In-between and inside-out

In-between and inside-out


A young Dutch woman with Indonesian roots moves to Jakarta with a mission, but finds culture clashes hard to avoid

Amis Boersma

   Facilitating a workshop at KontraS
   Tatiana Heinz

It’s 2 December 2009, a week before a big anti-corruption demonstration in Jakarta and it is suddenly decided that KontraS – the Indonesian human rights organisation where I, an Indo-Dutch person, work as an advisor – will mobilise its network of victims and activists. A colleague moves a chalkboard to the terrace out front and a group of fifteen other colleagues gather around him. ‘Okay, what do we need to do for next week?’ asks the guy in charge. People randomly yell things which are jotted down on the board: call people to ask them to join the demonstration (the aim is that several hundreds will come), order food for everyone (a debate starts about how many boxes and how much these may cost), gather promotional materials, arrange transport and so on. I just arrived a month before and can’t help shaking my head thinking to myself they will never be able to pull this off.

A week later, I arrive at the Istiqlal mosque where the demonstrators have already gathered. Hundreds of people are neatly sitting in rows, while my colleague guides the groups arriving in the right direction by megaphone. At the right time the groups (all wearing the same shirts) walk in an orderly procession to the Presidential Palace, all this time assisted by the police. They’ve proven me wrong. And it wasn’t the last time. Just recently, Amnesty International’s Secretary General visited the office. A few hours before his arrival, the office was a mess. But when he arrived, a buffet dinner awaited him in the back garden, which had miraculously been decorated with photos, paintings and lights. I was here as much to learn as I was to teach.


During the interviews for this job, I had not only argued that I knew about Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (in short PME – NGO jargon for keeping an eye on the goals you set out to achieve, improving the way you work and proving you are moving toward your goals) and the way NGOs work, more importantly I had convincingly proven I understand Indonesian culture. Being half Indonesian and having studied Indonesia for about ten years, I argued that I would be able to help human rights organisation KontraS work more effectively. But do I actually understand Indonesian culture? Is there even such a thing?

An ‘insider-out’ is what anthropology calls a person that studies a group they belong to themselves. That’s what I was when I was writing my Masters thesis more than five years ago. I studied the third-generation Indo-Dutch who had organised themselves in the Netherlands and tried to understand and give meaning to their ethnic identity. I could identify with my Masters topic, but it seemed far removed from Indonesia. It was present-day Indonesia I was really interested in, ever since I first set foot there as a teenager.

At age fourteen I visited Indonesia for the first time. Just a few weeks before departure, my mum told me I had two sisters there. It was only then that I found out that my mother, as a teenager, had left her first two children in Indonesia with their father and grandmother. What a surprise to suddenly be united with two sisters I never knew I had! Upon arrival at Soekarno-Hatta airport, my eldest sister took my hand and introduced me to Jakarta’s heat. She looked exactly like my mum. Later that vacation, I fell ill with typhus and my other sister soothed me. Her English vocabulary was limited to ‘I love you’ and ‘Don’t cry’. That’s when I decided I wanted to learn to speak Indonesian fluently. Studying Indonesian Language and Culture at Leiden University felt like a natural choice. Also, I had always known I wanted to work in an international context, contributing to a better world.

For years I worked on Indonesia for Amnesty International and the Dutch NGO Free Voice, dreaming about actually helping ‘in the field’. So here I am, 17 years later, living and working in Jakarta.


KontraS is a renowned human rights organisation that deals with a wide range of people – from UN rapporteurs, ambassadors, international donors, politicians, the Indonesian police force to other NGOs, grassroots initiatives and often poor and uneducated victims of human rights violations. As an advisor on PME, I would help KontraS make it easier to keep track of all the work, learn from successes and mistakes, and most importantly tell all stakeholders about it. A walk in the park, I thought. But it turned out to be a lot harder than expected, because things are done very differently in Indonesia from what I was used to at my previous jobs in the Netherlands.

