Reviving a suppressed memory of struggle

Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia,
By Jan Lingard
Australian Scholarly Publishing (2008), 312 pages, $39.95 (pb)

Jan Lingard’s Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia is a humane, informative and readable book. The book describes the experiences of 5000 Indonesians living, working and engaging in political struggle in both cities and country towns in Australia between 1942 and 1947.

Lingard’s book analyses events which have been largely erased from the collective memory of Australian working people or, where that has proved awkward, tamed to remove their radical edge. This book is an important step in recovering that memory. It comes more than two decades after the work by the Communist Party of Australia journalist, Rupert Lockwood, who wrote Black Armada. Lockwood chronicled one aspect of the experiences and struggle of Indonesians in Australia in the 1945-47 period — their involvement in the work bans in Australian ports on Dutch ships that were to head north to help the Dutch army recolonise Indonesia after the defeat of the Japanese occupation.

Lingard’s research and writing expand the Lockwood picture of Australian solidarity with the Indonesian independence struggle. Lockwood wrote mainly from his direct experience and the materials he had at hand in the port unions and at the offices of the Tribune, the newspaper of the Communist Party, which was an active participant in joint activities with some of the Indonesians in Australia during this time. Lingard’s book takes us through the experiences of the “black armada”, but also into the hostels and labour camps where many Indonesian merchant sailors, evacuated employees of the Dutch colonial state as well as its prisoners, lived and worked. She provides a series of short biographical sketches of many of the Indonesians and Australians involved, as well as a more detailed narrative of the most active and interesting figures.

As she points out clearly, the presence of these 5000 Indonesian men and women (although the women were a tiny minority) was an acute anomaly in what, in the 1940s, was still very much the White Australia of “Advance Australia Fair”. Furthermore, most of these “javos”, as they were sometimes called (although by no means were they all from Java), were highly rebellious, a reflection their hatred of national oppression and exploitation at the hands of the Dutch colonialists. Those who had been in the terrible Boven Digul Dutch-run prison camp in western Papua were union militants, nationalist activists or communists. Merchant sailors and other employees who were drafted into militarised labour camps were often no less rebellious. Eventually almost all became involved in, as Lingard puts it, carrying out the Indonesian revolution on Australian soil. The book also documents Australian and Dutch government policies, showing the consistent deep colonial attitudes and policies of the Dutch and the contradictory policies of Australia, caught between a strong liberal-democratic sentiment in the working class and the interests of the Australian state in cooperating with a fellow white imperialist power.

The material Lingard provides on the conflict between the Dutch and Australian ruling classes, sharpened by the Indonesian independence movement, is from released internal documents of the Australian federal bureaucracy. The material highlights the different nature of racism in Australia and the Netherlands. Dutch racist attitudes stemmed from three centuries of justification of colonial rule over the Indonesian archipelago. It is amazing to realise that after five years of Nazi occupation, the postwar Dutch liberal-democratic government promised amnesty to Dutch Nazis if they volunteered to wage a war to reimpose Dutch colonial rule over Indonesia.

Australian racism towards Asians stemmed from Australian working-class resistance to the importation of Asian labour, something that significant parts of the Australian capitalist class supported. Lingard’s documentation shows how the crude racism of Dutch officials alienated individual Australian officials dealing with the Indonesian refugees, pushing them to be more sympathetic to the Indonesian cause. This cannot be a complete explanation for the Labor government’s support for Indonesian independence after 1947. Other factors — such as US support for independence and, under US pressure, the moves by the right-wing of the Indonesian elite and its army to forcibly disarm the Indonesian left, jail and execute leftist leaders and brutally smash a left rebellion — were important. However, without the support for Indonesian independence within the Australian trade unions, which Lingard shows, the dynamic towards government support for Indonesia might not have eventuated.

Lingard comments in her conclusion that it was a fortuitous circumstance that there was a Labor government in Australia during these years and not one headed by Robert Menzies, the leader of the coalition of conservative parties. She points out that Menzies, along with most of the Australian press, consistently supported Dutch colonial interests on almost every issue and opposed every concession made by the Labor government to Indonesia and its supporters in Australia. It was important that the Labor Party was in government, not because of any innate tendency of the ALP leaders to support Indonesia, but because the Labor leadership in parliament — especially before the 1980s — was still susceptible to pressures from its base in the trade union officialdom.

Lingard’s point is important not only as an assessment of where the major capitalist parties stood on the issue but also in explaining how the memory of this inspiring struggle was erased during Menzies’ 17 years in government (1949-66). During this time, the Australian government adopted a hostile attitude to Indonesia, supplying arms to rightist military rebels against the Indonesian government in the 1960s and waging a propaganda, diplomatic and military opposition to the anti-imperialist policies of President Sukarno. It is not surprising that solidarity with the Indonesian militants of the 1940s was encouraged to disappear.

Now, occasionally, the belated Australian government support in the UN for Indonesian independence after 1946 will get a mention in official speeches about Australia-Indonesia relations. But the struggles of the Indonesian seafarers’ union and the Indonesian independence committees and the protests of Indonesian workers against imprisonment and economic mistreatment, and the solidarity and friendship of many Australians, should be a part of the collective memory of the Australian working people. This book is an important contribution to recovering that memory.