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British intervention Indonesia JAKARTA - Sixty years ago on Aug. 17 Indonesia's Founding Fathers President Sukarno and Vice-President Mohamad Hatta issued the Proclamation of Independence or Proklomasi as it is known. An historic event. The national leaders, under great pressure from militant nationalist youth, had seized the hour.

Unknown to the leaders and their enthusiastic followers, forces were soon to move against them. Over the horizon were the British, whose brief was to secure the terms of the Japanese surrender that had brought the Asia-Pacific War to an end. These terms included the demobilization of the Japanese forces and the eventual repatriation of the soldiers, sailors and airmen to Japan.

Of more pressing concern to the British Supreme Commander for South East Asia Lord Louis Mountbatten in the light of the many stories of Japanese wartime atrocities that had already emerged was the fate of the tens of thousands of Allied POW and other internees, principally the Dutch women and children, held in Japanese camps in Java, Sumatra and elsewhere.

Allied SEAC HQ in Kandy, Ceylon issued "instructions" over the radio to these unfortunates, who had suffered grievously in the camps for more than three years, to stay put until Allied troops arrived to free them. The Japanese were under strict orders to secure the camps and to maintain law and order. All of this, needless to say, was going on over the heads of the Indonesian Republican leaders.

A collision course was set for which the Indonesians should take no responsibility; their justifiable aim was complete independence from the Netherlands after more than three centuries of colonial rule and exploitation. The Dutch, whose homeland had been smashed by the Nazi occupation and war and also by the Famine Winter of 1944-1945, were intent on re-conquest of the colony once known as the Dutch East Indies.

When Mountbatten dispatched British and Indian troops to Indonesia in September 1945 no attempt had been made by him to establish contact with the Republican government. Indeed, on the contrary, these forces would land with no prior intelligence whatsoever, as Mountbatten himself would famously lament. The British, whatever the rightfulness of their intentions towards the POW and internees, were simply blundering into the unknown. The Dutch, meanwhile, broadcast from Australia to denounce Sukarno and Hatta as "quislings".

Younger Indonesian readers might now be mystified by this reference. For their reference, Vidkun Quisling was the Norwegian leader who threw in his lot with the Nazi occupation of his country when the vast majority of his people either silently or actively resisted it. To call Sukarno and Hatta "quislings" is historically inaccurate. Neither man preached the virtues of the Japanese occupation of the Indies, nor did they lead a puppet government; both simply had an eye on the future and whatever room for maneuver their nationalist cause might have.

The British force that arrived in Batavia in September 1945 was led by Gen. Sir Philip Christison and included men of the Seaforth Highlanders, a Scottish regiment whose forebears had, interestingly, seen service in Java under Raffles in 1811-1816, and Indian regiments such as the Gurkha Rifles and the Mahrattas. For the humanitarian purposes mentioned earlier teams called RAPWI or Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees had been formed and these fanned out, where they could in order to locate their targets.

Many of the Dutch, meanwhile, were in no mood to obey Mountbatten's instructions to stay put, even, that is, if they had had access to a radio, an offense liable to cruel punishment by the Japanese. They were intent on returning to their pre-war homes in the cities and plantations, believing that they could restore the "status quo ante". Critically, the British were slow to realize that this ambition was both futile and highly provocative to the Indonesians.

The newly proclaimed Republic was now on a collision course with battle-hardened if war-weary British and Indian troops, some of them fresh from the privations of the Burma campaign. If the British would not recognize the republic and negotiate with it, where to next?

Posted in History @ 16 August 2005 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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