As the story about the demonstration illustrates, a lot is done rather impulsively in Indonesia – something which is quite far removed from Dutch reality. In the Netherlands we hardly ever spontaneously hang out with friends, let alone organise a big event just a week before. Perhaps planning seems futile in a place where always something unexpected happens. But it’s not only the unexpected that makes planning difficult. Planning implies many hidden obstacles. For example, it means that people have to communicate openly about when they will not be in the office, so they can make arrangements for the person who has to take on his or her tasks. In a culture where people are reluctant to burden others, people often decide not to say when they will be absent. Ultimately this leaves the colleagues with more (unplanned) work.

   With my two Indonesian sisters on a local bus
   Eefje de Kroon

But I found out that not everything done differently is an obstacle. For example, unlike Dutch people, Indonesians prefer to avoid confrontation (something I’m also very good at). So when there’s a strategy meeting, people with opposing opinions hide their arguments under a thick layer of words. The subsequent speaker may in turn not even refer to the arguments presented before. Meetings go on like this for hours until at some point there (often) seems to be a consensus. When I first noticed this, I thought back of what I’d read about as a student of Indonesian culture: musyawarah dan mufakat! The tradition of making decisions collectively in order to reach consensus! It’s actually still done today; just keep on talking until we, as a group, all agree. Eventually, a decision is made without confrontation.

And there were more revelations. At an organisation staffed by very independent individuals I was surprised to find they also tend to avoid personal responsibility. When a deadline has passed, they are thus all to blame. I’ve been introduced to the phenomenon of ‘konsinyiering’, which means to hide away with a group of people to write a book or report. Each person writes an individual piece, all pieces are pasted together and with the text projected on the wall, then the full text is edited by the group. ‘Very inefficient’ was my first judgement. But then I learned that the work does get to be done that way, through group effort and consensus.

But there is one big issue that I still can’t fully grasp, which has haunted me since I started working at KontraS. For me time is linear, ordered in clear units which I can visualise and time is often in the future. Here I see that time is now and the future does not stretch beyond six months. Indonesians have a different concept of time – that it is flexible to the extent it is like rubber. The question for me is how to weave these two perceptions of time into a workable model, because in the world of International Development, where local NGOs like KontraS are funded by international donor organisations, quality is measured according to western standards and the western perception of time applies. At local NGOs, staff members seem to think they are the only ones having to adapt as they are on the receiving end of funding. My experience tells me that it doesn’t have to be that way. I encourage local NGOs to learn to explain to their donors what their work really looks like on a daily basis and create an evaluation model that reflects both perspectives of time.

The lack of planning may be challenging professionally, but in private life it is a blessing. Finally, free time! In the Netherlands my diary was full weeks in advance, in Indonesia I don’t use one. If I feel like hanging out with friends, I call them. If I’m tired and prefer to be alone, I’m not stuck with an appointment I made months before. It’s truly a revelation. Also, I now believe it’s actually possible to organise something on short notice.

A bit of both

Is living and working here easier for me because I have Indonesian roots? I’m not sure. I have lots of Dutch friends without Indonesian roots who seem to assimilate quite well, too, some maybe even better. Perhaps the fact that I’m part Indonesian myself makes it more difficult to adjust. I’m fighting something that also lives inside me, that I understand so well. Because I’m an insider I can be more critical and straight out say certain things. I can say the office looks like a mess and that people should be in time for meetings, without coming across as patronising. At the same time, there is no denying that I’m Dutch. I’m continuously reminded of that.

Recently, I facilitated a three-day training course for my colleagues. After two very successful days, I was truly over facilitating. When a discussion I tried to lead went completely out of hand as people began overruling each other’s turns to say something, I stormed out of the room. In the Netherlands this would have been a big thing – the group would have fallen silent and afterwards some people would have warily asked me if I was okay. But not here, they finished the discussion and made jokes about me being very cute when mad. This was truly an eye-opener. Just as it’s okay to laugh out loud (considered childish in the Netherlands), I have learned that it’s okay to be angry. Laughing at life is one of the things that I like about the Indonesian (NGO) way of doing things. In the Netherlands we’re often too serious. In the Netherlands, if we are late for the train, our day is ruined. In Indonesia, we just smile and wait for the next one.

