When the President betrayed the people

Dutch India, as Indonesia used to be called, had been dominated by a Western colonial power for centuries, like most countries in Southeast Asia. The Dutch colony was of particular importance to the Japanese because of its proximity to the north coast of Australia and because of its oil deposits and other mineral resources. Although the Netherlands itself had already been overrun by Nazi Germany’s troops in May 1940 and the Dutch government had left for London, the Dutch colonial troops on Sumatra and Java resisted the Japanese until early March 1942, when they began their Offensive there on 11 January. But then they had to capitulate to the allies of the German fascists in Asia. Because the" anti-colonial " war propaganda of the Japanese against the Lords from far-off Europe, who had ruled the Indonesian archipelago since 1602, met with far more sympathies in the Indonesian population than anywhere else in Asia.

Peter Latuihamallo was a young theology student in Batavia, today’s capital Jakarta, when the Japanese invaded the city. In Interviews with the author, the later theology professor reported:

“I studied theology there and, like many students from islands in eastern Indonesia, could not return home when the war began because the shipping lines were interrupted by American, Dutch and Australian submarines. At first, many in Indonesia celebrated the landing of the Japanese because they had driven out the Dutch. Everywhere, people unfurled their red and white Indonesian flags and hoisted them next to the Japanese flag. Our later President Sukarno also worked as a volunteer for the Japanese. Although he was in favour of independence even then, he urged US students to support the Japanese in their war. After a year, the situation changed. Due to an Allied Blockade, Indonesia was completely isolated from the outside world and there was unimaginable poverty. Every day, carts drove through the city to collect the bodies of those who had died of starvation on the streets. And then the Japanese also recruited in Indonesia numerous Romusha, forced laborers, to use them not only on the islands, but also to maintain their war machinery in Malaya and Thailand.”

As in the other regions of Southeast and East Asia, the colonial troops in Dutch India had been surprised by the rapidly advancing Japanese units. What was a humiliating defeat for the Netherlands gave the vast majority of the Indonesian population cause for joy. Finally, the hated colonial rulers were defeated. In the collective memory of the colonized, the iniquities of the past could not be erased. For in Dutch India, the hub of the Dutch colonial empire in Southeast Asia, the VEREENIGDE Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) had been systematically murdering locals and occasionally traders from other nations since 1602, and then almost two centuries later the Dutch state, in order to secure the trade monopoly for spices worldwide.

The subjugation of the Banda Islands belonging to the Moluccas was particularly bloody. In 1621, the colonial rulers burned down villages and settlements on the orders of the Governor-General of the VOC and deported their inhabitants to slave markets. Of more than 10,000 locals, only a few hundred survived the massacre. For the Dutch, however, this turned out to be a worthwhile investment: from then on, they dominated the world market for Nutmeg, a spice that only grew on the Banda Islands, and later also for cloves and cinnamon. It was not until 1863 that the Netherlands officially abolished slavery as one of the last European states. (GEO epoch 2020)

Armed resistance against the new Japanese occupiers was therefore hardly aroused. While the later founder of the state and President Sukarno and several of his followers had decided to cooperate with the Japanese, the Socialists and communists went underground. For a few months, the great expectation persisted among the population that Japan would also help the huge island empire to achieve independence as a liberator. But that was not what the plans in Tokyo envisaged. There it was clear that Indonesia, as part of the “Greater East Asian common sphere of prosperity”, should be directly administered by Japanese troops. This affected Indonesians, Europeans and all persons of Eurasian descent.


The Japanese army initially set up Prisoner-of - war and internment camps in Sumatra, Celebes (Sulawesi), Borneo (Kalimantan), the Moluccas (Maluku) and West Timor. Schools and prisons as well as railway station grounds and monasteries served for this purpose. Then followed internments on Java, which first of all affected the Allied prisoners of war and citizens of the countries with which Japan was at war. At that time, almost 300,000 Europeans lived on the archipelago, a small number compared to Indonesia’s population of around 68 million inhabitants. About half of the Dutch were of Eurasian descent. In the internment camps, the social differences between them and those who had once pretended to be part of the European Elite were quickly levelled.

About 100,000 Dutch civilians were interned by the Japanese, most of them in 1942. European schools were immediately closed and all Dutch newspapers and magazines had to cease publication. Men aged 16 to 60 were first imprisoned in the detention centres, followed by women, children and the elderly. The camps for men and those for women and children were separate. Later, in the summer of 1944, camps were even set up for boys over ten years old and for Old Men. A total of about 155 such internment camps are said to have been scattered over the entire archipelago. Most of them were on Java, because most of the Europeans had lived there before the start of the war.

