Interview: Bonnie Triyana on history as a movement

Yatun Sastramidjaja

Bonnie Triyana is founder and chief editor of Historia, a popular history magazine. He was a guest curator of the exhibition Revolusi! Indonesia Independent, held at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from 11 February to 6 June 2022. Triyana caused a public stir in the Netherlands when, in an opinion piece published on 10 January 2022 in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, he argued for removal of the term Bersiap from the exhibition, which is the name given by the Dutch to a period of violence (August 1945 – December 1946) during Indonesia’s independence struggle. Triyana wrote that its use would oversimplify the narrative of the revolution and reinforce stereotypes of barbaric Indonesians. The Federation of Indo-Dutch (Federatie Indische Nederlanders) then filed a complaint to the Dutch police, accusing Triyana of denying the violence against Dutch and Eurasian citizens in that period. The Dutch public prosecutors did not pursue the charges. The Rijksmuseum continued to use the term in the exhibition, stating that Triyana had expressed his personal opinion in the article.

This was not the first time that Bonnie Triyana was caught up in a public controversy around matters of history. I spoke with him on 5 October 2022, asking about his views on the significance of colonial and postcolonial history, why this history remains sensitive and controversial, and what lessons we can learn from historical experiences. The following is an edited, translated transcript of the interview.

The exhibition Revolusi! highlights that history is personal. How has history influenced you personally?

I was born in Banten, 43 years ago, in Rangkasbitung, the same town where Multatuli was stationed as assistant-resident in the nineteenth century, in 1856. I was born there, then we moved to Sumatra because my father worked as a planation manager. I really felt the colonial atmosphere in that environment because I lived in a plantation where the colonial legacy was still visible. We lived in a compound that was reserved for the higher employees, while the workers from the lower classes lived in a different compound. As a child it made me reflect on inequality, but it was only during my university studies that I thought, ‘maybe that’s what we inherited from the past’.

Further, my great grandfather from my mother’s side was imprisoned by the Dutch. My grandmother used to tell many stories about how her father was arrested by the colonial police because of his involvement in the communist uprising in 1926, in Banten. But my father’s background was different. My father’s family was more Dutch-oriented because they went to Dutch school. My grandmother from my father’s side went to the European Elementary School, so they spoke Dutch at home. Thus, I am the product of someone who became a collaborator with the Dutch ruler on the one side, and the opponent, the enemy of the coloniser, on the other. Those opposing positions combined in me, and this has influenced me in my work in many ways, as editor-in-chief of Historia.

I have started writing on this family history. I was inspired by a book by [Dutch author] Geert Mak, Eeuw van Mijn Vader [My Father’s Century], which views history from his family’s perspective, so I’m trying something similar. When my parents wanted to get married, my mother’s family objected; they told my mother’s parents not to give permission to marry into my father’s family because they were ‘too Dutch’, as the Sundanese say ‘blanden’, and therefore presumed Christian. My mother’s family even sent a special envoy, a spy, to check out my father’s family, and they found out that no, they’re Muslim, they just speak Dutch. My mother’s family was more primordialist, traditional orang Banten; they’re moderate in religion but more conscious of religiosity compared to my father’s family. My father’s family is more diverse. Someone married a German. So this made me think that stories from the colonial age are reflected in my family too. It was because of my father that I decided to study history, because he loved to share the family history. I consider him a family historian; he loved to share stories about granddad and so on. This made me sensitive towards history.

I can sense this historical sensitivity that’s more personal in Historia. The magazine always features something refreshing about issues, including current issues like Covid-19 and the recent Kanjuruhan football stadium tragedy. There is a sense of contemporary relevance in Historia, with the motto: historia magistra vitae, ‘history is the teacher of life’. Can you elaborate, why is history a teacher?

Actually, we consider ourselves a bridge between the academic and the public. Historians create a lot of knowledge – thick books, scholarly writings for academics – but they can’t transmit this knowledge to broader audiences. Not everyone likes history; not because they think history is not important, it’s not about the substance. The issue is how to wrap up the information, how to make the content more creative. Why don’t people like history? Because the manner of transmitting it is boring. It starts in school. History teachers are mostly focused on dates, it’s all about remembering years, remembering names, but they rarely discuss what happened and why it happened. So we created Historia as a bridge, to gain a broader audience for historical knowledge. We try to attract youths to learn history by creating a variety of products; we use social media, we create videos, we create infographics, we create in-depth articles, short articles. The ultimate goal is to bridge the knowledge from academic space to the public sphere, to be part of the public history.

