Very little has been written about the twilight of Dutch rule in the Netherlands Indies in the period immediately after the Japanese army swept through Java and parachuted its forces into southern Sumatra. Few remember that when the Dutch Commander-in-Chief, Lt. General Hein Ter Poorten, surrendered to the Japanese in Kali Jati o-n March 9, 1942, it did not mark the end of Dutch control throughout the Indies. Unexpectedly, major elements of the colonial government in Sumatra held out for another three weeks before finally capitulating at Kota Cane o-n March 28.
Prisoners at Kota Cane recounts the events of those final days of colonialism in Sumatra from the perspective of an Indonesian nationalist arrested by the Dutch shortly after Ter Poorten’s surrender on Java. Along with other nationalist leaders, Leon Salim was taken captive by the Dutch army when they retreated from central Sumatra to fend off an imminent attack by invading Japanese forces. The reason for his arrest was that Salim had actively sought to accelerate the end of Dutch rule in West Sumatra by organizing mass demonstrations.
The Dutch had hoped that the region of West Sumatran with it’s strategic terrain of hills and valleys as well as the formidable Bukit Barisan mountain range would present a nearly impregnable line of defence against the Japanese advance. But when the native population learned that the Dutch planned to defend the region by employing a scorched-earth policy, a group of young men rose up to oppose making their Minangkabau homeland a battlefield in the defence of colonialism.
Padang Panjang, a small town in West Sumatra, formed the center of the Indonesians’ anti-scorched earth struggle for the whole of Sumatra. They demanded that the Duch Indies authorities hand over the government to the Indonesian people and not pass the land over to the Japanese as if they were “dead objects.” A massive demonstration was planned in which enormous red and white flags – the symbol of Indonesian independence – would be flown in brazen defiance of colonial regulations.
Before the demonstration could take place, the Dutch raided the headquarters and homes of the young fighters. Of the dozens arrested, six men were harshly interrogated, ordered on to trucks and hurriedly taken along in a military convoy from Padang Panjang to Aceh in northern Sumatra to stand trial at a military court in the last Dutch holdout of Kota Cane. Salim’s memoir is a riveting day-by-day account of that 20 day journey from March 11th to April 2nd, 1942.
An atmosphere of dread and foreboding pervades the story. The Japanese army had landed at Sibolga and were moving inland, bombing villages around Lake Toba, and the drone of the enemy’s spotter aircraft could be heard above the slow-moving convoy. At one point in a quiet spot in the middle of the rainforest, the trucks stopped and the prisoners were sure that they were going to be shot and their lifeless bodies thrown down a ravine. Salim vividly recollects the journey along the way - the stifling heat, a guard’s hand crushed, passing the faces of terrified Dutch soldiers in full retreat, the wails of air raid sirens, blinding tropical rainstorms, negotiating rickety narrow bridges. For part of the journey they were put on to a fully loaded munitions truck. The nights were cold and dark, the dimmed headlights of the vehicles stabbing the darkness. The ever-present fear of a Japanese onslaught stalked the panicked Dutch soldiers and army reservists.
Finally arriving in Kota Cane in the Alas region of northern Sumatra, the Dutch army’s last stronghold in all of Indonesia, the six prisoners were put before the final military tribunal of 350 years of colonial rule. Shortly afterwards, the Dutch abandoned the town without a struggle. Through the bars of their jail cell, the prisoners could see the Japanese troops encircle the huge military camp on their bicycles, their bodies covered with grass and weeds. Freed by the Japanese, the Indonesian prisoners started heading home, hitching rides on captured Dutch cars past war-scarred towns, looted houses, lines of reugees and the stench of corpses.
Although the pace is generally taut, the book is intensely subjective – both its strength and its weakness. The author has a penchant for uttering impassioned oaths, typical of the nationalist literature of the time. At the same time, Salim has the eye of a reporter, explaining general aspects of Dutch administration in the Indies and providing telling details and anecdotes which reveal the bitter animosity the Indonesians felt towards Dutch soldiers and officials. Indeed, reading of the racial arrogance and callousness of the Dutch, I found myself looking forward to the day of reckoning when the Dutch masters were going to get their comeuppance. When it finally happens, the former tormentors shackled and trembling with fear, their faces pale and heads bowed, forced to carry out the most degrading manual hard labor, the moment is savored by the reader. But it wasn’t long before Indonesians realized that they were just replacing one colonial power for another. Their fellow Asian were to prove even more ruthless, fascist and cruel than the Dutch had ever been. As the author puts it, their homeland had been “freed from the mouth of a tiger and was now in the jaws of a lion.”
This little book, which can be read easily in two sittings, is an important contribution to our understanding of this little known period of Indonesia’s modern history. Prisoners of Kota Cane makes learning history exciting because the book reads like a suspenseful war novel. The fact that all the events depicted are true makes Leon Salim’s story even more powerful and reinforces the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction.
Prisoners at Kota Cane by Leon Salim, Equinox Publishing 2010, ISBN-978-6028397544, paperback, 146 pages, maps, illustrations, dimensions: 23 cm X 15 cm (6 x 9 inches). Available for Rp279,000 at Ganesha bookstores: a) corner of Jl. Raya Ubud & Jl. Jembawan in Ubud; b) Jl. Petitenget 888 (inside Biku Restaurant) in Seminyak; c) Jl. Danau Tamblingan 42 in Sanur.
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