While an average of about 2,500 people lived in a camp in autumn 1942, at the end of the war about 10,000 people were crammed together in a confined space. For three long years, these people remained isolated from the outside world and lived in conditions that worsened from month to month. Because the food rations became more and more sparse and it became more difficult to get vegetables from landscaped gardens or through black trade with the locals. About 16,800 internees did not survive the hardships and died.

Forced labour on a large scale

Far worse than the fate of the Dutch and Eurasians was the fate of the native population. The supposed liberators turned out to be merciless slave drivers who drove more and more people into forced labour. Romushas (forced laborers) were mainly used in the construction of roads and bridges, the expansion of airports and landing strips, and the excavation of coastal fortifications. For the Japanese troops, coastal security remained an unsolved Problem; the long coasts were too vast to be effectively controlled. The Japanese general staff had not been unaware that Allied troops were planning to attempt landing maneuvers on Sumatra in addition to Malaya in order to obtain intelligence-relevant information and prepare for a recapture.

In fact, such delicate landing operations were carried out by a special unit under British command, Force 136 (Corps Insulinde), based in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). This unit also temporarily included Malay resistance fighters and Indonesian informants. Since it was not even possible for the Japanese troops to guard all coastal areas of Sumatra and Malaya, members of Force 136 succeeded several times to appear there with submarines and to put informants on Land or to take them back on board.

Romushas were also used in the construction of strategically important military projects. Two railway projects in Southeast Asia: the Thailand-Burma railway and the 220-kilometre-long railway line from Pakanbaroe to Muaro Sijunjung in Central Sumatra, included especially. If the former served the Japanese as a logistical bridgehead to occupy Burma and prepare for the Invasion of (eastern)India, the Pakanbaroe railway was to shorten the transport route between the port city of Padang on Sumatra and Singapore. From Singapore, the Japanese Navy had to accept either the long northern or the equally long southern sea route in order to secure supplies. The transports of forced laborers to the construction sites of the railway showed how risky these sea routes were. On 18 September 1944, for example, the aging ship Junyo Maru with about 2,300 prisoners of war and 4,500 Romushas on board was torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine en route to Padang. Only 680 Allied soldiers and 200 Romushas survived-a ship disaster whose casualties were exceeded only in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and Goya in 1945.

From April 1943 until the surrender of Japan on 15 August 1945, the construction of this railway through tropical jungles lasted. In total, about 6,500 prisoners of war – mainly Dutch, plus some Australians, British and Americans-had to work on the railway’s construction sites. By the end of the war, one third of them had died. Either they had died of exhaustion, malnutrition and tropical diseases during transportation and construction, or they had been slain by their guards.

The number of victims among the Romushas was far higher; of an estimated 98,000 forcibly recruited Indonesians, 80 percent died or were considered missing. An immense toll for a railway line that was never put into operation. Immediately after the end of the war, tens of kilometres of tracks were torn off the line in order to be sold as high-quality iron scrap. Today, neither in Indonesia nor in modern Pekanbaru itself is this chapter of war history remembered. Although an old locomotive has been standing there since the mid – 1970s in memory of the victims on a slightly elevated platform, this “war monument” is rusted and almost forgotten - at best interesting as a playground and playground for children.

Excursus: “food for the militaristic descendants of the sun goddess!“The writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer on the Japanese occupation of his homeland

Like all other countries in Southeast Asia, Dutch India had long been ruled by a Western colonial power. There the arrival of the Japanese troops was at first enthusiastically welcomed, as Japan was eagerly hoped for support in the fight against the hated Dutch occupiers, who along with the Portuguese had been present in Southeast Asia for the longest time as colonial rulers. However, the mood in the population turned around when atrocities by Japanese soldiers against the Indonesian civilian population increased and above all forced labour was ordered on a large scale.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), the Great Old Man of Indonesian literature, nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in literature and interviewed several times by this author, was seventeen years old when the Japanese invaded his homeland. In his autobiographical notes” Stilles Lied eines Stummen – Aufzeichnungen aus Buru " (2000), the author spoke about the time of the Japanese occupation, to which he too had initially attached great expectations:

“During the Japanese occupation, Indonesia-the name was now official after the disintegration of Dutch India – was divided in a way that did not suggest any ambition to forge a political unity. Java and Madura formed a separate administrative unit under the command of the Japanese Army. Sumatra, Bali and other islands, on the other hand, were treated as independent states and were subordinated to the Japanese Navy.