Amis Boersma (, works as an advisor in planning, monitoring and evaluation at KontraS within the framework of ICCO’s Togetthere program.

This article is part of the Being ‘Indo’ miniseries

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

Stars and stereotypes


The big business of Indo celebrities creates illusory expectations but things may be changing

Asriana Kebon

Indo-singer Rebecca and Balinese local Ketut Sari show that differences are superficial
Ni Ketut Sari

‘Why don’t you go to Jakarta and become a celebrity? You can be a model or an advertising star, be a Lux soap model or a singer! You should be a movie star, better still, why don’t you do sinetron (TV soap opera)?’ An Indo living in Indonesia often hears these things. And for many young Indos this expectation is hard to resist.

‘Indo’ is the term used by Indonesians to describe persons of mixed Indonesian-foreign (usually western) heritage. It’s not quite as derogatory as bule – the term used to describe white westerners – once was, but it is just as prescriptive. The word Indo labels people and puts them into a box with Jakarta emblazoned on the outside. For an Indo there is, it seems, only one destined career path and that is to head to the bright lights to become a famous celebrity, regardless of talent or lack thereof. This form of racial stereotyping puts pressure on Indo and non-Indo Indonesians alike. However, not every young Indonesian with Indo-looks accepts the label.

Indo celebrities

From the 1970s through the 1990s there has been a rise in the number of Indo celebrities appearing on the small screen and the silver screen. This is on a par with regional trends in neighbouring Thailand, the Philippines and India where mixed-race celebrities or models have come to the forefront of the entertainment industry as well as the cosmetics industry.

In Indonesia today, Indos dominate TV shows, films, music and advertising. Iin the 1980s we were introduced to Meriam Bellina, who began her path to stardom through the cult film Catatan si Boy (Boy’s Memoirs). Bellina is of Dutch and German descent. The 1990s brought us MTV and with it came a new wave of presenters and artists, many of them Indo. Nadya Hutagalung and Jamie Aditya, both of Australian descent, are graduates from the studios of MTV and have enjoyed a career that now spans across Asia. Dewi Sandra, a television host of English descent, has dabbled in music and product endorsements. Wulan Guritno, another Indo celebrity of English heritage, has starred in sinetrons and her face endorses many Indonesian products. On nearly every TV channel, at any given time of the day, an Indo can be seen smiling from the screen into homes in major cities and remote villages throughout Indonesia.

The heavy presence of Indos in the Indonesian entertainment industry has continued into the new millennium, although recent scandals have somewhat blemished the perfect picture. In 2005, the media introduced us to Nadine Chandrawinata, an Indo model who represented Indonesia at the Miss World contest to the dismay of some critics who doubted the legitimacy of her crowning as Miss Indonesia due to ballot fixing. Her lack of English language skills was highlighted when she made the embarrassing error of calling Indonesia a ‘beautiful city’. In 2009 controversy struck again when the Miss Indonesia pageant organisers appointed Karenina Sunny Halim, also an Indo, to represent Indonesia. In a twist of irony, this Miss Indonesia could not speak Indonesian, despite having grown up in Indonesia. A young girl named Cinta Laura has recently taken centre stage across the entertainment spectrum of music, advertising and sinetron. Making the most of her Indo appeal, Cinta Laura is infamously known for exaggerating her foreign pronunciation of the Indonesian language. Finally, we have Luna Maya, an Indo TV-host, model, soap and movie star, who recently made global headlines when a sex-tape was leaked on the Internet featuring her and the front man of the popular band Peter Pan (now known as Peter Porn). Nonetheless, the appeal of the Indo has not waned. Despite embarrassing gossip engulfing Indo celebrities, the love affair with Indo stardom continues.

