Image by PRI.org
The struggle for Indonesian independence from Dutch colonialism began long before the end of WWII. It started with the “Day of National Awakening” in May of 1908. The origins of this movement began with the Budi Utomo and Sarekat Islam. The Budi Utomo was the first native political society in the Dutch East Indies. However, they lacked mass appeal from the people. The Sarekat Islam or Islamic Union was a cooperative of Javanese traders in the batik industry. Sukarno was a student member of this organization. These two groups were the first to embrace an idea of independence. The word Indonesian began to be used in the 1920s and gradually replaced the idea of separate nations such as Balinese, Javanese, Sumatran and others. It was an attempt to unify the islands as a whole nation. The Youth Pledge of October 28, 1928, established the country of Indonesia, the Indonesian people and one Indonesian Language.
Members of these parties began to influence the Dutch occupiers by joining the Volksraad. The Volksraad translated into the people’s council which allowed Indonesians to be appointed. Of the 60 total seats, 25 were allotted to the Dutch minority, 5 to other minority groups such as the Chinese and only 30 to the various ethnic groups among the Indonesian people. This proto-parliament of 1918 was the first to mention self-rule for the Indonesian people. The Volksraad promised Indonesia would eventually have governance over itself but did not set a timeline. It wasn’t until the Japanese occupation that independence became a tangible idea. During the occupation, the Japanese offered actual positions of prestige to some Indonesians.
Two of the major players involved in the Indonesian Independence were Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta. They were members of the political group PNI, founded in 1927. They were some of the first Indonesians to embrace the idea of Independence first addressed by the 1918 Volksraad proto-parliament. Sukarno and Hatta were educated through the Dutch Ethical Policy. This policy stated the Dutch colonizers had an obligation to educate its colonial subjects. This policy existed for the first four decades of the twentieth century. However, the Great Depression of the 1930s unofficially ended the program because the colonial government could not continue to pay for it. Even though the efforts of the Dutch Ethical Policy were noble, they sowed the local seeds of discontent and spawned ideas of independence among the Indonesian people. This independent thinking eventually led to the end of Dutch colonialism in the East Indies or Modern Indonesia.
Even though the Japanese had a presence in Indonesia before WWII, the population only peaked at just under 7,000 residents before the invasion and occupation in 1942. The Japanese population declined during the 1930s due to economic tensions with the Dutch. The Japanese catered to the indigenous population of Indonesia, supporting the eventual independence of the nation. The Chinese aligned themselves with the Dutch and were leery of the new occupiers because of their previous aggression towards mainland China. The communist party of Indonesia was also fearful of a powerful Japan, following their victory over Russia. As the Japanese arrived and occupied Indonesia, the people cheered and welcomed the soldiers. Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived.
The occupation by the Japanese offered a varied experience for the population depending on where one lived. Many Indonesians were tortured and sold into the sex-slave industry. Even more, were forced to work in labor camps assisting the Japanese war effort. These laborers were called Romusha, and as many as 80% died at the hands of the Japanese. It is estimated four million Indonesians died of either starvation or working for the Japanese during the occupation.
The Dutch wished to regain Indonesia as their territory. The Netherlands was occupied by the German army and they could not fight a war on two fronts. The Japanese easily gained control of Indonesia and experienced little effective resistance. With the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the Dutch tried to gain possession of Indonesia again. At this point in history, the four-year struggle for independence was just beginning.