What If Indonesia Didn't Declare Independence on 17 August 1945?
Photo by Michael Vito, Illustration by Iyas Lawrence


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What If Indonesia Didn't Declare Independence on 17 August 1945?

What would life be like in Indonesia if Japan never lost the war?

Indonesia declared its independence 72 years ago. But what if it never did? What kind of country would we all be living in today?

This is a question that's intrigued me for some time. I'm a writer and a historian and this kind of theoretical history is exactly the kind of stuff that gets people like me excited. Foreign films and TV series like Amazon's Man on the High Castle find plenty of inspiration in exploring the repercussions of these kinds of "what ifs". What if the US never dropped nuclear bombs on Japan? What if the allied forces lost World War II? What if the Japanese imperial army or the Dutch colonialists never left Indonesia? Would we all speak Japanese? Dutch? Are speciations like this an entire waste of time?


Apparently not. There's an entire field of study called "counterfactual history" that tries to answer these kinds of questions. "It is, at the very root, the idea of conjecturing on what did not happen, or what might have happened, in order to understand what did happen," wrote Jeremy Black and Donald M. MacRaild in the book Studying History.

So how would we do the same thing with Indonesian history? There are two paths we could take here. Remember that since 1942 Indonesia, then known as the Dutch Indies, was occupied by the Japanese. So one scenario is what could've happened if the Japanese never left. The other scenario is that it remained a Dutch colony. But first we need a clear question: what if the Indonesian independence proclamation never occurred on 17 August 1945?

Let's start with a few important historical events that took place during the turbulent times of WW II. Japan was struggling in the Pacific theater and the Dutch didn't have the resources to manage their colonies in Asia because the Netherlands were under German occupation.

So what would've happened if the Japanese remained in control of Indonesia? Well, at the time, Indonesia's political figures like Soekarno. Syahrir, and Hatta, believed that the country could've attained its independence without raising arms if they stayed with the Japanese.

The idea here was that the Japanese imperial government put into motion a plan for Indonesia's independence on 28 May 1945—giving the 62 members of the Committee for Preparatory Work for Indonesian Independence (BPKI) the right to start discussions on the constitutional and ideological foundations of a new independent nation.


This offer was unusually accommodating for the Japanese imperial government of the time. Japan was preparing for some kind of Japanese federated empire that would've granted countries like Indonesia independence from colonial forces, as long as they pledged allegiance to the greater empire.

The BKPI voted to establish a country called "Indonesia Raya" that would've encompassed all of Peninsular Malaysia, English Borneo, and Portuguese Timor as well as all the territory currently part of modern Indonesia, according to Benedict Anderson, an American political scientist and historian. If the BKPI was allowed to follow through with this plan, the nation known as "Indonesia Raya" would occupy about half of Southeast Asia.

But as Japan's defense and communications apparatus fell apart during the tail-end of WW II, plans for Indonesia's independence took a turn. By mid-July, Tokyo said they wanted to announce Indonesia's independence "as soon as possible," a decision that forced their commanders in Indonesia to speed the whole plan up. A series of meetings occurred and Indonesia decided to make the proclamation on 17 September 1945.

But even if that never happened, Indonesia would've been "independent" before 1 January 1946 regardless. Japanese military commanders in Java, Sumatra, and the "naval territories" had already received plans to grant Indonesia independence from the Dutch before early September. If Japan hadn't lost WW II, Indonesia likely would've been an "independent" country granted "special autonomy" as part of the Japanese federation.


But what would that mean for Indonesia today? The country formed as NKRI is far more united that anything that would've been formed under the "Indonesia Raya" plan. At the time, military officials throughout Southeast Asia weren't exactly on the same page. This fragmented nature would've prevented Indonesia from obtaining any real level of diplomatic power.

So what actually happened? On 7 August 1945, Japan announced that Indonesia would gain its independence immediately. Two days later Soekarno, Hatta and Leader of BPKI, Radjiman flew to southern Vietnam where they were told by Hisaichi Terauchi, the man in charge of Japan's Southeast Asia occupied territories, that the country's future was in their hands. The men allegedly heard about Hiroshima and the atomic bomb, but they had no idea that Japan's defeat was imminent. On 14 August 1945, the Indonesian delegation arrived back in Jakarta to find a city abuzz with rumors of independence.

