Fascism in Indonesia, no
big deal?

"Did the Nazi Party and its supporters give Indonesian nationalists a chance to accelerate the process toward independence? Or did they have to cooperate with the colonial power to evict the Nazi Party and its supporters, thinking fascism was far more dangerous than colonialism?"

This quote comes from the back cover of historian Wilson's new book Orang dan Partai Nazi di Indonesia: Kaum Pergerakan Menyambut Fasisme (The Nazi Party and its supporters in Indonesia: How Indonesia's national movements welcomed fascism), Komunitas Bambu, Jakarta, 2008). It reflects the dilemma the independence movements faced from the 1920s until independence.

Wilson has done a great service by describing fascist ideas and movements as part of this nation's past, a little-known subject that turns out to be part and parcel of our struggle toward independence.

How did it come about? Wilson traces people and organizations which supported fascist ideas in the then Dutch East Indies by studying the nature and development of Indonesia's political movements. He examines Dutch capitalism, which brought about state structures that imposed racial classifications as the colonial administration introduced modern education. It gave rise to both the national awakening movement and a broad spectrum of political movements.

The laws of the Dutch East Indies grew increasingly repressive as popular movements, notably Sarekat Islam, became radicalized after the early 1920s. The governor general acquired extraordinary rights enabling him to expel political enemies and the administration was allowed to arrest persons who distorted rust en orde (tranquility and order). In the end, state control was most effectively exercised by the Dutch intelligence agency, the Politieke Inlichtingen Dienst, or PID.

Indonesian fascism should be understood within the context of the global impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s and its consequences, namely the rise of fascism in Europe which provoked World War II. The weaknesses of Indonesian political movements vis-*-vis the colonial regime became evident once the communist rebellion of 1926-27 was defeated. This, Wilson argues, led to some members of Indonesian popular movements being impressed by national-socialist ideas as propagated by the German Nazi Party (p. 67).

These new attitudes were soon visible. The Nazi Party's national-socialist ideas were translated, published and advertised. Many were impressed by Hitler's 1933 electoral victory. His spirited propaganda for the hegemony of "Greater Germany" inspired similar ideas of "Indonesia Mulia" (esteemed Indonesia) and "Indonesia Raya" (great Indonesia) in Bandung. A fascist party was thus born: the Partai Fasis Indonesia (PFI). Wilson chose for the book's front cover a unique photo of people greeting Javanese dignitaries with the well-known Nazi salute.

Anti-fascist responses developed earlier when Partindo (1925) and Gerindo (1937) arose and leaders like Tan Malaka became prominent. But others, such as the newly established Indonesian National Party (PNI), were confused: they considered fascism a danger that somehow could turn into a "new hope".

On balance, however, popular movements with a clear anti-fascist stance seemed weak.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer suggested in a 1997 interview only a few leaders such as Tan Malaka, S.K. Trimurti and Amir Sjarifudin realized the importance of the struggle against fascism. Historians Onghokham and Anton Lucas concurred in a Radio Nederlands 1997 documentary. Onghokham contrasted Indonesia's national struggle and other popular movements in Burma, Vietnam and China. Led respectively by General Aung San, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zhe-dong, these movements were clearly inspired by anti-fascist ideology.

Reluctance among Indonesian nationalists to cooperate with the Dutch in order to fight the fascists (see the quote at the beginning of this article) indicated the weakness of antifascism in Indonesia.

The discussion at the launching of Wilson's book (ironically held at the former home of Prof. Soepomo, a freedom fighter whose ideas had inspired Soeharto's New Order values) raised issues about potential neofascism. Unfortunately, the discussion was clouded by a few taboos.

One suggestion during the discussion that Soekarno had fascist potential prompted criticism and was set aside as if it were taboo. In fact, Soekarno did admire Hitler's Third Reich and its vision of happiness for all: "It's in the Dritte Reich that the Germans will see Germany at the apex above other nations in this world," he said in 1963.

Soekarno was also charismatic and populist, two characteristics associated with fascism. Crucially, he created the Sekber Golkar, the joint secretariat of civil servants. Later transformed into the New Order's Golkar, this entity became a partner to Soeharto and to the military in building a hegemonic state with totalitarian and fascist aspirations.

At the roots of this neofascism is a close but difficult relationship between nationalism and fascism. It's a love-hate relationship since irrational patriotism and irredentism, which idealize the nation's past greatness, are aspects of fascist values. Only when manifested among popular movements championing democracy could nationalism become the antithesis of fascism.

In this sense, the wars in East Timor (1975-99) and Aceh (1976-2005) may serve as examples of the state's fascist projects that clashed with local nationalisms. For, contrary to the rhetoric of the unitary state, neither conflict had anything to do with attempts to keep the nation united; rather they were the state's attempt to exercise control over people and territories through methods similar to those the Japanese fascists applied in the 1940s when they established military structures deep in both urban centers and the countryside. The Indonesian Military did likewise by seizing the local heads and their constituents in East Timor, and by controlling local chiefs, religious leaders and villages in Aceh.

It is unfortunate that this militaristic concept of the unitary state -- like Soekarno's potentially problematic nationalist fascism -- were not discussed at the book launch, since Wilson's book has, rightly, provoked discussions that should heighten public awareness of neofascist potential which could endanger our new democracy.

Fascist ideas once grew in our own soil. They were a marginal matter once the national movements achieved their main aim of independence. However, neofascist aspirations under certain circumstances could arise again; indeed it succeeded in influencing state policies during the three decades of Soeharto's New Order. That certainly is a big deal.

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