Subject: Op-Ed: Dark Episode in Indonesia's Past Deserves to Be Commemorated

The Jakarta Globe

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dark Episode in Indonesia's Past Deserves to Be Commemorated

David Jardine

Some controversies simply will not go away. One of them is the continued denial by leading Japanese politicians of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan more or less since the end of World War II, of the ill-treatment of Asian peoples in countries occupied by Japanese forces. The angry responses that issue from China and Korea demonstrate the way in which history bites back.

History in fact bites back on a regular basis, the contradictions between official Chinese and Korean positions and the sentiments of their public notwithstanding.

At the same time, consciousness of the politics of the past has grown in Japan, although very unevenly, of course. People such as the five Japanese academic contributors to "Asian Labor In the Wartime Japanese Empire," a volume edited by Paul Kratoska, are among those who fight denial and silence.

The central issues dealt with here are forced or slave labor, mostly male, and military-directed sexual slavery, the very matter on which former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe so discredited himself.

Indonesia was the scene of one of the greatest mobilizations of unfree labor in history; only black slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, Nazi-occupied Europe, Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China in the 1950s Great Leap Forward compare, in my opinion.

To begin with, Japan's military in seeking to conquer such a vast swath of Asia and the western Pacific had a vast need for manpower to replicate and replace the huge numbers of its own men recruited for war and occupation.

To many of the essentially fascist elements in the Imperial officer corps, the brown-skinned and black-skinned Asians of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaya, Java and Sumatra were untermenschen (subhumans) and beneath their respect. Depriving them of their rights was thus easy.

Labor was "recruited" in Java but also elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, even from the two tiny groups of islands north of Manado, Talaud and Sangihe. "Allied administrators" found at least 4,200 men from Sangihe on forced labor projects outside their islands, some 3,000 in the shipyards of Bitung where they built wooden vessels in the ancient manner of their people. As Japanese shipping came more and more under Allied attack, the need to replace it put greater and greater pressure on these skilled boat builders, who, like all the other forced labor, existed on starvation diets.

"With so much consumed by Japanese projects, living conditions on Sangihe deteriorated rapidly," Remco Raben records.

It was, however, the peoples of Java, the Javanese and Sundanese, who suffered the most. And it was only to them that the term romusha was applied. The forced labor of Manado was deceitfully referred to as sukarela, or "volunteer," a dreadful example of newspeak.

President Sukarno claimed postwar that there were millions of them and it is difficult to dispute this or even doubt it. The Japanese undertook numerous mining projects as well as irrigation schemes, airstrip building and railway projects, all of them labor-intensive. Many of these were on the outer islands as well, as far away as the Solomons, the Andamans and, of course, Japan itself, where the romusha were deployed to fill the male labor gap, when it could not be wholly filled by Japanese women.

Add to these projects the compulsory planting by farmers in Java of fiber crops such as cotton for purchase at artificially low prices and we get a big picture of suffering and misery. Readers may be particularly interested in the railway works such as the Pekanbaru railway and the line covered in chapter of "Asian Labor" called "The Road to Hell: The Construction of a Railway Line in West Java During the Japanese Occupation." This latter line was meant to transport coal from the brown coal mine at Bayah near Pelabuhan Ratu; it cost an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 lives.

Critically, the Japanese Army force in Java was never more than 15,000, a figure far too low to both garrison the island and provide back-up labor where it was needed. Thus the Imperial Army would cashier its own supply of local labor by whatever means it could. Thinking that the reservoir of such manpower was inexhaustible, the occupiers treated them with total disregard.

Of course, this begs a serious question about collaboration by Indonesian officials, especially village headmen who were instrumental in the recruitment drives. Did they have no means of staunching the flow of manpower, of inhibiting it, delaying it?

Equally, one is bound to ask what means, if any, were available to the future leaders of Indonesia, Sukarno in particular, to disrupt labor mobilization. While I reject the label "quisling," I am bound to ask if more could have been done by the future president and his colleagues.

In "Asian Labor," there is in the Dutch writer Henk Hovinga's piece another controversy, but one which is never framed as such. In "Reception and Repatriation of Romusha," he implies British interference in Dutch efforts to return these unfortunate people, the survivors, that is, to their homes, which is a continuation of the tension that characterized Anglo-Dutch relations postwar. In fact, in making imputations of British bad faith, Hovinga has completely overlooked the very real problem that the British had with lack of Allied shipping, which, in any case, had been prioritized for the movement of ex-POW, civilian internees and others.

The British were under tremendous pressure in 1945-46 to "demobilize" and repatriate their own conscripts as well as Indian servicemen. Unable to meet their demands, the British authorities were faced with mutinies, including one at Kluang in Malaya and another at RAF Seletar in Singapore. The Kluang mutiny in particular excited a great deal of public support in the United Kingdom for the men and became a cause celebre that the government simply could not ignore.

The American journalist Martha Gellhorn recorded in her "Face of War" seeing would-be returnee romusha at the railway stations of Java in 1946 in the most pitiful conditions of emaciation. Dressed only in gunny sacks, they reminded her of the Jewish survivors of the Nazi death camp at Dachau, which she had reported from immediately after the Liberation.

Indonesia seems to have consigned the extraordinary mobilization of forced labor to the memory hole. One small, undistinguished memorial to the romusha stands at Bayah, near the south coast of West Java ,close to the brown coal mine. But, nationally, no monument stands to remind younger generations of the huge sacrifice of lives made by their fellow-countrymen. No light shines on this dark and dismal episode.

This is surely remiss.

David Jardine is a Jakarta-based writer.

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