This also departs from a Dutch saying, ‘in het heden, ligt het verleden, in het nu wat komen zal’, ‘in the present lies the past, in the now that is to come’. So history becomes current when we succeed in creating a hook on how certain events originate from the past or were influenced by conditions rooted in history. Thus, if there is a football tragedy, we try to search in history to see what is actually the fundamental problem of Indonesian soccer. To give the audience a relatively holistic perspective, so they are able to comprehend why certain things happen today, we try to connect that. That’s what I mean by history as a teacher for life. Because the problems are just the same.

The first print edition of Historia magazine (2012; online since 2010), featuring cover stories of S.K. Trimurti (Indonesia’s first Minister of Labour, 1947-1948) and Maria Ulfah (the third Minister of Social Affairs, 1946-1947); a deliberate choice to break the male bias in Indonesian political history /Facebook Triyana

Historia is not only a media company, we’re a social movement – a movement to raise historical awareness, to make people aware that Indonesia is diverse. There are major issues in Indonesia, such as racism. A clear example of how racism is still a big problem in Indonesia were the local elections in Jakarta in 2017, when Ahok and Anies were running as governor candidates. People who supported Anies accused Ahok of being a foreigner, because of his Chinese descent. Meanwhile, supporters of Ahok also said that Anies is ‘Arab’, not ‘pribumi’ (‘indigenous’). Where does this come from? This is the typology that was created in the colonial era. It is the colonial mindset, based on a regulation from 1854 when the colonial government divided people by racial segregation: ‘Europeans’, ‘vreemde oosterlingen’ (‘foreign orientals’), ‘inlanders’ (‘indigenous people’). Both candidates were seen as not ‘inlanders’. So racism in Indonesia is a colonial legacy. From this legacy today we are dealing with identity politics, a politics that divides voters into identity segments, while resentment based on race is also increasing. For politicians, commodification of identity symbols becomes vital to attract people to give them their vote. This is manipulated in order to win. At the elite level they only use this as a practical strategy. But at the grassroots level people can kill each other.

To counter this tendency in 2019 we started a project called ASOI, ‘Asal Usul Orang Indonesia’, ‘the origins of Indonesians’ [exhibited at the National Museum in Jakarta, October–November 2019, ed.]. We did a DNA test with twenty volunteers, including celebrities, but there were also pisang goreng vendors, normal people. It turned out that a celebrity and a pisang goreng vendor had the same DNA, both had a certain percentage of DNA from Afghanistan. Then we created various contents, telling people, ‘Don’t be racist, just have your DNA tested’. It is scientifically proven that Indonesians are indeed diverse. It is in your body, it is in your blood, you cannot deny it; in your body several lineages are streaming. The project received lots of response, positive and negative. But it’s good to have this debate. We also explained, above you are two parents, a mother and father, above them there are four, two grandfathers, two grandmothers, above that there are the great grandparents, eight, then sixteen, then you have a society full of people, and the branches multiply – and that is you, at the end is you.

We took that approach so that the issue becomes more concrete. The public needs something concrete. We have to materialise the ideals into the project’s contents, so that people can comprehend what it’s all about. Basically, we also wanted to convey that while identity is one issue, class is also a major underlying issue in Indonesia. There are poor people among all ethnicities – from Medan, Bugis, Java – and there are some that are rich. How could people’s economic situation, their life problems, ever be solved by identity politics?

This concern with social inequality reminds me of Multatuli. In 2018 you co-founded the Multatuli Museum in Lebak, at your place of birth in Rangkasbitung. Yet this led to a controversy, which again revolved around identity issues.

Oh yeah, lots of students took to the streets to protest. Because Multatuli was Dutch and an ‘infidel’! But I faced the students. I was invited to the regional parliament building; it was designed by Vermont Cuypers, the father of Pierre Cuypers who designed the Rijksmuseum. I came there and I told them, this is not about glorifying the person Douwes Dekker; no, what we take from Multatuli are the values of being human. Douwes Dekker as a person, Multatuli as a writer, and Max Havelaar as a character, as an ideal-type in Multatuli’s work, we can distinguish these three. They understood and now they all support it. So this dialogue was very important.

The Multatuli Museum in Rangkasbitung, Lebak /Facebook Museum Multatuli

But they were university students. They protested the idea to establish a museum, just because it was named after Multatuli. They were students, but they didn’t even read Multatuli, because Multatuli was never a mandatory book for students. It should be. Not just Multatuli, Pramoedya, all of them. This was the issue, they didn’t read, they didn’t understand, they only had history education with the racial bias. This is the result. They never had an in-depth view on history. Such as the formation of the colonial state; that’s about power relations – the colonial ruler, in this case the Netherlands, white people, dominated the Indonesian people – but in the midst of that a society evolved with its own dynamics.

In the end we have to deal with this kind of controversy. I mean, we cannot expect all people to follow us. There is always controversy. You cannot blame the people. What we can do is try to share the knowledge, share our perspective; hopefully they can comprehend the diversity of perspectives in history.