Great expectations

For those of us born into bicultural homes in Indonesia, the phenomenon of Indo status has set a high benchmark that we are all expected to achieve. From the moment we are born our parents are told how lucky they are and that they should send us to Jakarta to become famous. In school, teachers choose us to recite poems or read the Indonesian proclamation in front of the entire school because they assume we have more talent than other students, or just think that we will look good on stage. Our own peers and friends stereotype us by wanting us to sing in their bands, thinking that an Indo singer will increase its popularity (it doesn’t matter if you sound dreadful just as long as you look good).

   Young Indos wish to escape the stereotyping and follow their own
   Sarieta Lorna Dawson

For Indos living in Indonesia, there remains an uphill battle against this form of stereotyping. There is also an assumption that if you are Indo your family is either affluent or regal, all of which creates expectations upon the individual that affects self-image and self-belief. Growing up in Bali as the progeny of a bicultural Indonesian-Australian marriage, I quite often came up against this stereotypical image. While many of my bicultural friends attended international schools or boarded overseas during school term, I attended a local Indonesian school. I had a wonderful experience. But I also constantly encountered, and had to resist, racial stereotyping.

It took me many years to understand that the stereotyping of mixed-race Indonesians also affected the general Indonesian population. The Indonesian entertainment and advertisement industry has for many years capitalised on the perceived charm and allure of the Indo, projecting an image of honey-milk skinned, tall, slender and strikingly good-looking individuals. The industry machine continues to churn out a plethora of Indo artists who project a standard of beauty that greatly influences the body image of young Indonesians.

With the constant bombardment of Indo images across Indonesia, it is no wonder that the cosmetic industry is making billions from whitening product sales. These products, loaded with carcinogens, promise to lighten and brighten skin. Of course the models promoting these products are typically Indo looking with natural honey-milk coloured skin. This raises serious questions about the self-image, self-worth and identity of Indonesians. The question arises, who then is being exploited? Is it the Indos who are glorified more for their looks than their talent or is it the Indonesian general public who are being sold an unattainable image? And is there a way out?

New directions

The American novelist Danzy Senna, herself of biracial descent, sarcastically writes in a 1998 essay that we have now entered the ‘mulatto millennium’ – the millennium of the adoration of the mixed generation. Advertising agencies globally have cashed in on the sales advantages of having mixed race models in advertisements. But the new millennium has also brought a global counter-trend. In a recent documentary on skin lightening products, the editor of Asiana (an Indian magazine published in the UK) said that they are taking a stance against using lighter-skinned Indian models. The Indonesian entertainment and advertising industry could take a lesson from this.

In fact, in Indonesia today, more and more people from the fashion, cosmetics and entertainment industry, including some celebrities, are calling for Indonesian women to be proud of their classic beauty and to stop trying to westernise their looks. The new call is to take pride in the many different cultures and ethnicities in Indonesia. While the push to use Indo artists and models remains, the industry has responded to current political and religious trends by embracing a more traditional Indonesian ethos. An increasing number of celebrities now proudly proclaim Indonesian heritage by wearing a jilbab, batik or traditional dress. Their outward appearance is designed to highlight their indigenous background.

For Indos, this could mean the beginning of the end of stereotyping, and with it the end of inhibition. The expectation that the road to success for young Indos is via the filmsets and catwalks of Jakarta has implicitly denied them the right to follow their own paths. Yet for those of us who chose not to go to Jakarta, Indonesia has opened many other doors and offered us the chance to showcase who we really are. It is now time for the Indonesian dream industry to portray the diversity of beauty and talent that can be found throughout Indonesia. Perhaps it is now also time for young Indos to see that there are many roads to take in life and that not all of them lead to Jakarta.

Asriana Kebon ( is a PhD candidate at Charles Darwin University, researching human trafficking and people smuggling in Indonesia.

