Elementary school students at the North Sumatra Museum in Medan last week. (Antara Photo/Septianda Perdana)

Johannes Nugroho: Lest We Forget — Australia's Role in Indonesian Independence

AUGUST 10, 2015

In late 1945 the first prime minister of Indonesia, Sutan Sjahrir (1909-66), made a radio broadcast to the people of Australia, thanking them for their support at the onset of Indonesia’s struggle for freedom from the returning Dutch forces.

The suave Sjahrir, freshly appointed by President Sukarno in November, began his speech by saying: “Friends in Australia, I’m unknown to most of you and yet I call you my friends ... the workers who refused to load the Dutch ships with arms and munitions which would be used against our republic; the thousands holding demonstrations to protest against the onslaught on our independence; you are all my friends.”

The workers referred to by the prime minister were the catalyst for a widespread movement among Australia’s trade unions, later known as the boycott against the Black Armada, first started by members of the Brisbane Chapter of the Australian Waterside Workers' Federation in solidarity with workers of Indonesian origins in Australia.

The boycott of Dutch ships and depots continued well into 1948, immobilizing 559 ships suspected of carrying arms and supplies intended for the Dutch military efforts in Indonesia. In all, 31 Australian and four Asian trade unions took part in the boycott.

Sjahrir’s 1945 speech carried a note of gratitude and perhaps surprise that Indonesia had found an ally in Australia. The prime minister also spoke of Australian soldiers fighting off Japanese troops in Ambon, Malacca, Sumatra and Java. He may have heard that Australian troops were known for their good treatment of the local villagers. Most significant was Sjahrir’s free admission that Australian troops “did not fight for territorial or political nor even economic  gain.”

The political left in Australia was no doubt sympathetic to the Indonesian freedom struggle, as demonstrated by the trade union boycott. There was also a growing belief within the Australian government that the demise of the young Indonesian republic, largely in the hands of nationalist leaders, would in turn sway public support towards radical communism.

It was this argument that the Australian government used to convince its US counterpart to support the Indonesian cause. As the late Thomas Kingston (T.K.) Critchley, the Australian diplomat who served on the United Nations Committee of Good Offices on the Indonesian Question and later the United Nations Commission for Indonesia from 1947 to 1950, remarked: “Much of Australia’s diplomatic effort, particularly in Indonesia, was directed to getting US understanding and support.”

Following the first Dutch military offensive in 1947, Australia referred what it saw as the Netherlands’ unilateral infringement of the peace to the UN Security Council on July 30. The embattled republican leaders were so encouraged by this turn of events that when the council set up the Committee of Good Offices, they nominated Australia as their representative on it.

Critchley appeared to have established camaraderie with Vice President Mohammad Hatta: “I felt that Hatta accepted me as a close friend and I was not conscious of a cultural gap. I felt very comfortable in Hatta’s presence. He had a sense of humor and we occasionally exchanged jokes.”

In his role as a member of the UN Commission for Indonesia, Critchley continued to play his supportive role in Indonesia’s diplomatic march towards independence. He was actively present and involved with the 1949 Round Table Conference in The Hague, at the end of which the Netherlands officially recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty.

Australia’s role in Indonesia’s diplomatic struggle for recognition was so prominent that later on Dr. Subandrio, Sukarno’s foreign minister and second deputy prime minister, said that Australia was the “midwife” in the birth of the Indonesian state. However, as moderate Indonesian leaders such as Sjahrir and Mohammad Hatta left or were forced out of politics due to President Sukarno’s growing power and his extreme policies, Indonesia-Australia relations suffered accordingly in the 1960s.

Critchley eventually returned to Indonesia as ambassador in the years 1978-81, which was also his last diplomatic posting before retirement. Sukarno and the first generation of Indonesian leaders were either dead or mostly out of office by then. Indonesia was under the new regime of President Suharto.

The Black Armada, Critchley and Australia’s role in Indonesia’s struggle of independence would seem very alien to most Indonesians today. For the sake of “nation-building” most Indonesian leaders have chosen a more nationalistic historical narrative in which the nation’s independence from colonialism was “self-begotten” and “self-delivered,” rendering the role of “midwife” inconvenient, at best.

In view of the recent tensions between Indonesia and Australia, let us take the time to remember the auspicious beginning of the friendship between the two nations. In supporting Indonesia’s independence, Australia displayed both originality and initiative, especially for a country traditionally credited with following the lead of either Britain or the US in foreign policy.

This is perhaps why Sjahrir was pleasantly surprised to have a friend in Australia. He shrewdly knew that the geographical proximity of both countries would always make the relationship important, which is why, on a hopeful note, he ended his radio broadcast by saying: “Therefore we can and we will certainly establish close relations as good neighbors.”

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at johannes@nonacris.com.