The Sultan and the Revolution

John Monfries*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    4 Citations (Scopus)


    The Indonesian Revolution was Hamengku Buwono's finest hour, so much so that the rest of his career, despite its distinction, looks almost like an anticlimax. His central conviction, that the time of colonialism was over, seemed to guide all his actions during 1949, and he was prepared to take great personal and political risks to justify it. He was playing for high stakes, because the Dutch had exiled some of his ancestors and seriously considered doing the same to him. His judgement that, when it came to the point, they would not dare to do so, proved correct, but it may have been a narrow escape. One of the aims of this study is to discern Hamengku Buwono's system of beliefs, and indeed what he stood for in his career. Since he rarely made any statements of ideology, we have to judge largely from his actions, of which there were many in the Revolution period. The first obvious - indeed self-evident - feature is a sturdy and obdurate anti-colonial nationalism. Despite the beliefs or hopes of the Dutch that Hamengku Buwono might favour the stability, comfort, and privileges which they had afforded him during their rule, the evidence for this is faint indeed. Far more compelling is the evidence for his belief that the colonial era was past, that it was time for Indonesians to take responsibility for their own future, and that he could and should assist the process. This involved committing all his prestige, status, and political flair on the side of the Republic. But there was a limit to his radicalism. His conflict with Amir Sjarifuddin in late 1947, if the Dutch intelligence reports are to be believed, and - more substantively - his strong support of the Republican leadership in the Madiun affair demonstrated his lack of sympathy for extreme social revolution, and his identification with the moderate nationalist viewpoint. In maintaining links with such varied leaders as Soekarno, Hatta, Sudirman, Nasution and Sjahrir, he seemed to aspire to a middle-of-the-road stance. Closely allied with this was an unbending conviction that the Indonesian people were firmly behind the Republic and that nothing the Dutch or others could do would alter this. He had extensive evidence of the popularity both of the Republic itself and its leaders, and of his own personal popularity. Public enthusiasm was evident in a string of meetings and public events, the patriotism with which the youth had flocked to join the militia in 1945, and the extent to which all social groups in Yogyakarta accepted his leadership. But he was realistic enough to know that others, especially Soekarno, commanded a wider and perhaps deeper allegiance among the Indonesian people as a whole in this period. His anti-colonialism was subject to at least one further qualification. As Dutch intelligence had already discerned, Hamengku Buwono was pragmatically aware that Indonesia needed foreign expertise and investment in all fields, including defence and security. It followed from this that, although he had struggled determinedly against the Dutch during the Revolution, later as a Minister of Defence in an independent Indonesia he was quite prepared to accept the Netherlands Military Mission in Jakarta, because he was well aware of the deficiencies of the armed forces in many fields. It would become evident later that the anti-foreigner feeling which motivated many Indonesian nationalists found little resonance with him. This pragmatism, influenced no doubt by his knowledge of Europe, was reflected in his speech at the transfer of sovereignty when he said, 'we gladly accept the assistance of other nations, particularly that of the Dutch, which are skilled and experienced and imbued with the sincere wish to help our people'. Although outside the scope of this article, a further feature of his world-view was a commitment to more democratic, representational forms of government, mixed in practice with a pragmatic employment of available tools of power. His efforts during 1946-1948 confirm a leaning towards progressive and more democratic political and social forms. His commitment to democracy was not unqualified, His statements during the Revolution contain as many references to the need for unity as to democracy, and it was unclear at this stage what he would do if faced with a choice between the two. Calls for the abandonment of selfish sectional interests, such as he had made in 1949, can easily become an impatience with minority rights, The difficulty presented by the many calls for unity in this period and since, was how to answer the question 'unity on whose terms?' It would become clear much later that for Hamengku Buwono, unity on Soekarno's terms became unacceptable. And what of the power typology? As mentioned above, for most of his career, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, he seemed to fit the 'administrator' profile, but in 1949 his power - restricted though it was to the Yogyakarta area - had many of the characteristics of traditional forms of power. There is a feudal air about the compliance by the Yogyakarta officials and populace with his directives, and the respect afforded him even by the military. This was probably the period in his career when his power most closely resembled the traditional kind. Finally, what was his net contribution to the independence struggle in 1949? Nearly every commentator agrees that it was important, and some even argue that it was essential. Some Indonesian contributors to Tahta untuk rakyat asked what would have happened to the Republic without Hamengku Buwono in 1949 (Roem 1982:133; Natsir 1982:197), with the implication that the Republic's temporary defeat might have become a complete one without Hamengku Buwono's intervention. Counterfactual history is notoriously difficult to handle, and some historians dismiss it as useless speculation; historians cannot behave like scientists in a laboratory conducting an experiment with one set of ingredients, then mixing the batch anew and repeating it with one or two ingredients omitted. But the temptation is great to indulge briefly in counterfactual history. In this case, the proposition that the Republic would not have survived in 1949 without Hamengku Buwono seems hard to justify. Such judgements are essentially impressionistic, but the desire for independence appears to have been too innately powerful in Java and Sumatra for the Dutch attack to succeed, even if Hamengku Buwono's determined and subtle resistance had been absent. The Republic did not ultimately depend on the efforts and standing of any one individual, whether Soekarno, Hatta, Sudirman, or Tan Malaka. A whole host of factors came into play in 1949, including the strong international reaction against the Dutch, the large number of guerrilla fighters - commanded by a range of more or less capable leaders - who were able to keep the countryside in a constant state of uproar, and the discovery by the Dutch that their resources were insufficient to pacify the country. Having said that, we could still reasonably argue that without Hamengku Buwono the Republic's task would have been considerably more difficult in 1949; that his strategy was a unique asset for the Republic; that his exploitation of the various factors involved - such as his own status and Dutch respect for it, his continuing feudal power and links with the various local power apparatuses, the favourable popular feeling for him and for the Republic, his financial support for the Republic at crucial times, the international power equation - was masterly; and that without him the process of restoring the Republican leaders to Yogyakarta and securing the ultimate ceasefire and transfer of sovereignty would have been considerably more complex and time-consuming. Whether or not he (or anyone else) was indispensable, it is hard to see how he could have performed better.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)269-297
    Number of pages29
    JournalBijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde
    Issue number2-3
    Publication statusPublished - 2008


    Dive into the research topics of 'The Sultan and the Revolution'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this