Unity or Division? Assessing the impact of the Japanese occupation on modern Indonesia: Part 2

Alex continues his look at how the occupation of Indonesia by the Empire of Japan affected it…

Another factor to keep in mind is that Japanese occupation policy stimulated nationalism in Java, and to a lesser extent in Sumatra, more than on the outer islands. Part of the reasons for this divergence is, firstly, the periphery islands were considered to be culturally primitive; secondly, it was not planned that in case of a victorious conquest of Asia these areas should become part of a nominal independent Indonesian colony. Rather they would become an official Japanese province serving as a buffer zone to defend the borders of their imperial order.

On these grounds Showa Japan had little interest in unifying the population of these areas under the banner of a shared Indonesian identity. In Java – on the other hand – the Japanese collaborated with a selected native elite that, after having been oppressed under the Dutch, was now increasingly given a platform to articulate their nationalist ideas. At the end of World War II, this Javanese elite surrounding Sukarno had been prepared by the Japanese to combat Dutch presence and eventually come to dominate the victorious Republican forces during the wars of independence. Sukarno’s Pancasila – a political philosophy combining socialism, nationalism and monotheism – was declared to be the official ideological foundation of the Indonesian state. This sort of secular-oriented political framework was developed to reconcile conflicting priorities between the countries Muslim majority population, Nationalists, Communists and various religious minority groups.

However, due to the centralist nature of the political system, the political process in post-independent Indonesia has since largely been dominated by Javanese elites. Japanese occupation policy thus enhanced the pre-existing greater social and political sophistication of Java over the outter islands, thereby fostering the emergence of a Javanese dominated political order. For the same reason, Pancasila failed to establish a strong bond of identification with the central governments in many of the outer islands.

On the periphery of the archipelago the Japanese generally adopted a more repressive attitude towards political factions, and it was not until the Japanese leaders had acknowledged their defeat that they decided to encourage revolutionary forces in order to frustrate the Allied reconquest. Since Japan’s priority was to be victorious on the battlefield, it was simply more practical to rely upon the experienced native administration of the Dutch colonial state to administer their occupied land.

However, one exemption of this rule was Ambon – an area that, due to its history and large Christian population, was suspected to be pro-Dutch. In Ambon members of Sarekat Ambon were appointed to the most senior positions within the administration. Thus, the Nationalists, whom the Dutch had little difficulties to oppress, were now put in a position of control over their former opponents, the favourite children of the Dutch. Furthermore, the Christian Ambonese soldiers – who had formed the backbone of the colonial army and of which many had formed a close identification with the Dutch – were no longer trusted and often ended up suffering a miserable fate in Japanese concentration camps.

This was a change of symbolic significance since it was precisely the image of being ‘Black Dutchmen’ that made the Christian Ambonese unpopular in the eyes of other Indonesians. While Ambonese Muslims, of which many had established close links with the Japanese occupation regime, supported the Republican forces during the war of independence, the Ambonese generic keflex prices Christians, after having been opressed by Showa Japan, were the last to disband their bond with the Dutch.

Consequently the group’s loyalty to the Indonesian national cause was questioned and, accordingly, Ambonese Christians were excluded from positions of power and influence. Largely because of this marginalization an armed Christian rebellion emerged in 1950 demanding independence from the central government. In fact, the armed struggle for independence by Mollucan Christians continued to destabilize the area until 1963.

Nevertheless, all things considered Japanese occupation policy had a unifying effect on Indonesian society. That is because the Japanese departed from the Dutch practice of oppressing Nationalist and Islamic movements in the most populated areas of Java and Sumatra. While the indigenous administration of the Dutch was largely maintained, the Japanese attempted to mobilize political factions for their propaganda and war efforts.

Contrary to what has been claimed by Dutch historians in the 1940s and 1950s, the political exploitation of these groups was not driven by a motivation to ’divide and rule’ the Indonesian population. According to a new generation of historians, an evaluation of available Japanese primary sources does not indicate that the military felt seriously threatened by any Indonesian faction – except for the rebellious Ambonese Christians.

This highlights that, first, the preserving of superficial social harmony was a matter of lower priority for Showa Japan than it was for the Dutch; second, the cultivation of Nationalist and Islamic groups was motivated not so much by a need for balance but by a greater usefullness of these groups for Japan’s propaganda and war efforts. Given that before the invasion there had been little social relations between the traditional native elites and Nationalist and Islamic parties, Japanese occupation policy cannot be held solely responsible for all the destablizing divisions that have plagued Indonesian society since independence.

It is true that by providing military training to members of the Islamic PUSA party, including Kartusiwirjo – who would later emerge as leader of the Darul Islam movement – the Japanese made possible the emergence of a destabilizing Islamist insurgency. Yet, it is also true that by incoorporating both the old elites of the Dutch colonial state as well as members of Nationalist and Islamic parties into various administrative, advisory and propaganda positions, where they were required to cooperate, Japanese occupation policy helped to overcome many divisions that had plagued Indonesian society since colonial times.

This is largely because the Dutch had ’divided and ruled’ their colony under the pretext of tolerating native customary law and traditions: firstly, by providing distinct systems of jurisprudence for different racial groups; and secondly, by providing two different kinds of education – one designed for the privileged native elites and emphasizing the teaching of Western culture, and one that was taught in the local languages and offered little more than basic literacy skills. The Japanese – on the other hand – put an end to this discriminative practice, which was consistent with their ultimate aim to transform parts of Indonesia into a semi-independent colony. Accordingly, it was in the interest of Showa Japan to unify the population in these areas under the banner of an anti-Western and Pan-Asian Nationalism. The idea was to achieve this through the introduction of an egalitarian judiciary and education system that applied to all, irrespective of their ethnic and religious background.

To be concluded in part 3


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Alex Beck 8 Articles
Alex is a history student from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is of German-Iranian descent and has written about foreign policy analysis and strategic studies.

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