Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

History matters - the ripple effect of Indonesia's declaration of independence

Tense wait: A scene from the 1946 Joris Ivens film Indonesia Calling showing Indonesian seamen in Sydney listening to a short-wave radio for news of Indonesia’s declaration of independence. Jim Belshaw continues the story of Camp Victory and the Casino Boys
 May 1925, Dutch East Indies. The Executive Committee of Comintern (Communist International) orders communists in Indonesia to form a united anti-imperialist front with non-communist nationalist organizations, but key elements in the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia) demand revolution to replace the Dutch colonial government with PKI rule. At a conference in Prambanan, Central Java, communist-controlled trades unions decide that revolution should start with a strike by railroad workers that would signal a general strike and then a revolution.

The attempt was poorly coordinated and quickly crushed by the Dutch East Indies Authorities. A number of those arrested were sent to the Tanah Merah prison camp in West Papua, with others added later. By 1943, numbers in the camp including women and children totalled more than 500.

Concerned that the Tanah Merah detainees might become a fifth column, Charles Van der Plas, the Chief Commissioner of the Netherlands East Indies Government-in-Exile, persuaded General Douglas MacArthur to overrule Australian Government reluctance and bring the Tanah Merah detainees to Australia. The evacuation was completed between 27 May and 2 June 1943, using a mix of boats and flying boat.

Initially the detainees were sent to the Australian Government’s internment camp at Cowra, but then redistributed to various places including the 36th Australian Employment Company at Wallangarra and Camp Victory at Casino. While supporting Indonesian independence, most of the detainees saw defeat of Japan as a first priority.

The proclamation of Indonesian Independence on 17 August 1945 reached Australia by crackly short wave radio. Among those listening to the announcement were a group of Indonesian sailors crowded around a short-wave radio set in the Indonesian Seamen’s Union offices at Woolloomooloo.
Indonesian seamen speaking at a pro-Indonesian demonstration in Wynyard Square, Sydney, on September 28, 1945.
One of the things that I hadn’t properly realised until researching this series was the extent to which the relatively large Indonesian presence in Australia after 1942 created organisational linkages and a support base supporting Indonesian independence. This included both the Indonesians themselves and their organisations and their Australian supporters, building on previous fraternal links established through the unions and the Communist Party.

These links now came into play.

On 23 September 1945, Indonesian crew members on four Dutch ships in Sydney began a sit-down strike partly over pay, partly concerned that that the material on the ships might be used to suppress the independence movement. They were supported by the Australian Maritime Union and the Waterside Workers’ Federation, leading to a black ban on Dutch or Dutch chartered shipping that would last for over four years.
SS Moreton Bay. One of the Dutch chartered ships help up by the Union boycott 
News of Indonesian Independence seems to have reached both the Australian Army base at Wallangarra and the Netherlands East Indies’ Casino Camp Victory by 12 September 1945. At both places, Indonesian troops refused to continue service, while a grenade was thrown at Wallangarra.

At Camp Victory, barbed wire fences were hastily erected to contain troops who were (from a Netherlands East Indies’ Army perspective) in dereliction of duty. Instead of learning to fly, the Casino Boys found themselves pressed into duty as guards. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 1 March 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017.

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