“Indonesian independence served as a model of decolonization”

David Van Reybrouk is a Belgian essayist, historian and novelist. He is notably the author of Revolusi. Indonesia and the birth of the modern worldwhich has just been published by Actes Sud (628 pages, 29 euros).

The subtitle of your book – “Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World” is audacious: how did the independence movement of this immense archipelago, a former Dutch colony, currently the fourth most populous nation and the largest Muslim country on the planet, prefigure the world today?

Indonesia was the first colonized country to declare its independence and the proclamasi from [leader indépendantiste Sukarno, le 17 août 1945] constitutes a kind of model, a formula which was subsequently copied during other decolonization experiences. This Indonesian “model” will also allow Sukarno to organize, in 1955, the Bandung conference [réunissant, dans la ville du même nom, vingt-neuf pays asiatiques et africains nouvellement indépendants ; un événement qui marqua l’entrée du « tiers-monde » sur la scène internationale]. This conference will have a very important impact in Africa and Asia.

After the Second World War, the colonial powers had the choice between several ways of decolonizing: they could do it gradually, by ensuring a partial transition of power, or by granting independence to only part of a territory. All these scenarios were rejected by the Indonesians. For them, it was necessary that the process be fast, that all the power be given to them and that the whole country becomes independent. What also distinguishes them is that the freedom of the country was acquired politically, but not economically: in 1949, during the Round Table conference in The Hague, the Dutch granted independence to Indonesia, while maintaining control over its economy. This scheme was later reproduced in the Congo by the Belgians…

There are similarities between the struggle for independence of Indonesia and that of other Asian countries, at the time also engaged against colonial empires which kept them under their control. But how to explain that the Indonesians were the first to proclaim themselves independent?

I think the Indonesians benefited from a particular configuration: three and a half centuries of Dutch presence [de 1605 à 1942], followed by three and a half years of Japanese occupation [à partir de mars 1942], during which time more than 100,000 Dutch people were imprisoned. The colonial upper layer – what I call in my book the “upper deck of the ship” – thus found itself locked up in camps. To this is then added the brutal fall of Japan, after the atomic bombs [sur Hiroshima et Nagasaki, respectivement le 6 et le 9 août 1945]. The World War ended earlier than expected in Asia, while in Europe it ended later than expected. Thus, the Netherlands thought they would be liberated in September 1944, but they were not until May 1945. The Dutch therefore did not have the material time to form an army [susceptible d’empêcher une prise de contrôle par les indépendantistes indonésiens].

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