The Jakarta Post
'Every great nation strives to know the truth of its foundation, why it exists and who was responsible.'
When Frank Palmos, whose words start this story, was in Jakarta more than a half century ago he was handed a sacred trust.
Neither he nor the donor realized it at the time for the young Australian was one more face in a sea of students at the since demolished Ikada Stadium. They were listening to diplomat and revolutionary leader Dr. Roeslan Abdulgani speak on the principles of the Indonesian revolution.
The stand-out was that Palmos wasn't just the only foreigner in the audience ' he'd plonked himself in the front-row. Blessed with confidence, language skills and an inquiring mind, the historian-to-be and the foreign minister that was mixed and matched.
So when Palmos returned to the capital in 1964 with a degree in Indonesian studies as correspondent for several newspapers the friendship thrived.
'Dr. Abdulgani was as exciting and funny as president Sukarno,' Palmos recalled. 'He was generous with his relationship.'
The freedom fighter was also a writer with a strong interest in history, particularly the birth of the nation in 1945 when he'd been a midwife. His book One Hundred Days in Surabaya that Shook Indonesia was translated by Palmos into English.
Till now historians have reckoned it's one of the few authoritative texts about youngsters armed with bamboo spears who turned words into action after Sukarno proclaimed Independence on Aug. 17.
Six weeks later a British-led force of tough Indian troops landed to recover the East Java capital for the return of the colonialists.
But the Surabayans defied the battle-hardened Gurkhas, killed their commander Brigadier Aubertin Mallaby, and fought furiously against the misinformed invaders, for the Dutch had arrogantly assumed they'd be welcomed back.
The fighting climaxed on Nov. 10, now recognized as National Heroes' Day.
Although the British eventually secured the city and its port the revolutionaries' furious resistance inspired the nascent nation to maintain the struggle for four more years till the Dutch capitulated in 1949.
The story of those tragic times is now to be retold. Tanah Keramat [Sacred Territory] should be available in Indonesian in time for the 70th anniversary of the day that determined the Republic would eventually seize its freedom.
Palmos developed the book out of his doctoral thesis at the University of Western Australia. Inevitably he's encountered some resentment: What's a foreigner doing with such precious national memories? Recounting any state's history is a job for the home-grown.
'I have a ready reply,' said Palmos during a visit to East Java where he's been supervising the translation and talking to a publisher. The initial print run could be 5,000 copies ' a big order in a culture where readers browse but seldom buy.
'I could not have written this without access to the personal papers of Dr. Abdulgani, one of the Republic's founders. These were given to me by his family when he died in 2005,' he said.
'Before everything went to the National Archives, I worked through the collection. It included documents the 1945 History Committee had assembled to publish a major book.'
However, he said Sukarno was against the project ' he didn't wish to focus praise or attention on any one ethnic group, or city or incident.
'After Sukarno was deposed by Soeharto, Dr. Abdulgani became ambassador to the United Nations [in New York]. While in the US he was influenced by the way Americans handled their history and kept it alive,' Palmos said.
'Later in the 1990s he was an advisor to Megawati Soekarnoputri [daughter of Sukarno and later the nation's fifth president] when she was opposing the Soeharto government. So he was never able to write the book.'
He said another major resource was Gen. (ret.) Suhario's Memories of a Student Soldier. 'I encountered this by chance and learned the author was still alive. [He died last year aged 93],' he said.
'I borrowed a video recorder and rushed to Jakarta. The old soldier, known as Hario Kecik, came to the Obor Foundation's publishing office in his uniform and medals ' it was an extraordinary and moving moment. I also had access to interviews conducted with veterans by the army. My book is really fulfilling and extending Dr. Abdulgani's dream.'
In 2003, Dr. Retnowati Abdulgani-Knapp published a biography of her father titled A Fading Dream.
After Jakarta, Palmos was sent to report the Vietnam War. In Saigon he survived an ambush that killed four other journalists. He spent two years in the US where he covered space missions. Later he worked in Australian television. 'But the Battle of Surabaya continued to gnaw,' he said. 'It was unfinished business.'
Palmos' trip to Surabaya was funded by the Australia-Indonesia Association (AIA). Last year he won the AIA's media section award given ''to recognise and honor Australians who have made significant contributions to the greater understanding and friendship between Indonesians and Australians'.
On the award night he said: 'I'd like to leave this earth knowing I'd left behind a legacy of literature and history.'
On a side trip to the East Java town Malang in April, Palmos, now 75, recalled that the Indonesian people treated him so wonderfully as a student and it would be wrong for him not to use the knowledge he had gained to repay the Republic for what it has given to him.
'I didn't expect Indonesian historians to be so disinterested. But Soeharto had his version of the past written after the 1965 coup and I think many just gave up. They should now read and criticize and add to my book,' he said.
Serious journalists, he said, are beholden to continue writing and do more than just go home and talk about the old days.
'The people of Surabaya were the first independent citizens of Indonesia. They saved the Republic, they defended the Proclamation,' Palmos said.
'I hope Sacred Territory revives young people's interest in their nation's history. Dr. Abdulgani told me long ago that it was a good story; he was right.'
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