This article is part of the Being ‘Indo’ miniseries

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

Indies memories in bronze and stone


Indies war memorials get a place in the Dutch landscape but the particular burden of their history remains on Indies’ shoulders

Marijke Schuurmans

   The Indisch Monument in The Hague is covered with flowers almost
   every day
   Marijke Schuurmans

Near a public garden in The Hague stands an eye-catching monument of the Indies, on a base of white marble. At the centre, grieving women bend over a body lying on a bier while families and couples stand by to comfort them. On their left, a man shakes his fist at the sky. Next to him, a mother encourages her child to move forward towards a better future. On the far right, a man with fists clenched at his side faces the future with determination. The figures stand in front of a high steel lattice suggesting prison bars. They represent not only the sufferings of war but also resistance to it. The openness of the steel construction also symbolises solidarity.

Each year on 15 August, the Indisch (Indies) Monument forms the backdrop for the commemoration of the Japanese surrender which ended the Second World War in the Pacific. Remarkably, it took more than fifty years for the Indisch Monument to come into existence. When it did, it was not on the initiative of the mixed group of Eurasians and Europeans with roots in the Dutch East Indies who had settled in the Netherlands after the war, where they are known as the ‘Indies community’. Not they, but Dutch officials took it upon themselves to create the monument as a sign of recognition once the time seemed right. But the gesture was controversial because it failed to recognise the pent-up emotions after years of silence and neglect. However, within a couple of years the Indies community took responsibility for the monument and made it the focus of their own activities of remembrance.

Muted memories

In the 1950s, the large-scale ‘repatriation’ of Eurasians from Indonesia to the Netherlands also brought their war experiences to Holland. During the Japanese occupation they were exempted from internment in the Japanese prison camps, but living conditions were so harsh that some went to the camps voluntarily, preferring internment over the insecurities imposed by the war. Hardship continued after the Japanese occupation ended, however, when they became a target of retaliation by Indonesian guerrilla fighters who saw them as accomplices of the colonial regime. After the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949, Eurasians had to choose between Indonesian and Dutch citizenship. Most of them opted to be Dutch.

The war memories of the Eurasians in Holland had a certain dynamic as memories of their experiences in the Second World War were inseparable from memories of colonisation and decolonisation. However, Dutch embarrassment about their colonial past, the Japanese conquest and the violent decolonisation ensured that Indies war memories had no place in the Dutch national historical consciousness. For a long time, public recognition of their suffering was limited to an urn in the National Monument on the Dam Square in Amsterdam, a memorial in Enschede, and the Indies Plaque in The Hague. None of these were the focus of large, official commemorations.

   Lasting links mark the Monument for Civilian Victims in the Dutch East
   Indies in Roermond
   Marijke Schuurmans

But since the early 1980s new public debates and moral indignation about the colonial past led to a re-opening of this closed chapter of history. At the same time, a second generation of Indo-Dutch people raised the question of their identity, making their history and culture more visible in public as the Dutch developed growing interest for public commemorations in general. The time was ripe for official recognition.

Commemoration and criticism

In 1986 the government’s advisory committee on war memorials decided that the Indies community needed its own monument in recognition of their war experience. The intention was to establish a monument in ‘national style’, in keeping with the commemorative tradition of the National Monument on the Dam Square in Amsterdam. The Indisch Monument was dedicated to all groups who had suffered in the Second World War in Asia: armed services, civilians within and without the Japanese prison camps and ‘romushas’ (Indonesian convicts). Although not originally meant as a site for annual commemorations, since 1989 war veterans and former camp internees, their descendants and representatives from the government and from the Indies community have gathered there every year for an official ceremony. The 1989 ceremony occurred 29 years after the first official commemoration of the Japanese capitulation took place on 15 August 1970 in The Hague. A second had been held in Utrecht in 1980, marking the beginning of annual commemorations that had moved to a different place each year. It was not until 1989 that the Indies war commemoration received its own site: the Indisch Monument in The Hague.

