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What did resistance look like in Indonesia during the Second World War?

Stories of resistance in the Second World War are widely covered in Dutch historiography: Hannie Schaft, Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, and Professor Cleveringa are some of the best known. But these accounts largely focus on the Dutch domestic perspective. On the other side of the world, a complex colonial context gave rise to an even more complex reality between the occupier and those being occupied.

Nazi Germany's occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War is a relatively clear-cut story: a sovereign country was invaded, and most inhabitants were not happy with that. Organised groups resisted the occupation in various ways. While some parallels can be drawn between the Nazi German occupation of the Netherlands and the Japanese occupation of Indonesia – known to the Dutch as the Dutch East Indies - it would be a mistake to think that the exact same story of resistance played out in the former Dutch colony, says Associate Professor Ethan Mark.

Newfound hope

Simply put, from an Indonesian perspective, the experience of Dutch colonial occupation gave a different spin to being occupied by the Japanese. As a matter of fact, many Indonesians welcomed them. ‘They were open to the Japanese as an alternative occupier because they had experienced Dutch racism, discrimination, exploitation and oppression,’ says Mark. The Japanese also presented themselves as liberators from Western colonialism. ‘At first, Indonesians were therefore optimistic and enthusiastic. Things looked much brighter and more promising than under Dutch occupation.’

So, believing it to be in the national interest, Indonesian nationalist leaders such as Sukarno chose to cooperate with the Japanese. ‘It makes it harder to organise a resistance when your leaders are collaborating,’ says Mark. The limited resistance that arose during the war came mostly from the Dutch or “Indos” (ed. people with mixed Dutch and Indonesian ancestry) who believed that the Dutch East Indies needed to be liberated from the Japanese occupier and given back to the Netherlands. ‘But many Indonesians thought it was better to stay on the Japanese side than to support a Dutch return.’

Rude awakening

As the war progressed, however, the Indonesians were in for a rude awakening. ‘They ended up suffering more under the Japanese than they did under the Dutch,’ Mark explains. He characterises the Japanese rulers as inept and having little knowledge of the region. The war situation introduced further chaos in Indonesian life. ‘Indonesia had an economy built on colonial exports, so it needed to import basic necessities such as food and clothing. When trade was cut off because of the war, they started to experience shortages very quickly,’ he says. When the war turned against Japan, the situation became even more dire. ‘Like a typical coloniser, the Japanese prioritised their own needs over those of the colonised. Indonesian food, already in short supply, was also requisitioned to feed the troops.’

Even though altogether some four million people died in occupied Indonesia at the hands of the Japanese, the population didn't rebel. ‘By that point, most were exhausted and starving,’ says Mark. Moreover, despite the difficult times, some people still held out hope for an independent Indonesia. Late in the war, the Japanese had promised they would eventually grant independence to Indonesia. ‘From the perspective of the Indonesian leaders, it didn't make a lot of sense to resist the Japanese occupiers because of the promise of independence, even though people were dying of hunger and disease.’ Had the war gone on longer, Mark suspects the Japanese might have seen more resistance, particularly from younger Indonesians. While the promise of independence kept older leaders in check, many young Indonesians had lost faith in the Japanese.

Fighting after the occupation

The most substantial anti-Japanese resistance from the Indonesians therefore came after the Japanese had surrendered. The Allies ordered the Japanese to refrain from turning over their weapons to Indonesians and to hold the line until the Dutch returned. ‘Some decided to give weapons to the Indonesians anyway, but most Japanese soldiers did obey the command and refused to hand them over,’ says Mark. What followed were confrontations between Japanese forces and Indonesian nationalists. ‘A fair number of Indonesians and some Japanese died in these fights in the months after the occupation ended.’

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