the lost boy
Tan Malaka (1896/1897–c. February 19, 1949) was an Indonesian nationalist activist and communist leader. A staunch critic of both the colonial Dutch East Indies government and the republican Sukarno administration that governed the country after the Indonesian National Revolution, he was also frequently in conflict with the leadership of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), Indonesia's primary radical political party in the 1920s and again in the 1940s.
A political outsider for most of his life, Tan Malaka spent a large part of his life in exile from Indonesia, and was constantly threatened with arrest by the Dutch authorities and their allies. Despite this apparent marginalization, however, he played a key intellectual role in linking the international communist movement to Southeast Asia's anti-colonial movements. He was declared a "hero of the national revolution" by act of Indonesia's parliament in 1963.
biographyearly life and education
A member of the Minangkabau ethnic group, Tan Malaka was born in Suliki, West Sumatra in 1896 or 1897; his exact birthdate is unknown. His given name was Datuk Ibrahim gelar Sutan Malaka, but he was known both as a child and as an adult as Tan Malaka, an honorary name inherited from his mother's aristocratic background.
From 1908 to 1913 he attended a teacher training school established by the Dutch colonial government in Bukittinggi, the intellectual center of Minangkabau culture. Here he began to learn the Dutch language, which he was to teach to Indonesian students. In 1913 he received a loan from the elders of his home village to pursue further education in the Netherlands, and from then until 1919 he studied at the Government Teachers Training School (Rijkskweekschool) in Haarlem.
It was during this stay in Europe that he began to study communist and socialist theory, and through interaction with both Dutch and Indonesian students became convinced that Indonesia must be freed from Dutch rule through revolution. In his autobiography Tan Malaka cited the Russian Revolution of 1917 as a political awakening, increasing his understanding of links between capitalism, imperialism, and class oppression.
He became seriously ill with tuberculosis in the Netherlands, which he attributed to the cold climate and unfamiliar diet. This was the beginning of lifelong health problems that frequently interfered with his work.
rise in comunist party
His studies in the Netherlands completed, Tan Malaka returned to Indonesia in November 1919. He took a job teaching the children of contract coolies on a Swiss- and German-owned tobacco plantation on the northern east coast of Sumatra, near Medan. During his stay in Sumatra, he first started working with the Indies Social Democratic Association (ISDV), which later became the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), and published his first articles in the ISDV newspaper. Tan Malaka came into frequent conflict with the European management of the plantation over the content of his lessons for the students, the liberal political columns he wrote for local newspapers, and his work as a labor union activist, especially in a 1920 strike of railroad workers.
Frustrated by his position in Sumatra, he left for Java in late February 1920. He stayed initially in Yogyakarta but soon moved to Semarang after being asked to set up a "People's School" for the nationalist organization Sarekat Islam (SI). This school, which was later duplicated in many other cities on Java, was intended by SI to provide a useful education while instilling nationalist pride in its students.
Semarang during Tan Malaka's stay there was a major center of nationalist and communist politics, and he quickly became deeply engaged in political work there. He held leadership roles in several trade unions, and wrote extensively for several trade union and PKI publications. His most prominent leadership role came in December 1921, when he was elected chairman of the PKI, replacing Semaun, the party's first chairman. During his brief term of leadership, the PKI worked to create links with trade unions by supporting workers during several strikes.
Tan Malaka's prominent role in the PKI was viewed by the colonial government as subversive activity. He was arrested in Bandung by the colonial government in February 1922, and on March 24 he was exiled to the Netherlands.
One of Tan Malaka's first actions upon his arrival in the Netherlands was to run as the third candidate on the Communist Party of Holland's (CPH) slate for the 1922 parliamentary elections. He was the first subject of the Dutch East Indies ever to run for office in the Netherlands. He did not expect to actually be elected because, under the system of proportional representation in use, his third position on the ticket made his election highly unlikely. His stated goal in running instead was to gain a platform to speak about Dutch actions in Indonesia, and to work to persuade the CPH to support Indonesian independence. Although he did not win a seat, he received unexpectedly strong support.
Before the election results were even announced, Tan Malaka moved to Berlin, Germany for several months, then on to Moscow by October 1922. Here, he became deeply involved with the politics of the Communist International (Comintern), arguing vigorously that the communist parties of Europe should support the nationalist struggles of colonial Asia. He was named Comintern's agent for Southeast Asia, probably at the Comintern Executive Committee's June 1923 meeting. One of his first tasks was to write a book about Indonesia, describing the country's politics and economy for the Comintern; this book was published in Russian in 1924.
With his Comintern assignment in hand, he moved in December 1923 to Canton, China. Tan Malaka's job included publishing a newspaper in English, a task which proved difficult because he knew little of the language, and printing presses for the Roman alphabet were difficult to find.