The Indies community responded with mixed feelings to the building of the Indisch Monument. In the Indies magazine Moesson (Monsoon), some expressed relief: ‘Rather late, but I am really glad it now stands!’ Others were more sceptical: ‘Nice monument for Buchenwald. No trace of Indies, no bamboo, no barbed wire. To me that monument is of no significance.’ Several Indies spokespersons stated that the community has no need for a monument in ‘national style’, because they had given the war a place in their own circles. Some criticised the initiators for failing to recognise that, for the Indies community, the war didn’t end with the Japanese surrender. Critics also regretted that an Indies artist had not been commissioned to design the monument. The advisory committee had chosen the design of a Dutch-Bulgarian artist, considering her sculpture most appropriate because in it ‘the war elements of the Indies situation’ were ‘forged together with more general and pervasive emotions of grief, violence and despair. There were also expressions of resistance, tenacity and solidarity’ thus making the monument recognisably speak for all. But many in the Indies community felt that it failed to recognise ‘their’ memories.

The foundation responsible for the monument responded to these criticisms by adding an ‘Indies touch’ to the monument. In 1989, the monument was made to seem more ‘tropical’ by the addition of bamboo plants (which were later removed because the roots threatened to destabilise the monument). At the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese capitulation in 1995, an ‘Indies bell’ in a bell cradle was added placed behind the monument. At the sixtieth anniversary in 2005, a small column was placed in front of the monument containing earth from the seven Dutch war cemeteries on Java. Three years later an urn containing earth from the Dutch war cemetery in Ambon was added to this column. The Indies community generally appreciated these ‘Indies’ additions. But was it enough? No ‘Indies touch’ could substitute for explicit recognition of the forgotten war experience after the Japanese surrender.

Remembering forgotten victims

What the monument in The Hague lacked, other monuments made up for. In the same year that the government unveiled the Indisch Monument in The Hague, another memorial was erected in Roermond to honour war veterans who had fought on Dutch side during Indonesia’s struggle for independence. This National Indies Monument is a complex of several separate monuments that developed over the years into one vast commemorative site. It started with a basin in the shape of a sawah (rice field) which is flanked by two bronze heads of water buffalo and a huge steel column topped with a bronze sun. There is also a bronze bird of paradise representing the last Dutch colonial territory of New Guinea (now Papua), which passed into Indonesian control in 1962. Later additions include ten steel columns engraved with the names of fallen soldiers, a bust of general Spoor (who led the military actions against Indonesia’s independence fighters) and a pavilion in Minangkabau style, with high peaked roofs with upswept eaves, named after him Like the Indisch Monument, this commemorative site was not the initiative of the Indies community, but the proposal of Dutch citizens of Roermond – the city from which military troops and volunteers were dispatched to the Indonesian archipelago to ‘restore order’.

   The Dutch military side of the story at the National Indies Monument
   Marijke Schuurmans

Two years later, representatives of the Indies community unveiled a second memorial in Roermond, the Monument for Civilian Victims in the Dutch East Indies to honour ‘the forgotten group of war victims’. One side of this small triangular sculpture of solid concrete shows an image of the Indonesian archipelago, the other side an image of the Netherlands. A niche filled with Indonesian earth was later added to the sculpture, visible through a glass plate. Another symbolic reference to the former colony on this civilian monument in Roermond, as on the Indisch Monument in The Hague, is the text ‘the spirit overcomes’, which is also written on monuments at Dutch war cemeteries in Indonesia. For the Indies community, such symbolic connections with Indonesia help to reduce the physical and spiritual distance between the country of their past and the country of their present.

However, there have been no commemorations at the civilian monument in Roermond since 2005. Many Indies people commemorate their war experiences in their own environment, and for this purpose they have created various local memorials dedicated to specific events. More importantly, the function and meaning of the Indisch Monument in The Hague has broadened to include the violent period after the Japanese surrender. And the original ‘Dutch national style’ of this commemorative statue has been softened with some personal touches.

