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Indonesia-Early Political Movements

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Indonesia Index


Home of the Dutch Resident, Surabaya, Jawa Timur, 1854
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Centuries of Dutch cooptation made the highest ranking priyayi on Java and their counterparts on other islands politically conservative. But lower ranking members of the elite-- petty officials, impoverished aristocrats, school teachers, native doctors, and others--were less content with the status quo. In 1908 students of the School for Training Native Doctors in Batavia established an association, Budi Utomo (Noble Endeavor), which is considered by many historians to be the first modern political organization in Indonesia. Java-centered and confined largely to students and the lower priyayi, Budi Utomo had little influence on other classes or non-Javanese. Because of its limited appeal and the suspicion of many members of the high-ranking priyayi, the organization did not thrive. Similar eliteoriented groups, however, were established during the 1910s both inside and outside Java.

Significantly, Budi Utomo adopted Malay rather than Javanese as its official language. Malay, the lingua franca of the archipelago, became a symbol of its unity and the basis for the national language of independent Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia (see Glossary). Unlike Javanese, which was laden with honorific language emphasizing status differences, Malay was linguistically democratic as well as free of Java-centeredness, although Bahasa Indonesia itself does not abandon status-conscious forms altogether (see The Emerging National Culture , ch. 2).

A more assertive political movement than Budi Utomo appeared with the establishment in 1910 of the Indies Party (Indische Partij) by E.F.E. Douwes Dekker (known after 1946 as Danudirja Setyabuddhi), a Eurasian and descendant of the author of Max Havelaar. A veteran of the Boer War (1899-1902) fighting on the Afrikaaner side and a journalist, Douwes Dekker criticized the Ethical Policy as excessively conservative and advocated selfgovernment for the islands and a kind of "Indies nationalism" that encompassed all the islands' permanent residents but not the racially exclusive trekkers. In July 1913, close associates of Douwes Dekker, including physicians Tjipto Mangunkusumo and R.M. Suwardi Surjaningrat (known also as Ki Hadjar Dewantara, later founder of the Taman Siswa or Garden of Pupils school movement), established the Native Committee in Bandung. The committee planned to petition the Dutch crown for an Indies parliament. In 1913 it also published a pamphlet written by Suwardi, "If I were to be a Dutchman," that gained almost instant notoriety. Regarded as subversive by the colonial government and impudent by Dutchmen in general, the pamphlet, which was translated into Malay, led to the exile to the Netherlands of Douwes Dekker and his two Javanese associates. In exile, they worked with liberal Dutchmen and compatriot students. It is believed that the term Indonesia was first used in the name of an organization, the Indonesian Alliance of Students, with which they were associated during the early 1920s.

The responses of Islamic communities to the new political environment reflected their diversity. Hard-pressed by ethnic Chinese competition, especially in the batik trade, Muslim merchants formed the Islamic Traders' Association in 1909. In 1912 this group became Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union) under the leadership of a former government official, Haji Umar Said Cokroaminoto. Sarekat Islam became the first association to gain wide membership among the common people. By early 1914, its membership numbered 360,000. Committed in part to promoting Islamic teaching and community economic prosperity (anti-Chinese sentiment was a major appeal), the organization also drew on traditional Javanese beliefs about the return of the "Just King," and Cokroaminoto went so far as to cast himself in the role of a charismatic, if not divine, figure. Cokroaminoto's advocacy of Indies self-government caused the Dutch some anxiety. By 1916 Sarekat Islam had some eighty branches both on Java and in the Outer Islands.

The modernist or reformist trend in Islam was represented by Muhammadiyah (Followers of Muhammad), a group established at Yogyakarta in 1912. It was particularly strong among the Sumatran Minangkabau, and a number of modernist schools were established there. Its importance is reflected in the fact that Minangkabau, such as Mohammad Hatta, were surpassed in numbers only by Javanese among the leadership of the Indonesian revolution. In 1926 the Nahdatul Ulama (Revival of the Religious Scholars and sometimes known as the Muslim Scholars' League) was organized as a conservative counterweight to the growing influence of Cokroaminoto's syncretism and modernist ideas among believers.

In May 1914, Hendricus Sneevliet (alias Maring) established the Indies Social-Democratic Association (ISDV), which became the Communist Association of the Indies (Perserikatan Komunisi di Hindia) in May 1920 and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1924. Backed by the Communist International (Cominterm) in Moscow, the PKI became active among trade unionists and rural villagers. In 1926 and 1927, despite advice by Tan Malaka, a Comintern agent from Sumatra, to the contrary, local leaders instigated rural insurrections in western Java and Sumatra. The government moved decisively to crush the insurrections and imprison communist leaders. Some, like Tan Malaka, fled into exile. But 1,300 communists were exiled to the grim Boven Digul penal colony in West New Guinea. The PKI all but disappeared, not to be an important actor on the political stage until after independence.

Data as of November 1992

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