From East Indies Camp Archives
The large majority of the Dutch in and outside the Dutch East Indies did not realize that the situation in the colony had changed drastically as a result of the war. They blindly assumed that Dutch colonial rule would be restored. They did not take the Indonesian declaration of independence of 17 August seriously. On the contrary: many saw the Republic of Indonesia as a monstrosity conceived by the Japanese and proclaimed by native collaborators.
However, the Dutch were not in a strong position. The British troops that had landed on Java had no intention of brushing the Republic aside. The only purpose of their arrival was to evacuate the internees and to disarm and take away the Japanese. The British commander on Java, lieutenant-general Christison, expressed the intention of bringing the Dutch and the Indonesians to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, the Japanese troops wanted to be rid of their responsibility for maintaining order as quickly as possible. They started to withdraw into camps they had already prepared (‘self-internment’). The Japanese furthermore handed over weapons to the Indonesian youth groups, the so-called ‘pemudas’, on a large scale; often voluntarily, but sometimes under duress. A chaotic situation ensued in which no single party was able to adequately fill the power vacuum left by the war.
As it became increasingly clear that the Dutch authorities were busy preparing their return to the Dutch East Indies, the nationalist forces rebelled more and more. Sukarno and the other nationalist leaders were unable to fully control their young and excitable followers. Hundreds of local Indonesian combat groups, formed ad hoc and armed with Japanese weapons, often operated without any central leadership and without any control from the older leaders.
The final three months of 1945, the so-called bersiap period (bersiap means ‘be ready’), were characterized by violence, chaos and anarchy. There were street fights and former Dutch internees in and outside the camps were systematically attacked and fired upon. Assaults, kidnapping and murder took place everywhere, and the Chinese and Indo-Europeans in particular were targeted by radical Indonesian nationalists.
The Indos outside the camps were in an extremely vulnerable position, while the internees in the camps were protected by the Japanese and/or the British. Hundreds of men, women and children were murdered in gruesome ways. In addition tens of thousands of Dutch people were, probably partly for their own safety, (re)interned by the Republic of Indonesia, often in camps in the interior of Java. Their number is estimated at around 46,000 persons.
The British could not prevent the pemudas starting to view them as being pro-Dutch also; gradually they, too, became targets of the Indonesian youths. Sometimes Japanese were victims of the violence. In most places the attitude of the Japanese was quite ambivalent, but in general they guarded the camps well, and in Semarang, led by local commander Kido, they intervened strongly to rescue the threatened Dutchmen.
In cities like Surabaya, Semarang and Bandung the British, British-Indian and Japanese soldiers fought fierce battles with the nationalist combat groups before they could start evacuating the former internment camps. In Surabaya the British had to fight street to street for three weeks before they gained control of the city. The former internees in Ambarawa, Banjubiru and Magelang in Central Java – mainly women and children – were evacuated by the British to Semarang with great difficulty. In Bandung the southern part of the city had to be evacuated to make a better defence of the northern part possible.
The refugee problem was considerable everywhere. Thousands of former internees in East and Central Java were therefore evacuated to Batavia, Singapore, Bangkok, the British-ruled Indies, Ceylon, Australia or the Netherlands. As a result of the hasty evacuations and sustained fighting, a degree of peace was re-established in the British-controlled key areas in early 1946. Even after the bersiap period there were skirmishes in many places, but the violence was not as intense or widespread as it had been in the final months of 1945.
How many people died on the Indonesian side during the bersiap period is difficult to determine. Estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000 pemudas killed on Java. Up to December 1946 the British and British-Indian forces suffered 655 dead (600 of whom on Java), 1,663 injured (1,420 on Java) and 320 missing persons (all missing on Java). The conflict with the Indonesian nationalists cost the Japanese army 402 dead, 239 injured, and 88 missing men. The number of Dutch and Indo victims of the bersiap is not known exactly; estimates range from 3,500 to 20,000 dead. A total number of approximately 5,500 victims is probably most realistic.
The nationalist violence did not focus exclusively on the Dutch and Chinese. Thousands of Indonesians also became victims of the revolutionary violence. Indonesian civil servants and the native elite in particular were targeted. In the Dutch period, but also under the Japanese, these officials and this elite had served as pillars for the ruling regime. In addition to an anti-colonial uprising, this was therefore also a social revolution.
The shock of the bersiap convinced many Indo-Europeans that there would be no room for them in an independent Indonesia. After the transfer of sovereignty in December 1949 the large majority of Indo-Europeans left their native country.
In November 1945 in the Netherlands, young men, mostly volunteers, were being trained for deployment to the Dutch East Indies. Their purpose would be to protect the exhausted civilians from the bloody attacks of the extremists and restore order wherever possible. A young man named Gerrit Vermeulen from Renswoude was deployed to Soerabaja, on Java – the city where we lived when the war broke out, where my father worked on the Naval Base, and where we were first incarcerated by the Japanese in 1942.
Gerrit Vermeulen wrote letters to his mother and friends back in the Netherlands about his experiences as a soldier in this very dangerous time right after the war: the Bersiap. I have translated his interesting letters and will post them on my Blog in the weeks to come.
I welcome your comments.
Until Next time,