‘Today is your 103rd birthday, daddy Miel’, reads a birthday card placed at the rear of the Indisch Monument. Now, almost every day Indies people visit the monument to place flowers for lost loved ones, either at birthdays, the day of a relative’s death, or after funerals and cremations. So many Indies people choose this site to scatter the ash of deceased relatives that a special field has been created for this purpose facing the monument. It matters little, then, that the meaning and purpose of the Indies monument and the commemorative activities taking place there remain largely unknown to most Dutch people. To the Indies community it has become theirs, a place for personal memories to be honoured.

Marijke Schuurmans ( is an art historian specialising in (post)colonial cultural heritage. She graduated from the Department of Art, Religion and Cultural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. Currently she is a research assistant at the project ‘Future of the war heritage’ at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD).

This article is part of the Being ‘Indo’ miniseries

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

Remembering Permesta


Fifty years on, memories of civil war are kept alive in North Sulawesi

Amelia Liwe

   Permesta veterans arrive for the celebrations
   Amelia Liwe

On 4 March 2007, a ceremony was held in the remote village of Kota Menara in North Sulawesi to mark the 50th anniversary the birth of Permesta, a protest movement that became part of an armed conflict between the Indonesian state and some of its outlying regions in the late 1950s. As visitors approached the village along a narrow bumpy road that led off the main highway from Manado, the provincial capital, they passed three large posters of former Permesta leaders – Ventje Sumual, Joop Warouw and Alex Kawilarang – prominently displayed for all to see. Nearby an equally large banner read ‘Welcome to the Permesta Tourism Destination of Kota Menara in the Jubilee Year of the Universal Struggle Charter, 2 March 2007’.

Kota Menara itself was neat and clean, as though it was ready to receive guests. A crowd was gathering around a big blue tent in the middle of the village, where a stage had been erected and a display of red and white flags and representations of the Indonesian coat of arms created the impression that an important national event was about to be celebrated. Another large poster containing the words of the Permesta charter – under its unabbreviated title of Perjuangan Semesta (Universal Struggle) – added an air of dignity and solemnity to the occasion. A banner over the stage called on adherents to the charter to unite in the interests of the Indonesian people and their republic, while in front of the stage the names of the charter’s signatories were listed on another large poster. The overall effect was to make Permesta a part of the Indonesian nation and its history.

Universal struggle

The Permesta charter was signed by representatives of military and civilian groups in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on 2 March 1957. It expressed a demand for greater regional autonomy and a determination to resist the over-centralised direction being taken by the Indonesian state, thus registering a political protest against the government of the day. However it did not see itself as a secessionist movement. Colonel Ventje Sumual, the commander of the Eastern Indonesia Military District, declared at the time that Permesta ‘is in no way meant to be a breaking away from the Republic of Indonesia’.

Within months, the movement had extended to the Manado and Minahasa regions of North Sulawesi, where the Minahasan local army commanders soon declared their solidarity with a new regional protest movement that was proclaimed in West Sumatra on 15 February 1958. This movement called itself Pemerintah Revolusioner Republik Indonesia (PRRI, The Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia), and when the two movements found common cause as PRRI/Permesta, the stage was set for armed conflict. Within days, the central army leadership in Jakarta despatched troops to storm the two regions, thus sparking a civil war.

      Banners depicting former Permesta leaders greet the guests
      Amelia Liwe

There was also an international dimension to the conflict. Amid the Cold War tensions of the time, the United States interpreted the dissatisfaction that had been brewing in the regions as a desire for secession. From the US perspective, a secessionist movement in Sukarno’s Indonesia was to be encouraged, because its success would contribute to the US aim of confining the influence of the Indonesian communists to the island of Java. Through the CIA and its allies, Washington flooded Sulawesi and West Sumatra with arms and supplies, pushing the Permesta and PRRI groups towards an ill-advised military campaign against the central government. In the end, PRRI/Permesta was a humiliating failure, both for the US and its local allies. The fallout left deep scars, not only on the US-Indonesia relationship, but also on social and political life in the regions concerned. Throughout the rest of the Sukarno period, local communities in Sulawesi and West Sumatra were viewed with suspicion by the central government, and local elites had little access to the political intrigues and networks that influenced the course of events in the capital.

