Indonesia has what we lack – a day of unity

Aug 16, 2023
17th August Independence day of Indonesia ( Hari Merdeka). Concept Independence Day celebrations in the Republic of Indonesia. Image: iStock

It’s banners and bunting season in Southeast Asia as our neighbours celebrate independence. Singapore finished its wavings on 9 August and Malaysia’s moments of pomp will come on 16 September. Like Australia, both won sovereignty through diplomacy.

Next up is Indonesia on 17 August and the 78th birthday party will be brimming with exuberance we’d consider over the top.

The excessives acknowledge a genuine achievement at a terrible cost, seized by nationalists, not handed back by an exhausted European state.

The gaiety is driven from below, not imposed by officials pushing citizens to cheer. Involvement is universal. Families painting their gates and kerb lines on the asphalt across Indonesia this past week do so in the spirit of gotong royong, community self-help.

Government grants are rare – the banners draping fences and forming arches have been handed down like relics from past years, or bought from wandering vendors. Much is homemade and inventive.

There’ll be thousands of closed-street parties, an abundance of savouries and buckets of rice, much singing and mineral water, though no grog.

Understanding our giant and much-overlooked neighbour demands more than a splash in a Bali villa pool, and a dabble with Indonesian language at junior high. It needs immersion.

Australians expect division on 26 January reckoning it’s either an invasion or John Howard’s ‘luckiest thing that happened to Australia’.

So we find Indonesia’s razzmatazz and fireworks hard to understand, and not just because we’re fearful of bushfires and distrustful of authority defining eventful moments.

While we puzzle, Indonesia’s celebrations relate with Americans because their histories have been settled.

The 4 July 1776 Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia established the US as a separate nation. Then came war to secure independence, ending with the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

At 10 am on 17 August 1945, the revolutionary leader Soekarno declared the birth of the Republic of Indonesia and the death of the Dutch East Indies after more than three centuries.

War erupted, ceasing only when sovereignty was transferred to the short-lived ‘United States of Indonesia’ at the end of 1949, though West Papua was not included till 1963.

Both nations have settled their past, an essential foundation for accord. Our history has not been resolved for much remains unrecognised.

The latest estimates from Newcastle University research has more than 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives lost across more than 400 massacres. More happened between 1860 to 1930 than in the 70 years after settlement.

The polyglot Soekarno, who became the nation’s first President, is titled Proklamator. He was a great orator, yet his speech is short, dull and devoid of detail:

‘We the people of Indonesia hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters concerning the transfer of power, etc., will be carried out in a conscientious manner and as speedily as possible.’

British-America epidemiologist and former Reuters journalist Dr Elizabeth Pisani caught the fragility with her essential read, Indonesia Etc. Exploring the Improbable Nation.

The separation statement was read before a microphone and a bunch of blokes on a veranda. The women were in the backrooms, cooking for the safari suits and sewing flags.

The humble Jakarta house where it all happened has since been demolished because Soekarno thought it insufficiently grand for a national monument.

There was little time for crafted eloquence at the proclamation. Two days earlier the Japanese, who’d brutally occupied the archipelago since 1942, surrendered marking the end of the Pacific War, though locally still in control and armed.

The Indonesian revolutionaries who’d been planning for freedom since 1908 rushed to seize the moment. Threats by impatient students to kidnap Soekarno and force him into action added to the chaos. This was no time to discuss specifics.

The 31 words get read at every Independence Day event and are so pedestrian that only the flag-raising, usually performed by strutting teens, arouses emotion.

Although there are questions about the flag’s origins, these don’t cleave society. One tale has it inherited from the red and white striped emblem of the Majapahit Era (1293 – 1527), Java’s Golden Age.

A probably fabricated version has a youth ripping off the blue section of the Netherlands tricolour after climbing a hotel flagpole in the East Java capital of Surabaya, which is why most of the red was blood.

The British arrived at the port at the end of October to reinstate rule by The Hague, but by then the pemuda (headstrong youth) had seized Japanese weapons to defend their new nation against mainly Indian Army infantrymen.

The one-sided Battle of Surabaya is remembered every year on 10 November. The most important account has been written by Australian journalist Dr Frank Palmos.

During the fighting, an estimated 2,000 Allied troops and 16,000 Indonesians were killed. The survivors fled south and started a guerrilla war against the returning colonialists. This lasted four years, taking Indonesian casualties up to 100,000 deaths.

The late American-Australian historian Dr Merle Ricklefs wrote that the Indonesians’ determined resistance ‘galvanised the nation in support of independence and helped garner international attention.’

Internationally it confirmed that the Republic had popular support. Later Britain, Australia and the US through the United Nations forced the Dutch to abandon their colonial ambitions.

While we’re still debating our flag and whether 26 January is the appropriate day (maybe the Voice could advise), Indonesians have no doubt their choice is right.

Though divisions in the Republic are distressing, sometimes violent and usually involving religion and ethnicity, they’re absent on 17 August, the day of unity.

January 26 marks unfinished business. The new Australia Day could be the day we pass the referendum.

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