The Japanese soldiers resembled the caricatures once depicted in the Dutch newspapers: they had large teeth, many of them made of Gold, were shabbily dressed, and instead of speaking, they would scream, usually pointing their bayonet at the Person they were shouting at. In addition, many exuded a terrible body odor, which was already perceived from five meters away. After some time the appearance and smell of the Japanese improved, but this was not to be expected otherwise, for the first wave that reached and left Java consisted of front-line soldiers who had to secure the islands, while with the next wave arrived more educated men who belonged to the occupying army. (…) The Indonesian population had no respect for the Japanese, but sheer fear, which was due to the frequent mistreatment by soldiers. The Japanese regarded the Indonesians not only as an inferior race, but rather as a herd of cattle with which they could interact, as they liked. They themselves felt themselves to be a master race, and in the schools where Japanese history was taught, the students learned that (Emperor) Hirohito was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.”

Pramoedya Ananta Toer worked as a stenographer at the Japanese news agency Domei. So he came up with information that most of his countrymen did not have. And he learned what was happening in the vast island empire, which stretches from East to West over 5,000 kilometers, under the rule of the new occupying power:

“While the discipline of the Japanese gradually improved, the food supply deteriorated. In the beginning, the peasants had to give up only a certain percentage of their harvest to the military, but soon their labor was also demanded and their freedom robbed: many people were separated from their families as Romusha, forced laborers, in order to build fortifications without compensation and to die far from home with heaven as the only witness. After the War, I learned that at least four million Javanese peasants had died as Romusha – as food for the militaristic descendants of the sun goddess. Four Million! The cities overflowed with men who fled their villages in a desperate attempt to escape death.”

The capital Jakarta, the old Batavia, resembled a garbage dump. The population had to integrate into pro-Japanese organizations. In the countryside the villages emptied. Rice supplies came first to the Japanese garrisons. Hunger became a deadly weapon. All experiences that led the author Pramoedya Ananta Toer to turn his initial admiration for the Japanese into disgust:

“Batavia, which seemed clean and tidy when I arrived, was now a heap of inedible waste – everything edible, no matter what Form and condition, inevitably found its way into a hungry mouth and empty stomach.

Since the Japanese needed the support of the subjugated peoples to win their war, they tried to unite the nationalists, the religious leaders and the upper class under their supremacy. At the local level, they are monitored by neighbourhood security units called Toonarigumi all public activities. Women were integrated into the Fujinkai organization and the youth had to register with Seinendan, the local branch of the Keibodan police. All authority and decision-making powers were in the hands of the Japanese military.

In the office, I spent my days typing reports about the activities of the population and their services in the aforementioned monitoring organizations, which they had to carry out for the purpose of victory in the “Greater East Asian war”.

Bold headlines proclaimed Japanese victories on land and sea. Images of Japanese victories and Japanese superiority flickered across the screen, regardless of whether they were sports broadcasts or pleasure games. The radio continuously broadcast Japanese and Indonesian military songs. But on Java’s fields, roads and intersections, the corpses of people who were killed by the flu and dysentery piled up. Improved Japanese discipline and order meant Hunger and bitter poverty for the Indonesians.

(…) I could not resist feeling a certain admiration for the Japanese, who had put an end to Southeast Asia’s centuries-long attachment to France, England and Holland. As if it were truly a heavenly power, Dai Nippon Teikoku, the great Japanese Empire, had blown away the past with a single breath. I had seen with my own eyes how the dignity, authority and respect accorded to Western people in my home country disappeared in just a moment. Like many of my fellow citizens, I had initially placed great hope in the liberation from the yoke of colonialism that our “Big Brother” proclaimed to us, but as with many others, my positive expectations soon turned into abhorrence when I realized, grasped, and realized that Japan was nothing more than a new colonial power, which proved to be even more greedy and inhuman than the earlier ones. In the Chuoo Sangi-in I had personally stenographed the Japanese promises of freedom “at a later date” – this time would obviously be long in coming.

Even before I left Domei, despite the constant glorification of magnificent Japanese victories, the news had not been able to hide the fact that Japan was under increasing pressure. In the Pacific, allied forces invaded the Solomons and the Philippines, and in Indonesia, the Centers of oil production on Kalimantan and Sumatra became targets of American B-29 bombers. Several aircraft of this type had already appeared over Jakarta, but the Japanese antiaircraft guns were not strong enough to take them from the sky. In East Java, the Allies were already beginning to pry the transport systems out of joint, and in many trains that ran between Malang, Kediri and Surabaya, the only cargo was the bodies of people torn apart by shells.

