was dissolved. To replace the PNI, the Indonesia Party (Partindo) was soon established and, in 1932, Sukarno and thousands of others joined it. Partindo called for independence but was repressed by the Dutch and it dissolved itself in 1934. After Japanese forces occupied the Netherlands Indies in March 1942, however, Sukarno was allowed to reenter the political arena to play a central role in the struggle for independence.

*Bahasa Indonesia
The Indonesian national language, also known as Indonesian; an Austronesian language reported to be modelled on Riau Malay and 80 percent cognate with Standard Malay.

Data as of November 1992


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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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