Sat, 11 Nov 2000

British reflections on RI's Heroes Day

By David Jardine

JAKARTA (JP): "Happy the land without heroes," said the philosopher Bertolt Brecht. Maybe, but he would find few, if any, takers for such a sentiment in Indonesia as the country celebrated National Heroes Day on Nov. 10.

Trawling recently through the archives of Singapore's The Straits Times the following reference was found, which amply demonstrates in its own way just what it was that the risen people, the Indonesians, were up against and the marrow-of-the- bone arrogance of the colonialists:

"P.O.W. Reaction to the Java News; Among Hollanders on Singapore ... several thousand ex-POWs and others believe that Dr. Soekarno has been given much more prominence than he is worth in the news from Java in the past few days," read the report of Oct. 2, 1945.

"This view was voiced by Mr. B.W.M. de Haas, editor of the well-known Batavia newspaper Java Bode when he came to call at The Straits Times office."

This was printed without further comment, doubtless reflecting the same smug colonial hauteur among the freshly returned British in the Singapore colony.

Two days later the same newspaper reported that "Nats have taken over the Surabaya airfield". Three planes, one British, one Dutch, one Japanese, had been forced to abort landings in Surabaya when confronted with "a huge crowd on the airfield waving flags and armed with bamboos".

The report, making no reference to de Haas' peremptory dismissal of the Indonesian cause through denigration of its leader, then went on to say, "All members of the Japanese Gestapo (kempeitai) in Surabaya have been arrested by the Indonesians who have taken possession of six Japanese tanks and a number of armored cars."

Events in East Java in particular would prove, "There are none so blind as those that will not see." The colonialists, unable to imagine the discontents of a colonized people, would, like all autocrats, soon be made to realize the extent of their mistake.

But what of the role of the British, who had no stake in the Dutch East Indies? I first became aware of it in 1983 on my first trip to Indonesia.

A smiling Surabaya taxi driver asked me where I was from. "I'm British," I replied. His smile took on lighthouse proportions. "Oh," he said, "we killed a British general here in 1945." That general was in fact a Brigadier Mallaby, commanding officer of the Commonwealth troops on the ground and leader of a detachment of the 2nd Punjab Rifles.

The same Mallaby is today buried in Jakarta's beautifully maintained Menteng Pulo Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, along with many other Commonwealth casualties of one of Britain's forgotten little "wars".

I told the driver I was an anticolonialist, anyway and sat back to reflect on why I knew nothing of this colonial escapade of ours. It was easy enough to understand why the British had returned to Singapore and Malaya, but Indonesia?

There were legitimate reasons for the arrival of the force called Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War (RAPWI), but the disdainful refusal of the British to recognize the new state and negotiate with it would inevitably lead to confrontation.

This refusal was, of course, rooted in the very same colonial hauteur that de Haas exemplified and which the Straits Times had reflected in its reportage of the Mountbatten-led British return to Singapore in September: " ... a great moment indeed to hear British bugles sounding again on the padang, scene of so many historic events in the history (sic!) of Singapore."

RAPWI's mission soon became muddied with an extraneous agenda, recolonization of Indonesia by the Dutch and however haunting the images were, and are, of the surviving POWs and the rightness of securing them, the fact remains that the British got involved in something which did not concern them.

More, they used surrendered Japanese troops to do their work for them, as indeed they did in Saigon against Ho Chi Minh's new Republic of Vietnam.

In all the impassioned debate in the West about the continued failure of the Japanese to make adequate recompense for the many crimes committed in their name in the Pacific War, there is very little acknowledgment of this. Or of what the veteran foreign correspondent Edward Behr, a serving officer in Sumatra at the time, spoke of in his memoirs, acts committed by the Commonwealth force that would today be considered war crimes.

There are other aspects of the British presence here in 1945 to 1946 that await a fuller disclosure, too. Ktut Tantri in her book Revolt in Paradise talks of a mutiny in Surabaya. The men involved, she claimed, were soldiers of the West Yorkshire Regiment.

Certainly, there are men of that regiment buried in Menteng Pulo who died in late 1945. The youngest British soldier commemorated here is West Yorkshire Pte Wilfred Shane, whose date of death was December 26, 1945. British histories of the period make no reference to such an issue or, like John Keay's recently published The Last Post, The End of Empire in the Far East, pass over Ktut Tantri's claim without further ado.

I can thank an anonymous Surabaya taxi driver for giving me an interest in the period and in the difficult birth of the Republic of Indonesia. He led me to Menteng Pulo and the discovery of a corner of "a foreign field forever England" that is also a corner of my nation's history that should not be forgotten.

The author is a freelancer in Jakarta.