The End of Empire – Just how did Indonesia gain its independence from the Dutch?

Independence movements come in different shapes and sizes in different parts of the world. And while many of us are familiar with Vietnam’s anti-colonial history, that is less true of other countries in South-East Asia. Here, Miguel Miranda explains the anti-colonial movement and quest for independence in post-World War Two Indonesia.

Southeast Asia used to be a chaotic map of internecine conflict. This was indeed the prevailing state of affairs when the Portuguese and Dutch arrived in the early 16th century. As the scholarly adventurer Antonio Galvao wrote of the Moluccas’ martial culture, “they are always waging war, they enjoy it. They live and support themselves by it.”

Maritime forays into the Orient, an uncharted expanse whose nations were completely unknown to Europeans, were inspired not by Marco Polo’s tall tales but the raw desire for commodities. Spices, cloves and nutmeg, in particular, were the prizes. The problem was exactly where the precious cloves were to be found—the Moluccas Islands in the Banda Sea.

Owing to competition from Portugal, the Dutch East India Company or the VOC established a firm toehold in Java instead. The sumptuous domain was where petty Sultans and pirates held sway. European arms and technology weren’t as superior as presumed in this setting because local armies had greater numbers and formidable warships. After all, the Portuguese adventurer Fernao Magalhaes and his men were slaughtered in the shores of Mactan. The VOC employed the alternative to force of arms, focusing their energies on cultivating alliances, patronizing local rulers, and building outposts for absorbing exports.

The Dutch influence

This changed when the Netherlands consolidated the Dutch East Indies after the brutal Java War ended in 1830. Appointed governors, tasked with running an export-driven economic policy, assumed control of Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Papua and Borneo. The Dutch were stern and ruthless masters and every revolt, such as in Aceh, was dealt with by force.

The very idea of Indonesian nationalism took hold in the early 20th century. It even followed a pattern many anti-colonial movements went through, where a so-called intelligentsia educated in Europe began to aspire for political freedom. This ferment produced two seminal figures who would usher Indonesia’s birth: the coldly intellectual Mohammad Hatta, who was more Dutch in his outlook and conduct than Javanese, and Achmed Sukarno, whose own background as an engineer hardly prepared him for a career as professional rebel. Together they formed an interesting partnership, the ideologue and the man of action, and commanded a powerful vehicle for their ideas: the PNI, or Partai Nasional Indonesia.

Japan’s lightning assault on Southeast Asia in 1941 deposed the Dutch colonial government in Batavia, which is present day Jakarta. This brief interlude, complete with the harsh wages of occupation, did galvanize Java’s nationalists. Sukarno himself, long familiar with imprisonment meted by Dutch colonial authorities, was freed by the Japanese. In turn Sukarno didn’t hesitate to solicit aid from his country’s occupiers. His dalliance with Japan extended to the personal realm. A compulsive womanizer, Sukarno’s better half was a Japanese entertainer.


Towards the end of 1945, with the Imperial Japanese Army having surrendered and ready for demobilization, the nationalists and their allies—hardened by years of guerilla warfare—were poised to reclaim Java. The PNI rallied and with Tokyo’s blessing Sukarno declared a republic on 17 August 1945.

But what followed instead was swift retribution from the Dutch. Cobbling a military from young recruits equipped with Allied Lend Lease and surplus, some 120,000 soldiers were shipped to the Indies to smother the new country. Their activities, which would include prison camps and wholesale slaughter, were officially labeled as “Police Actions.”

The historical record of Indonesia’s “national revolution” remains murky. The available facts form a bare outline lacking in color and drama. Its most critical battle, for example, is a farcical episode in the city of Surabaya where the British—not the Dutch—had to rout the local guerillas who had seized the metropolis to restore order.

Owing to the young republic’s tenacity, a typical stalemate soon prevailed between conventional European armies (the Dutch and the British) garrisoned in the large cities while the local rebels had free reign in the countryside. The fate of Madiun, in East Java, was interesting as it fell to hardcore communists who were then crushed not by the Dutch but the nascent republic’s own troops. In West Java a separate rising under the guise of Darul Islam sought to wage jihad and establish a grand theocracy lasted two decades.

Even the Japanese had a role in the conflict. With a substantial garrison stuck in Java, IJA officers willingly lent arms and equipment to the Indonesian resistance before departing for their homeland. This was done just as the British were relying on Japanese troops to help police the restive colony.

The rise of a new leader

Sukarno’s revolution wasn’t an exceptional one. Other eruptions were tearing apart Europe’s aging dominion on foreign territories. The British in Palestine. The French in Vietnam and Algeria. The Belgians in their precious Congo. World War Two may have saved Western civilization, but it ignited small fires among the people suffering under colonialism’s yoke.

Indonesia’s war for independence never had its own Dien Bien Phu where local grit and daring prevailed over European hubris. This didn’t make it any less bloody. It killed more than 100,000 Indonesians and cost the Netherlands several thousand troops along with at least a thousand dead British and Indian soldiers. Rather than Sukarno and the PNI victorious beyond doubt, it was the United Nations who eventually recognized and then restored Indonesia’s independence on 27 December 1949. The Dutch acquiesced owing to their battered economy and withdrew their forces. Rather than usher peace, however, Indonesia’s emergence allowed a dictator in the making to craft grand schemes.

Despite an early fixation on parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, Sukarno eventually steered the PNI toward “guided democracy,” which was really just shorthand for lifelong dictatorship. With a powerful army at his disposal a headlong push to annex Borneo ignited a confrontation with the British in what became the Konfrontasi. Provocations aimed at Singapore and separate invasions of Sulawesi and West Papua enhanced Jakarta’s reputation as a contentious neighbor.

As he leaned closer to Peking and Moscow, Sukarno dreamed of establishing a super state across Southeast Asia. This compelled Washington, DC’s long campaign to unseat him, beginning with a botched covert invasion in 1958 and a full-blown coup d’etat in 1965 that ushered the Suharto era and the horrific purge of Indonesia’s communists.

The only recourse that checked Indonesia’s belligerence was when five ministers, from Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and Bangkok, convened in the Thai capital on 8 August 1967 and agreed—on paper—to establish an informal union. The idea came from Indonesia’s Adam Malik, who would go on to serve a brilliant diplomatic career. 50 years later and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN is thriving, albeit still uncomfortable with the challenges posed by what the First World considers “development.”

Indonesia paid dearly for its independence and suffered under two corrupt dictators. Having achieved true democracy it’s exciting to think about whether Indonesia is destined to emerge a peerless regional giant. Could Sukarno’s fever dream become real?