Thursday, March 08, 2007
  Reflections on March 8th

Dave Jardine hoped that the following article would be published today, International Women's Day, in the Jakarta Post. It wasn't, so Jakartass is, as always, pleased to publish it. Please note that this remains the copyright of Dave so please contact him if you wish to republish it.

August 17th is rightly considered to be the most propitious date in Indonesia's national calendar, marking as it does the Proclamation of Independence but what of March 8th? After all, it was on this date in 1942 that Dutch colonialism was effectively brought to an end. Whatever the efforts of the Dutch post-WW2 to restore their 300-year plus rule in the East Indies, March 8th 1942 had seen the illusion of white supremacy swept away.

Wounded by the defeat in 1905 of Russia by Japan, badly mauled by the collapse of the British in Singapore in February 1942, this notion of white supremacy took a fatal blow with the Dutch capitulation to the Japanese. 'Orang putih lari' (the white man has run away) was etched into the consciousness of the colonized subject peoples of Southeast Asia.

For the Javanese this was the fulfilment of the centuries-old Djoyoboyo legend which had it that alien white rule would come to an end with the arrival of a "yellow-skinned race from the North", to wit the Japanese. There is an important lesson in this for those who dismiss the power of myth.

No sooner had the Dutch surrendered than Indonesian men began wearing the black peci hat in public, a symbol of their sense of identity.

March 8th 1942 meant imprisonment for all Dutch and Allied citizens in the Indies, military and civilian alike. Conditions in the prison camps were direful. Many Dutch, British, Australian and other Allied POW were sent to work on forced labour projects such as the Pekanbaru Railway in Sumatra and the even more infamous Death Railway in Thailand. Dutch women were forced into prostitution to 'service' Imperial Japanese troops, a fact which Japan's current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the latest cynical commentary by a Japanese leader on the issue of 'comfort women' chose to ignore.

What is often overlooked and was in fact consequential for Indonesia's history immediately post-independence is that many amongst the Dutch believed that the British had more less rolled and over and given up their possessions in Southeast Asia without a real fight. The speed with which the Imperial Japanese forces swept through Malaya and Singapore was deemed to vindicate this belief.

This belief took the form of active resentment amongst some Dutch post-war but it is was singularly lacking in realism. In fact, the truth is that the British were ill-prepared for the Japanese onslaught, not least because of their failure to recruit sufficient locals in Malaya and the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang and Malacca into the defence forces, a failure rooted in racial conceit, disdain and suspicion. The Dutch, likewise, had done little to prepare the population of the Indies for defence in the event of an attack from outside.

With the British it was hardly a matter of not having given the matter some forethought. As far back as 1922 a Staff College exercise held at Quetta in India had analyzed Japanese intentions and options and, according to one historian, 'concluded Japan would not be able to operate at such a long distance from their home base". This effectively overlooked the possibility of the capture by the Japanese of European bases intermediate between Japan and Malaya and the East Indies, to wit French Indo-China. When Vichy France surrendered the French colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to Japan, it gave up to Tokyo the strategically vital Cam Ranh Bay naval base as well as the airfields, thus shortening Japan's supply lines greatly.

All of this was consequential for Dutch power, cut off as it was from the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and any possibility whatsoever of being re-armed from there. Britain had in fact drawn up a plan called Operation Matador for the forward defence of its SE Asian colonies. This required intervention in Thailand and the positioning of British troops and planes in the narrowest part of that country, the Kra Isthmus. This would of course have taken place without the approval of the Thais and would have subjected Thai territory to an assault by Japan.

For various reasons Operation Matador was never put into effect. Not least amongst these was the constant wrangling between the British military command in Malaya and London with the latter refusing to allocate more troops and planes for Malaya's forward defence. It was agreed that the period required for the adequate relief of colonial Malaya and the Straits Settlements would be 180 days, which, being half a year, conferred all the advantages on the Japanese. Even in the light of this consideration the Foreign Office would not respond to the entreaties of the GOC Malaya Major-General Lionel Bond when in August 1939 he pleaded for adequate forces to defend the airfields at Kota Bahru and Alor Setar in northern Malaya.

The Dutch meanwhile had even less adequate defences for their East Indies colony. Indeed, March 8th 1942 predicates August 17th 1945. By demonstrating the vulnerability of the Europeans to a well-organized and determined attack by an Asian force the Japanese kicked away the ladder of 'supremacist' belief on which European colonialism rested. That they in turn should turn out to be such cruel and brutal occupiers - let us not forget the hundreds of thousands of Indonesian 'romusha' (slave labourers) and the 'comfort women' - was of course also consequential for Indonesia as it made the Indonesians doubly determined not to endure further foreign rule.

© David Jardine, Mapagan, Central Java


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