In July 1925 Tan Malaka moved to Manila, Philippines, where he found work at a newspaper. At the time the PKI was taking steps toward an outright rebellion in Indonesia intended to bring it to power, but that would instead lead to its temporary defeat by the colonial government. Tan Malaka was strongly opposed to this action, which he felt was a poor strategy for a weak party unprepared for revolution. He described in his autobiography his frustration with an inability to find information about events in Indonesia from his place in the Philippines, and his lack of influence with the PKI's leadership. As Comintern representative for Southeast Asia, Tan Malaka argued that he had authority to reject the PKI's plan, an assertion which was denied by some former PKI members in retrospect. At the time, he did persuade some PKI leaders in the country that an armed rebellion was not in the party's best interest, but PKI groups in West Java and West Sumatra did go ahead with an armed insurrection, which the Dutch government used as a pretense for vigorous suppression of the party, including the execution of several leaders.
Meanwhile, in December 1926, Tan Malaka traveled to Bangkok. Here he founded a new party, the Partai Republik Indonesia (PARI), distancing himself from the Comintern as well as, in the new party's manifesto, criticizing the PKI. While PARI did have a small membership inside the country, it never grew to be a large organization; however, with the PKI gone underground, it was the only organization in the late 1920s that was publicly calling for immediate independence for Indonesia. Tan Malaka returned to Manila in August 1927, but was soon arrested by the American police at the request of the Dutch. He was charged with illegal entry into the Philippines; his case became a rallying point for nationalist sentiment in the Philippines, where universities went on strike in protest, and Filipino politicians collected funds for his defense. He was to be represented by Jose Abad Santos, but instead of going to trial he agreed to be deported.
Upon leaving the Philippines by ship, he expected to be re-arrested by the Dutch as soon as he landed in China, so with help from the Filipino crew he escaped while the ship was moored in the harbor of Amoy (Xiamen), hiding in a nearby village. The details of the next few years of his life are unclear; there is a major gap in his autobiography in this period, and few other sources that describe his activities. After staying in Sionching village for perhaps two years, he moved to Shanghai in about 1929. In 1931 he began working for the Comintern again. Abidin Kusno argues that this stay in Shanghai was an important period in shaping Tan Malaka's later actions during the Indonesian revolution of the late 1940s; the port city was nominally under Chinese sovereignty but was dominated first by European nations with trading concessions in the city, and then by Japan after its September 1932 invasion. The oppression of the Chinese he saw under both of these powers, Kusno argues, contributed to his uncompromising position against collaboration with the Japanese or negotiation with the Dutch in the 1940s, when many prominent Indonesian nationalists were adopting a more conciliatory stance.
When Japan invaded and occupied Shanghai in September 1932, Tan Malaka fled south to Hong Kong, disguised as a Chinese-Filipino and using an alias. Almost immediately upon his arrival, however, he was arrested by British authorities, and imprisoned for several months. He hoped to have a chance to argue his case under British law, and possibly seek asylum in the United Kingdom, but after several months of interrogation and being moved between the "European" and the "Chinese" sections of the jail, it was decided that he would simply be exiled from Hong Kong without charges. 
After considering several options for a place of exile where he would be out of reach of the Dutch, Tan Malaka elected to return to Amoy, where he reconnected with an old friend and was able to reach the friend's village of Iwe without detection. Here, his health, weak for several years, declined greatly, and he was ill for several years before Chinese medicine treatments eventually restored him to health. In 1936 he returned to Amoy, and started a school where he taught English, German, and Marxist theory; by 1937 it was the largest language school in Amoy.
In August 1937 he again fled the Japanese military advance to the south, traveling first to Rangoon, Burma via Singapore for a month, then, his savings nearly depleted, returning south to Singapore via Penang. In Singapore, he found work as a teacher. When Japan occupied the Malay peninsula and drove the Dutch out of Indonesia in 1942, Tan Malaka decided to finally return to Indonesia after an absence of nearly twenty years.
return to indonesia
Tan Malaka's return to Indonesia began with a lengthy trip of several months, staying for a time in Penang before crossing to Sumatra, then visiting Medan, Padang, and several other Sumatran cities before settling on the outskirts of Japanese-occupied Jakarta in July 1942. Most of his time here was occupied by writing and research in Jakarta's libraries, working on his books Madilog and ASLIA.
When his savings from Singapore were nearly depleted, he took a job as a clerk at a coal mine in Bayah, southern West Java, where production was being greatly increased under Japanese management to support the war effort. At Bayah, he maintained records on the romusha, forced laborers who were sent from all over Java to work the mine and build railways. In addition to his official job, he worked to improve conditions for the laborers, among whom the death toll from sickness and starvation was very high.
role in the revolution
In August 1945, after the Japanese surrender which ended World War II, and the Indonesian Declaration of Independence, Tan Malaka left Bayah, and resumed using his real name for the first time in twenty years. He travelled first to Jakarta, then widely around Java. During this trip he became convinced that Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, who had made the declaration of independence and were considered the leaders of Indonesia by the departing Japanese, were being too conciliatory toward Dutch attempts to regain control over the archipelago. In his autobiography, he expresses confidence that most Indonesian people were willing to fight for immediate complete independence, a position not supported by Sukarno, especially during the early years of the Indonesian National Revolution.