Hunger drove people around; peasant uprisings in West Java and the uprising of the military organization Peta in East Java were only two signs of the spreading unrest. In West Papua, North Sulawesi and Aceh, insurrections against the Japanese had led to rebel victories, but on Java, the Japanese still pursued and chased anyone they considered an enemy. (…) The Japanese military had overestimated itself. The Japanese War administration called the Indonesian youth into the associations Heiho and Peta, which they had founded as a civil defense and military unit; but even this move only revealed the evidence that Japan’s native supply of soldiers was shrinking. The death penalty for the PETA soldiers who had revolted in Blitar made it clear that Japan was not inclined to trust an Indonesian army. Everyone felt that one day Japan’s military would collapse, but few expected it to happen so quickly.

On August 23, 1945, news spread like wildfire in Tunjung that soldiers were returning from the Front, and everyone was loaded with a bag of rice. They were disarmed and ordered not to return to their units.

I hurried on foot to Ngadiluwih, where I learned that Indonesia was now free. In Kediri, this message was expressed in countless red and white flags that fluttered in the Wind over the city. When I saw the Indonesian national flag, I had to think again about the promise that the Japanese had made in the Chuoo Sangi-in. But then I learned that the newly won freedom was not a gift from Japan, but that Sukarno and Hatta had already declared independence on August 17.”

Failed “Japanization”

In Indonesia, too, the new colonial rulers made every effort to remove the legacy and influence of the former rulers from public life as quickly as possible. By decree, the Japanese decreed that henceforth the birthday of Emperor Hirohito was an official holiday, Japan was to be accepted as a protective power of Nippon and the Japanese time and calendar were to apply. Every inhabitant, whether Dutch or Indonesian, had to pay respect to the Japanese military anytime and anywhere by bowing to it, which was to humiliate the people concerned in public. Hunger revolts against the occupiers were soon followed by armed uprisings - for example in East Sumatra and Aceh (North Sumatra) as well as in the south and west of Borneo. Few Japanese officers were of the opinion that Indonesia should become “independent” of Their Graces.

It was not until the end of 1944 that Tokyo changed its attitude towards the nationalists in Indonesia. The decisive factor was the numerous military setbacks that Japan suffered in the Pacific and in East Indonesia, which indicated that Japanese rule was also slowly crumbling in Indonesia. In September 1944, Tokyo revealed for the first time the Plan to release the Indonesians, as in its northern neighbour, the Philippines, into an “independence” that was acceptable to them, in order to preserve at least part of its influence in the country. However, no exact date was given, although joint negotiations were held on various occasions, including in Singapore and Saigon (Vietnam), at which a preparatory commission for granting independence was discussed.

In mid-August 1945, such negotiations were to be concretized on Java. But it was already too late; at the Potsdam Conference from 17 July to 2 August 1945, the victorious powers decided to place Thailand, Indochina, Malaya and Dutch India under the British command of the South East Asia Command (SEAC), commanded by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. East Indies and Borneo came under Australian command. Then the events rushed. On 15 August 1945, the Japanese had to surrender in Indonesia. And two days later, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed the independence of the Free Republic of Indonesia.

However, Japanese troops still controlled large parts of the country. And the precarious domestic situation was used by the Netherlands to forcibly reassert its claim to power over the islands and to involve the nationalists in military conflicts until 1949. From the proclamation of the Republic on 17 August 1945 to the signing of the handover of sovereignty in 1949, the new-old colonial rulers reacted to the events with what they termed polititionele acties (police actions). In this way, the fierce fighting that followed, flanked by guerrilla warfare on many fronts, was to be played down as internal strife. It was only after a long political-diplomatic tug-of-war that on 27 December 1949, in the presence of Queen Juliana at the royal palace in Amsterdam, a solemn settlement of the conflict was reached and thus also de jure recognition of Indonesia by the former colonial power.

Postscript: seven decades later, the Dutch Royals, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima, paid a state visit to the Republic of Indonesia from 10 to 12 March 2020 at the invitation of President Joko Widodo. In addition to the usual diplomatic practices, the King found words of remarkable significance in an address when he declared: “in accordance with previous statements by my government, I would like to express and repeat my regret and apology for the excessive violence on the part of the Dutch during these years. I do this in the full knowledge that the pain and grief of the affected families are still felt today.“It is good,” added The King, " to face up to its history, and one cannot erase the past.

Certainly a novelty in post-war history; for the first time the king in his function as head of State confessed to the military atrocities of the ancestors. Nevertheless, this Goodwill gesture was not without controversy in the Netherlands itself. Left-liberal politicians raised the question of why Willem-Alexander’s explicit apology was not made for the entire colonial period.

President Joko Widodo led his high-ranking state guest to conclude his remarks by saying: “peace and stability in the world can be achieved if the countries of the world maintain relations based on respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries, and I would like to invite her majesty to develop strong relations based on these principles.”