It’s Sunday afternoon at the National Awakening Museum in Central Jakarta and a scuffle is taking place in the courtyard. A man dressed in khaki fatigues falls down dead, his limbs sprawled on the manicured lawn. Moments later he sits up again, laughing.
This is a typical weekend activity for the Indonesian Reenactors Community (IDR), a group dedicated to keeping alive the memory of Indonesia’s independence fighters — and the troops they fought against.
IDR has chapters from Medan to Surabaya, counting amateur historians, collectors and costumers of all ages among its ranks. Members regularly come together in costume to reenact battles from Indonesian history.
The group recently reenacted an event from the Indonesian revolution known as the “Bandung Sea of Fire,” when retreating independence fighters set the south of the city ablaze. The IDR troops donned homemade combat gear, engaged in mock battle and set off fireworks to emulate the 1946 destruction.
Indonesia declared independence in 1945 and officially gained it in 1949, after freeing itself from British, Japanese and Dutch rule. But IDR members aren’t only interested in taking Indonesia’s side in their reenactments — many members of the Jakarta chapter prefer to take the side of the enemy.
Gama Bagus Kuntoadi, a 36-year-old health teacher from Central Java, likes to wear the uniform of Andjing NICA, a battalion allied to the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration. He explains that the motives of the opposing forces was something he never got to hear about at school.
[quote author="Gama Bagus Kuntoadi"]It was Indonesians versus Indonesians. We are only aware of that now.[/quote]
“The focus was more on Indonesia’s independence struggle. But the Dutch side was never exposed,” he says. “If we read further we find out that many of those fighting on the side of the Dutch were not actually Dutchmen.”
Gama researched the history of Andjing NICA to make his uniform as accurate as possible, right down to the custom-made patch featuring a dog’s head sewn on the shoulder. While scouring photo archives and Dutch historical documents online, Gama discovered that many of the battalion’s fighters were hired guns from Ambon, Maluku and Makassar.
“It was Indonesians versus Indonesians,” he explained. “We are only aware of that now.”
Okie Raishananto, a 37-year-old insurance salesman, says it’s understandable that some people would take the side of the Dutch.
“People today can look at the Ambonese and say, ‘Hey, back then your grandfathers were colonizers.’ But in our grandfathers’ time Indonesia was not yet formed as a nation,” he says.
Since independence, Indonesia has brutally suppressed movements aiming to break free of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI), as in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua.
Yosef Errol Tornado Situmoranq, a 40-year-old IDR member, says that as elsewhere in the world, history in Indonesia repeats itself.
Errol’s Dutch great-grandfather married a woman from Medan, and his grandfather was eventually forced to choose whether to join the Dutch forces or the new state of Indonesia. He chose Indonesia.
“It was the same in East Timor,” Errol said of the half-island state that achieved independence in 2002. “Fighters were given a choice: You can join East Timor or return to Indonesia.”
Given a choice, Errol says he would stick with his grandfather’s decision.
“Since childhood I have been trained to protect NKRI to the death,” he said. “In my heart of hearts I understand that Indonesia must give justice equally to all. But as an Indonesian, I cannot accept [secession].”
Errol, Gama and Okie’s nuanced sense of history is a far cry from the nationalistic account they were taught at school under Suharto’s New Order. Part of this comes from actually playing the part, rather than just reading about history in books.
Ganda Pramanakusuma, 39, another IDR member whose day job is at City Hall in Bandung, says he has developed a sense of empathy for the historical enemy through role play.
“When we wear the uniforms of the Dutch, the English, the Japanese, we can feel what it’s like to be someone who’s forced to go into battle in another country,” he says.
“I can say that honestly in their hearts, they don’t like to go to war. That’s what I can feel when I wear a Dutch uniform.”
For those old enough to remember the Dutch occupation, seeing IDR members in costume at the reenactment in Bandung brought back memories.
“Some of them were moved to tears,” Ganda explains. “But they were happy to see that the following generations still hold the spirit of nationalism and heroism.”
Jakarta’s youngest member of IDR is Raditya Chavvah, a 13-year-old junior high school student who joined the group after seeing a segment about it on television. He dresses up in the basic uniform worn by teen trainee soldiers during the revolution.
“Indonesian kids today are only interested in iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys and dating,” he says. “When I wear this uniform I feel proud to represent the Indonesian kids of long ago.”
Raditya is joined by Syailandra Adhiaksa, a 14-year-old high school student who makes his own play weapons out of wood and plastic parts.
“Some people laugh at us, but we have to have self-esteem,” he says. “It’s the people who wore these uniforms that secured independence for all of us.”