Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

From Merdeka! to Massacre: The Politics of Sugar in the Early Years of the Indonesian Republic

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

From Merdeka! to Massacre: The Politics of Sugar in the Early Years of the Indonesian Republic

Article excerpt

Once the mesmerizing calm had ended, the massacres began .... first to be raided were the workers' quarters in the sugar factory ... to eliminate the Communist elements. [As the killings spread to the surrounding rural areas] it was done like this: a particular village would be surrounded by squads of Nationalist and Religious youth ... on average, about 3000 people were involved. The expectation was that, with the village surrounded, no Communist elements would be able to escape. It was pretty effective, too. Each day, as Kartawidjaja's Son No. 2 went or returned from State Senior High School No. 1, he always saw corpses of Communists floating in the river Brantas. And the departure of corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI banner proudly flew. (1)

Writing in the 1980s, an Indonesian writer broke two decades of near-silence among those of his compatriots who had been among, or very close to, the killers who had carried out the murders of half-a-million or more Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI, Indonesian Communist Party) members predominantly in the rural areas of Java and Bali in 1965-66. (2) The author was Pipit Rochijat, the self-designated 'Son no. 2' of an Indonesian sugar factory manager in East Java's Brantas valley. What he had to say about the sugar industry was tangential to the main thrust of his argument, which concerns the tragic consequences of a Manichean view of political differences. His narrative is instructive, nonetheless; above all, it provides vital clues on the nexus between sugar and politics during the early years of the independent Republic of Indonesia. (3) The period from 1945 to 1965 in Java (and Bali) witnessed a historic traversal from Merdeka!--the clarion call to freedom of the 'Indonesian Spring' of the late 1940s--through to the massacres of 1965-66, to which Pipit was both witness and participant. The present paper examines why Java's long-standing sugar industry was so bound up in that traversal. It begins by narrating the events of the 1940s through to the 1960s in and around Ngadiredjo, one of East Java's major surviving ex-colonial sugar factories (still in production at the time of writing)--and the one at which Pipit's father was general manager at the time of the massacres. It then goes on to place these events--foreign invasion, national revolution, independence and its aftermath--in the wider context of trajectories that ensured that Java sugar not only survived the turbulent mid-century decades, but found an entirely new raison d'etre.

Three main factors were involved in this unexpected longevity. The first of these was the consumption of sugar and its links to (purported) modernity within the newly formed Republic. In the mid-twentieth century, the growing popularity of factory-made white sugar--and, even more, for the manufactured soft drinks that required a steady supply of the processed sweetener--combined with elite predilections for industrial technology ensured that the industry in Java survived political turbulence and economic crisis. Underpinning this survival, however, was a second factor related to the way in which the state and its agencies moved centre-stage in the organisation of large-scale sugar production on Java. This began early in the 1930s, continued emphatically post-Independence in 1949, and culminated in the nationalisation of the industry less than a decade later. Critically, a third factor served to articulate the first two: subject to nationalisation between 1957 and 1959, the industry came under de facto army control, a development which helps explain how long-running disputes in rural Java relating to sugar, land and labour culminated in the mass killings which eliminated 'communist' activists in the sugar factories and related peasant organisations.

Ngadiredjo: Sugar in East Java's Brantas valley

The sugar factory at the centre of events described by Pipit was Ngadiredjo, in the southern sector of the Brantas valley area of Kediri Residency. …

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