Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Cold War in Indonesia, 1948

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Cold War in Indonesia, 1948

Article excerpt

After the end of the Second World War, communication between the Soviet Union and the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI, Indonesian Communist Party) was complicated, difficult and for periods of time, non-existent. It fitted a pattern that can be discerned since the founding of the PKI, the first communist party in Asia, in December 1920. The PKI, then a legal party, joined the Communist International (Comintern) and was represented at Comintern congresses in the early twenties. Reports given at the congresses, articles in Comintern press and information to the responsible Comintern functionaries featured a mixture of rosy images, personal preoccupations and opportunistic adjustments. The Comintern was thus misinformed about developments. Its guidelines for PKI action also became blurred and distorted in transmission to Indonesia, to the extent that the PKI on the spot (increasingly fragmented because of Dutch repression), could select the policy which suited it best.

This gap between local action and international control can be seen in the events of November 1926 on Java and January 1927 on West Sumatra: armed uprisings, both easily quelled by the Dutch. The outcome for the PKI was disastrous. The party was prohibited, thousands of its members were arrested, and after extra-judicial procedures 1,300 were sent for an indefinite period to Boven Digul, an internment camp deep in the swamps of remote New Guinea. The chances for a PKI comeback seemed remote.

Information in Moscow on the fate of the PKI was scant and contradictory. To remedy matters Muso, a PKI leader who had fled Indonesia shortly before the 1926 uprising, was sent to Indonesia in 1935, to gain a reliable insight in the state of affairs of communism and rebuild the PKI. He stayed, secretly, for half a year, with Surabaya as his base. After Muso left Indonesia, his trusted comrades founded the PKI-Muda (Young PKI). Of the founders all but one were soon caught and exiled. The remaining leader at large, Pamudji, established a small network of followers. Great caution and a cell system limited further arrests. There was also, to some extent, communist influence in the legal leftist party Gerindo, led by Amir Sjarifuddin. In its own periodical the PKI followed Moscow's line: a People's Front should stop the advance of the totalitarian powers, Germany and Japan.

Shortly before the Japanese occupation of 1942-45, when Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union had become allies, the Dutch handed Amir Sjarifuddin a substantial amount of money to organise resistance against the Japanese. Amir, by then close to being a communist, shared his money with known PKI cadres, among them Pamudji. The Japanese secret police was successful in rolling up this amorphous network. Pamudji was executed, and Amir given a life sentence. Thus, the second PKI generation was eliminated.

A third generation emerged, inspired by the sense of belonging to a great world movement, and by awareness of a glorious PKI tradition. Japanese repression did not allow for much more than PKI survival: maintaining communication, finding hiding places, anti-Japanese propaganda and education. The party sustained heavy losses, but some bases survived.

The defeat of Japan saw the remaining leadership decide to keep the PKI at a low profile until further notice. But what the new international order would entail was unclear. What would be the position of the Soviet Union among the victorious Allies? Would cooperation and the People's Front line be continued? If so, to what purpose?

There was also the question of what would happen to the Republik Indonesia, proclaimed on 17 August 1945. An active and strong PKI might persuade the British and Americans to support reimposition of Dutch colonial control, damaging the survival chances of the infant Republik. Moreover PKI lacked a popular leader; Amir was still in jail, and other leaders abroad. Furthermore, a prominent PKI role in Indonesia would discourage the bureaucracy there from supporting the new Republik. …

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