Retracing the Path to Independence: Jakarta, West Java

The structure on Jl. Menteng Raya No. 31 in Central Jakarta may seem out of place, dwarfed as it is by the high-rise buildings to its left and to its right. Its architecture, however, is a link with the colonial past.

The Art Deco Joang ’45 building (literally the struggle of 1945) — originally built by the Dutch in 1939 as one of Batavia’s luxury hotels — was once a bastion of national liberation ideals during the pre-independence days in the early 1940s.

It was a generator of the republic’s independence movement as many young Indonesians received their political educations at this fraternity house during the Japanese occupation.

The Gedung Joang ’45 building was converted into a museum of independence in 1974 and currently houses guerrilla memorabilia and photographs documenting the journey to independence. The museum is also the first stop in the annual “path to independence” tour.

Not far from the museum on Jl. Imam Bonjol No. 1 is a colonial house, which looks much like any other home in the upscale neighborhood aside from the red and white banners out front. Yet, this 1920 Art Deco villa served as the cradle of this nation, 62 years ago.

In the early hours of August 17, 1945, the nation’s founding fathers Sukarno, Mohammad Hatta and Ahmad Soebardjo drafted a declaration of independence at this 1,138-square-meter residence, then owned by Japanese Rear Admiral Maeda Tadashi.
Maeda served as the chief of the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II.

After several changes of hands, the house became known as the National Museum of the Declaration of Independence in 1992, when it was converted from a national library administration office.

Black-and-white photographs of 29 witnesses to the historic episode line the walls of the house. A heavy wooden dining table is the centerpiece of one of the main four rooms.

According to museum curator Sri Harningsih, most visitors to the museum are schoolchildren.

“Seventy-five percent of our visitors go to school in the capital, 15 percent are Japanese tourists and the rest — a meager 10 percent — comprises the public in general,” Sri told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

“The number of visitors is increasing steadily each year; at least 3,000 people have visited the museum this year alone. Yet still, more work needs to be done in order to reach out to a wider crowd,” she said.

Admission to the museum, which is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (3 p.m. on Fridays), costs Rp 750 (less than US 1 cent) for an adult and Rp 250 for a child.

The museum’s maintenance budget, Sri said, is covered by the Culture and Tourism Ministry.

Sri said residents of Greater Jakarta who had never visited the museum before would be let in for free.

“The program, which has existed since the 1990s, extends to residents of Bekasi and Depok. We have also held free exhibitions in places such as Banten, Yogyakarta and Solo (Central Java),” she said.

Despite these efforts, she said, public response had been lukewarm.

“Compared to foreigners, societal awareness and appreciation of our own heritage is generally lacking,” Sri said.

Wirdan Zaki, a museum security guard, affirmed. “Let’s just be honest, if it weren’t for employment or school assignments, we wouldn’t set foot in a museum now would we?”

Wirdan’s cynicism is also shared by visitors to the Tugu Proklamasi complex on Jl. Proklamasi (formerly known as Jl. Pegangsaan Timur), a national monument complex in Central Jakarta.

Couple Robby Robert, 22, and Liana Aprilia, 20, were sitting in the shade when the Post visited the compound.

It is on this very soil that independence was declared.

Yet, save the towering statues of the republic’s first president and vice president, a mural of Sukarno, and a monument, there is nothing left of the monumental Pegangsaan Timur No. 56 house and verandah where Sukarno stood on that auspicious August 17 morning, reading out the declaration of independence text that he and others had earlier drafted.

“People like to say Tugu Proklamasi represents the pinnacle of our history as a nation. That’s nonsense. It’s heritage status has been lost, basically it’s just another place for people to meet, hang out or play ball,” Liana said.

“Unlike museums where guides are available to tell us about our history, this place is just another public open space with an odd structure, supposedly erected to mark the day we proclaimed our independence,” Robby added.

Where the founding fathers stood to read out the independence declaration rests the lightening-shaped Tugu Petir monument, built in 1961 during the Sukarno regime.

The vast maroon and white-tiled compound appears neglected and dirty and the surrounding greenery, parched.

Liana said it was a shame the government had not paid proper attention to the site’s maintenance.

“It’s just another wide open space, not much more than an untidy public park now,” she said.

According to the city administration official in charge of Tugu Proklamasi complex, Muhammad Ansyari, the difficulties of maintaining the 4.4-hectare area are due to it being a public space.

“Mothers, homeless people, bajaj drivers, schoolchildren … they all come here to rest and hang out. They don’t care about keeping things looking nice,” he said.

Muhammad said the city administration was planning to build a fence around the compound, as had been done at National Monument park, in order to keep the area cleaner and more orderly.