But the younger generation of independence leaders weren't exactly stoked on this plan presented by the Japanese. They wanted complete and total independence, not this "special autonomy" as part of a different empire.

That night Soekarno was kidnapped from him home in Central Jakarta and taken to Rengasdengklok, in Karawang. They pressured Soekarno to announce Indonesia's complete independence early. "Now, Bung. Tonight. Let's start the greatest revolution this very night," Chairul Saleh, a member of Gerakan Angkatan Baru, told Soekarno.


On 15 August 1945, the Japanese surrendered to US forces. Independence figures pushed harder. Soekarno needed to announce its independence immediately, they argued, before the Dutch would show up again. Indonesia had to be free, help from Japan or not.

Soekarno refused. It was too risky to proclaim independence without adequate preparation. He offered to delay the proclamation to avoid any further confrontation to 17 August. "Seventeen is a holy number. We are in the holy month of Ramadhan. Why did Nabi Muhammad SAW demanded 17 rakaat, instead of 10 or 20? Because the holiness of the number 17 is beyond humans," wrote Soekarno on his autobiography, Penyambung Lidah Rakyat Indonesia.

And the rest is history.

So what if the Dutch never left? The Dutch were stubborn and greedy. They didn't want to admit that WW II would end the domination of European countries over their colonies. A lot of colonial countries were trying to liberate themselves from European powers at the time.

Indonesia's national figures concluded that if they were to let Japan leave the country without conducting a revolution and establish their own country, that it would be just as bad as letting the Dutch come back and rule Indonesia all over again. "If they didn't take advantage of the opportunity, Dutch colonialism would've prevailed for the next few decades," historian Robert Cribb said in an interview with local media.


And this was certainly no wild speculation. The Dutch, with the help of the English, sent back their army to Indonesia under Netherlands Indies Civil Administration (NICA) in October of 1945. The idea was to bring back the Dutch captives held by Japan. But instead, their arrival started the battle for independence. Using only modest weapons and losing many people, Indonesia spent the next four years fighting off the Dutch, while trying to maintain their sovereignty. Looking at history, there's no way Indonesia would've won the battle—now known as Agresi Militer—if it continued forever.

However, the involvement of US and Australian diplomats forced the Dutch to sit a peaceful meeting with Soekarno's new government. It was at the end of December in 1949 when the Dutch finally agreed that Indonesia would be independent. The Republik Indonesia Serikat was born before on 17 August 1950—later becoming the Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (NKRI) that exists today.

So let's say US and Australia never intervened. What would have happened then? This is a tricky and difficult question to answer. According to history debates that I've been a part of, there's a good chance that Indonesia would've been divided into several autonomous areas. So it'd be similar to the other scenario above, but instead of becoming NKRI, Indonesia would've become a federation of states. But even then, under the Dutch, this wouldn't last long.


But the domino effect of Marshall Plan resulted in bankruptcy of European countries, especially the Dutch. There was no objective indicator that shows that Dutch had the resources to maintain their colonies, especially amidst the growing spirit of nationalism in the 20th century.

Under either scenario Indonesia would've become a federal country under the thumb of either the Dutch or the Japanese. In either instance it would've been hard to imagine a country as influential as Indonesia is today. But who really knows? This is a problem of counterfactual history. "Alternate history is often better at asking questions than answering them," wrote historian Harry Turtledove.

But there's one thing we know for sure: it's the duty of any young nation to define their independence, not just proclaim it. Hatta said during a speech in 1949 "When proclaiming the independence of Indonesia, we didn't even have the full sovereignty over the entire country. We didn't even have the means to uphold our authority."

We might have proclaimed our independence as a country, but have we united all the areas we proclaimed as independent in the first place?

Muhammad Iqbal is editor at Marjin Kiri Publisher and a historian.