Sutomo: War criminal or Hero? – Mare

Sutomo: War criminal or hero?

Researching Indonesian resistance leader Sutomo

Marleen van Wesel, Leids Universiteitsblad Mare, 23 november 2017

Photographer and master student Marjolein van Pagee became interested in Indonesian history through old photographs from her grandfather. Currently she is investigating the controversial resistance leader Sutomo. “It is fascinating how contradictory memories of one history can be.”

“Indonesia has its own version of Uber: GO-JEK. It’s really great: via an app you can order motorbike transportation”, says master student of Marjolein van Pagee (30). “People even quit their jobs for this. You can also order food or a massage.”

Last spring she stayed in Java for seven weeks with a scholarship from the LUF Leiden Internationaal Study Fund (LISF), to conduct research for her master’s thesis about the Indonesian resistance leader Sutomo (1920-1981). This month she won the LISF prize for the best report.

She spoke with Sutomo’s son and visited an archive in Surabaya where they keep a collection of testimonies from Indonesian veterans. “Handwritten documents and photos: Nothing was digitalized. The employees of the institution did not really realize how valuable the material was, “bring it home”, they said. A little later I was sitting on the backside of a motorcycle with a bag full of testimonies. I thought: one heavy rainfall and everything is gone. I photographed everything. Now it’s safe. ”

She became interested in Indonesia after 2009 when she graduated in photography at the art academy Breda. “I found my grandfather’s photo album, from the time that he was a soldier in Indonesia. Like many Dutch people, I didn’t know anything about it. As a photographer the images triggered my curiosity.” At that time her grandfather had already passed away. “But other veterans from his battalion were still alive. I portrayed and interviewed dozens of them. I was just on time.”

In 2010 she traveled to Indonesia for the first time, to talk to Indonesian veterans as well. It resulted in an exhibition and some of her photographs were published in Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland. “It is fascinating to see how contradictory memories of one history can be,” she says. “And if there is one figure in which this clashing of perspectives come together, it is Sutomo. He was 25 when the Japanese capitulated and when the Indonesians took up the arms to prevent the British from landing, since the latter paved the way for the Dutch colonial authorities to return.”

In 2008 Sutomo was formally appointed as one of Indonesia’s national heroes. “During one of my earlier trips, I attended the annual National Heroes Day of November 10. Every year a large parade is held through the city, re-enacting the struggle of 1945, including the role of the Dutch and British. During this reenactment the leading person is Sutomo. At that time I was busy making a report for Dutch National Radio 1 and while audio taping everything I was asked to play the role of the American woman K’tut Tantri. That is how I ended up on a small stage, next to the actor who had to represent Sutomo, I had to proclaim a text containing the words: “Dutch cowards”. A Dutch journalist later wrote that she found it unacceptable that I was posing on a picture next to ‘war criminal’ Sutomo.”

That is how he is remembered in the Netherlands. “According to Dutch sources, he joined in a ruthless slaughter, ordering others on whom to kill. More generally his speeches allegedly called for violence against the Dutch.”

Of course he is much more known in Indonesia, yet also on Indonesian side there are some controversial stories. “Some say that he is not a real hero, because he never held a weapon himself. Through his radio station, he only encouraged the regular man on the street to fight against the Dutch and British. In the neighborhoods there were still speakers left over from the Japanese occupation, that is how people every night could hear his speeches.”

After the regime change of 1965, there was a witch hunt against communists in Indonesia. “Anyone who was affiliated with communism at the time of the revolution, cannot receive the official hero status. Though Sutomo’s ideas were quite leftist and always remained critical to the establishment, he never presented himself as a communist or socialist. In a way this is what made him the perfect candidate to be the national hero of Indonesia.”

The way he died also appeals to the imagination. “During a pilgrimage to Mecca, he passed away because of the heat.” It was his wish to be buried at the regular municipal cemetery. Located at the opposite of the official heroes’ cemetery in Surabaya, as Van Pagee saw with her own eyes.

In her thesis, which she is currently writing, she analyzes the different Indonesian and Dutch perspectives concerning Sutomo. In addition, she is also busy with her foundation Histori Bersama, an online platform that she built that combines the history of the Netherlands and Indonesia. “An important obstacle to a more transnational approach of history writing is the language. On Histori Bersama anyone who wants to, can submit translations of recent articles in Dutch, Indonesian or English. In this way we may get a broader understanding, like: oh, this is the way they think about it, and this is how we see things.”

She also asked Sutomo’s son if he knew how his father was remembered in the Netherlands. “Yes, I know,” he said. “But when I showed him a few Dutch sources, he was totally shocked. The irony is that because of his wife’s work, he regularly visits the Netherlands. Thus I asked him whether he ever received a negative comment when he told Dutch people that Sutomo was his father, he said: never.”

With choosing a master’s degree, Marjolein van Pagee’s intention is to broaden her knowledge about Indonesia. Yet registering for a premaster-program was not easy. “According to several universities, I would first have to complete a full bachelor’s degree. In Rotterdam I was even told that I underestimated the academic level.” Eventually Leiden University assembled a one-year pre-master program. “It took quite some time to find the right tone for my bachelor’s thesis, and again I face the same challenge in writing my master’s thesis”, she admits. “It took a while before getting used to sit in the class room again. But at the same time I was very happy that I had chosen this.” She now only has to complete her master’s thesis while here travel report has already been awarded. Part of the LISF prize is to give the so-called ‘Cleveringa lecture’ in Paris. Leiden scholars traditionally hold lectures all over the world in late November and early December, in memory of the speech that Professor Cleveringa gave on November 26, 1940, in which he protested against the dismissal of his Jewish colleagues.