Book Review: History in Uniform

In 1945 when Indonesia proclaimed its independence from the Netherlands it had no army-in-waiting, indeed no police, nothing at all in the way of a formal apparatus of repression or defense. The leadership was essentially anti-militarist and in the case of Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir avowedly anti-fascist.

Twenty years later the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) submerged the nation’s leftists, principally but not solely the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in a bloodbath that took hundreds of thousands of lives.

That bitter episode continues to be the target of official obfuscation and falsification. The shameful 2007 burnings of school history texts offering alternative versions of the events of 1965-66 demonstrate a continuum between democratic Indonesia and Soeharto’s New Order, at least where presentation of uncomfortable truths is concerned. The specter of the New Order continues to hover above writers and historians.

Those such as playwright Ratna Sarumpaet who insist that Indonesia face up to the crimes of the past face formidable obstacles, and may in effect be involved in a dialogue of the deaf.

How did such a powerful force as TNI arise ab ovo?

Certainly, President Soekarno end the founding fathers felt no urgent need in 1945 for the creation of a national army but within five years it had come together from a rag-tag of different elements such as the “pemuda” militias.

How does TNI explain itself?

It is the second of these two questions that Australian historian Kathleen McGregor deals with in this important new book History In Uniform. Central to the book is the control of history, who decides what can and cannot be said about the history of Indonesia. Central to that are certain important individuals such as General Abdul Haris Nasution, former Chief of Staff of TNI, the pro-military University of Indonesia academic Nugroho
Notosusanto and ex-President Soeharto himself as well as figures in the defeated and now banned PKI.

Battles over history have gone on in Indonesia for decades and continue as the book burnings orchestrated by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) in recent months demonstrate. History or the telling of it remains a theater of conflict. Versions of the tragic events of 1965-66 (I say “tragic” not because I am a sympathizer of the PKI but because of the huge loss of life) remain contentious, of which more in a moment.

Author McGregor knew when she took on this project that the military would vet her and seek to control her output and that she would thus work under constraints not imposed in her native Australia. Never willing to let the truth out at the best of times, TNI operates on a platform of suspicion and obfuscation in which independent researchers are seldom welcome.

Interestingly, however certain compromising material remains in military archives and skilled, determined researchers can unearth it.

The Armed Forces prefer their kept men and women, in this case historians such as Nugroho Notosusanto whose position as the head of the History department at the University of Indonesia and his closeness to the military pose serious questions about UI’s independence even prior to the coming of Soeharto’s New Order.

Nugroho was the quintessential state-sanctioned academic and the leading spokesman of the so-called Generation of 1945, that age group which lays claim to being the true harbingers of independence through the armed struggle of 1945-49 which gave birth to TNI.

Nugroho became more or less the official historian of the military and one who could barely conceal his contempt for the founding fathers and their willingness to pursue negotiations and diplomatic means to advance the national cause. In particular he would have had in mind President Soekarno, Vice-President Hatta and PM Sutan Sjahrir, the last of whom was absolutely convinced of Indonesia’s need to win international recognition and support.

As spokesman for the Generation of ’45, it was Nugroho’s purpose to write up the heroism of the armed struggle against the British and the Dutch, leaving out of course inconvenient matters such as the holding of Dutch civilian internees, men, women and children as hostages and the November 1945 Bekasi massacre of British and Indian troops and airmen.

We learn here that in the 1950s and especially the early 1960s PKI was doing what Stalinist parties everywhere tried to do (still do in North Korea), writing its own account of national history, omitting inconvenient truths or indeed anything that would cast it in poor light. Because this meant omission of the 1948 Madiun Affair and its role in the events in East Java, Nasution was desperate to put out a counter-view that would cast TNI in a good light in relation to the same period.

The TNI leader brought together a team to write an official, military-endorsed history and Nugroho, a man of aristocratic priyayi background from Central Java, did most of the writing. Out of this project, which succeeded in Nasution’s aim of beating the PKI to the publication punch, came the Armed Forces History Center, which of course has since had the role of propagandizing on behalf of TNI. It would be a mistake to dismiss the Center lightly.

Nugroho was an admirer of Japanese militarism and of the ancient bushido warrior spirit that infused it. This would appear to place him close to the fascist end of the political spectrum but McGregor, without cautioning against the use of the term “fascist”, does not openly say so. Certainly the historian was passionately anti-Western and no democrat. What mattered most to him was the integrity of the state, which should, according to integralist thinking, subsume society.

Arguing that only historians with a “national spirit”, narrowly defined, could write national history, Nugroho offered up a template for some of the bleakest New Order censorship.

McGregor has done an essential service in this lucidly written account in highlighting the way in which the military has both erased much of Indonesia’s history and shaped a conformist interpretation of it.

Katherine McGregor
National University of Singapore Press 2007

Book Reviewed by David Jardine