Memory and history

The outcome of the regional rebellion had a decisive impact on the written history of PRRI/Permesta. As early as August 1958, while conflict was still ongoing, the Army high command published a history of the movement that demonised its founders and their intentions and declared the ‘Universal Struggle’ to be already lost. Subsequently, Indonesian historiography gradually marginalised and simplified the history of PRRI/Permesta, reducing the complexity and multidimensional character of the movement. After more than 50 years only very few academic historians have given it serious attention. For the survivors, however, the history of those events of 50 years ago is clearly embedded in memory.

The commemoration that took place in Kota Menara in 2007 was the climax of a number of events marking the jubilee of Permesta in North Sulawesi. The formal ceremony that day included a Sunday church service and intercessory prayers led by representatives of all the Christian denominations in the area, as well as a long address by the head of the newly-established district of South Minahasa, to which Kota Menara belonged. This was followed by a festive meal, as a number of Permesta reunion groups chatted and mingled in a celebratory and nostalgic mood. Some proud former fighters, both men and women, came wearing military fatigues, complete with their red berets. Some spontaneously expressed their nostalgia by singing songs from the time of the civil war. Others told humorous stories of their experiences at the time.

‘We were neither half-hearted soldiers nor separatists! We gave everything for Indonesia!’

Amid the festive mood, a small circle of former Permesta leaders were engaged in serious conversation. ‘Those old soldiers have no idea of the political dimensions of Permesta,’ complained one old battalion commander. Nun Pantouw, another former commander and intelligence officer now confined to a wheelchair, said little, but he still radiated his former charisma. As the talk passed back and forth among the group, Lengkong Worang, who led the Permesta deputation to the signing of the peace accord that marked the end of the fighting in 1961, kept returning to the same theme: ‘It is not right to call Permesta a rebellion, let alone a separatist movement,’ he declared. Referring to the first comprehensive study of the Permesta movement in English, Barbara Harvey’s Permesta:  Half a Rebellion (translated into Indonesian as Permesta: Pemberontakan Setengah Hati or Permesta: A Half-Hearted Rebellion), Worang exclaimed, ‘We were neither half-hearted soldiers nor separatists! We gave everything for Indonesia!’.

A new generation

   Former leaders chatting after the ceremony
   Amelia Liwe

The golden anniversary of Permesta has now passed. However the labour of memory continues. Reunions, discussion groups and online discussion forums are some of the venues where the remaining Permesta actors, their families and friends, keep the memories alive, as they try to understand the movement and the civil war which they or their relatives experienced. The largest of these groups is the Facebook page ‘Permesta bukan Pemberontakan!’ (‘Permesta was not a Rebellion!’). The page states that the group is not setting out to create a new movement, but merely to provide a space where people can exchange information and stories about their grandparents’ experiences at the time of Permesta. With more than 3000 members, the group is open to anyone who wants to participate. Stories, recollections and opinions all circulate on the site. Some are nostalgic, others provide historical information, while still others make purely rhetorical claims. The initiators hope that the site will provide good feedback for ‘our beloved North Sulawesi’.

Most of the major actors have gone. Herman Nicolaas ‘Ventje’ Sumual – the last surviving commander of PRRI/Permesta, passed away on 28 March 2010. His gravestone inscription cites in English the words of St Paul, ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ Now, a new generation is collecting stories, facts and interpretations that help them understand the events that have shaped their communities and their nation. Somewhere between memory and history, the past continues to be kept alive.

Amelia Liwe ( recently completed a PhD in Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

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