Tan Malaka's solution to this perceived disconnect was to found the Persatuan Perjuangan (Struggle Front, or United Action), a coalition of about 140 smaller groups, but notably not including the PKI. After a few months of discussion, the coalition was formally founded at a congress in Surakarta (Solo) in mid-January, 1946. It adopted a "Minimum Program," which declared that only complete independence was acceptable, that government must obey the wishes of the people, and that foreign-owned plantations and industry should be nationalised. Tan Malaka argued that the government should not negotiate with the Dutch until after all foreign military forces were removed from Indonesia, because until then the two parties could not negotiate as equals.
The Persatuan Perjuangan had widespread popular support, as well as support in the republican army, where General Sudirman was a strong supporter of the coalition Tan Malaka was organizing. In February 1946 the organization forced the temporary resignation of Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir, a proponent of negotiation with the Dutch, and Sukarno consulted with Tan Malaka to seek his support. However, Tan Malaka was apparently unable to bridge political divisions within his coalition to transform it into actual political control, and Syahrir returned to lead Sukarno's cabinet. In response to this defeat, the Persatuan Perjuangan clearly stated their lack of support for the republican government as it was composed, and the group's intent to oppose any negotiation.
imprisonment, release and death
In response to the Persatuan Perjuangan's continued opposition, the Sukarno government arrested most of the coalition's leadership, including Tan Malaka, in March 1946. He remained in jail until September 1948.
During his detention, the PKI emerged as the strongest critic of the government's diplomatic stance. The translator of his autobigraphy, Helen Jarvis, has argued that Tan Malaka and the rest of the Persatuan Perjuangan leaders were released to provide a less threatening opposition than the PKI. By now, Tan Malaka and the PKI were thoroughly estranged; he was hated within the party for his harsh criticisms of the 1920s, and he distrusted the strategic judgement of the current PKI leaders.
Upon his release, he spent late 1948 in Yogyakarta, working to form a new political party, called the Partai Murba (Proletarian Party), but was unable to repeat his previous success at attracting a popular following. When the Dutch captured the national government in December 1948, he fled the city for rural East Java, where he hoped he would be protected by anti-republican guerrilla forces. However, he was captured by republican forces and promptly executed, on or about February 19, 1949.
Tan Malaka believed that the growth of communist parties was compatible with, and even essential to, the strength of the many nationalist movements then appearing in the colonies of Asia. In the mid-1920s, this position was the subject of much debate within the Comintern and elsewhere. Within the communist leadership there was much skepticism, expressed most prominently by Indian communist M. N. Roy, of the potential of the non-industrialized nations of Asia to successfully govern themselves, as well as concern for the impact such decolonization might have on the working classes of the metropolitan nations of Europe.
marxism and religion
Tan Malaka argued strongly that communism and Islam were compatible, and that, in Indonesia, revolution should be built upon both. Thus he was a strong supporter of the PKI's continued alliance with Sarekat Islam, and was troubled when, while he was in exile, the PKI broke away from SI. On an international scale, Tan Malaka also saw Islam as holding the potential for unifying the working classes in vast parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia against imperialism and capitalism. This position put him in opposition with many European Communists and the leadership of Comintern, where religious belief was seen as a hindrance to a proletarian revolution and a tool of the ruling class.
In several publications, including 1926's Massa actie and 1946's Thesis, Tan Malaka advocated the formation of a large regional state, which he called Aslia, to encompass all the islands of Southeast Asia as well as Australia and much of mainland Southeast Asia. This state, he argued, would then be able to coexist as an equal with other large socialist states including Russia, China, and the United States. On a smaller geographical scale, he drew lessons for Indonesia from the Philippines' battles for independence against Spain and the United States, and in his autobiography he described Indonesia and the Philippines as the southern and northern parts of the same region.
from jail to jail
Tan Malaka's best-known written work is his autobiography, Dari Pendjara ke Pendjara. He wrote the three-volume work by hand while imprisoned by the republican Sukarno government in 1947 and 1948. The work alternates between theoretical chapters describing Tan Malaka's political beliefs and philosophy, and more conventional autobiographical chapters describing various phases of his life. Volume three has an especially loose narrative structure, with commentary on Marxist historiography and his positions on the ongoing fight with the Netherlands over Indonesia's independence, as well as reprints of sections of key documents related to the struggle. Dari Pendjara ke Pendjara is one of a very small number of autobiographies set in colonial Indonesia.
The book was translated into English from Indonesian by historian Helen Jarvis as From Jail to Jail, and published in 1991 with Jarvis' extensive introduction and annotation. A Japanese translation, by Noriaki Oshikawa, was published in 1981.
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