Then also, we can try to bring history to life by bringing life into museums. Museums these days become public spaces where people practice theatre, children practice dance, children make films, learn history. So we created an annual Multatuli art festival at the museum. In May [2022] I also presented this idea to the Multatuli Society (Multatuli Genootschap) in the Netherlands. I provoked them a bit, saying their Multatuli museum [in Amsterdam] feels like a dead space. I told them, we in Indonesia turn Multatuli not only into a museum carrying his name; for us the key is to turn Multatuli into a movement. Now we work together, creating the first Multatuli art festival in Amsterdam. We invited people to this festival; Ananda Sukarlan, the famous composer, created the Opera Saidjah and Adinda, and now we’re planning to tour Europe. This succeeds in bringing people together, local and national level artists can meet and collaborate to create art works and people can enjoy and learn from that. So this is a movement.

What is the goal or ideology of this movement? Because you mentioned human values that we need to take from Multatuli.

Again this is about postcolonial conditions. Two years ago we made a film, Nadat Multatuli Vertrok, (After Multatuli Left). A Dutch friend, Arjan [Onderdenwijngaard], a filmmaker from the Netherlands, he went to Rangkasbitung, Lebak, in 1987, and he visited a village called Badur where Saidjah and Adinda were born in Multatuli’s story. He made recordings of children in that village; some were riding a buffalo, some were playing. Then with that footage he approached me, thirty years later, in 2018, saying ‘I have an idea, how about we trace those children again, to see what happened to them thirty years after’. We went there, and we met two among them, a woman and a man. The woman only finished elementary school, then went to Jakarta to become a maid. For eighteen years she worked as a babu. The man also didn’t finish school, he became a labourer. So if we want to debate whether Multatuli is fact or fiction, just come to Lebak and see what happens two centuries later. I was born there. Then we went to the village where Saidjah and Adinda were born two centuries ago and we found things have stayed the same. The people still cannot access higher education, acquire better education, then they have to leave their kampung, their own village, go to Jakarta and work as a coolie, as a babu; and that is happening in this century. That is not fiction. So we made a film in which we posed the question, what has changed in Lebak? Many of the children don’t go to school, they become maids and labourers. Second, the broken infrastructure. In Multatuli it was mentioned how he rode a horse cart that got stuck in the mud; that hasn’t changed. So this goes beyond the debate of whether Multatuli is fact or fiction, just see what happens in Lebak today, it has stayed the same.

The difference now is people run to religion. In Arjan’s old footage of the market, in 1987 there were no people wearing hijab, no one. Thirty years later when we visit the same place there is no woman that doesn’t wear a jilbab. When people see few options in life, in the end they find an answer in religion.

The annual Multatuli Art Festival in Rangkasbitung, held annually at the museum since its opening in 2018, brings history to life and into the present

Anyway, that’s what we take from Multatuli, as a tool to analyse society, then and now. And if we differentiate between the work and the impact, we see that sometimes the impact goes beyond the objective of the work itself. In the case of Multatuli, Achmad Soebardjo, Sukarno, several of Indonesia’s founding fathers, founding mothers and founding fathers, were inspired by the book, especially the chapter on Saidjah and Adinda and how the local ruler at that time who came from the aristocracy oppressed the people. It made clear that the colonial structure relied on two pillars of power: the first is feudalism, the second colonialism itself. Aidit [chair of the Indonesian Communist Party] once wrote that Indonesia after independence was half colonial, half feudal. And if we look at Indonesia’s democracy today, that legacy is still there.

This reminds me of the title of a book you published in 2002, with a collection of Sukarno’s speeches, Revolusi Belum Selesai, ‘the revolution is not yet finished’. This is a slogan and perhaps ideological compass of Sukarno, which had its own objective in the context of the 1960s. But looking at the present, does the revolution remain unfinished?

Sukarno said that in the context of how to change society. He said, after 1945, the first thing we have to do after gaining independence is mental character building. Sukarno also can’t be separated from being a product of the colonial era. Racialism, discrimination in the colonial era gave birth to only a small elite, only a thin layer of society that had access to prosperity, higher education, while millions of Indonesians could not afford a better life, good work. Also because, according to Sukarno, there was this issue with mental inferiority. So for him the colonial mentality had to be changed. Then there was the issue of the structure of the economy. Indonesia is not a capitalist or old industrialised country like Europe, where most people work as labourers in industries, selling their time. Indonesia is an agrarian country, most people are farmers and are dependent on land; and most of that land, when colonialism ended, was owned by landlords. So this gave rise to a conceptual debate: should we carry out a revolution by taking over the means of production, or by taking over land. But the mental issue, the colonial mentality was no less important for Sukarno; that’s what he meant with ‘the revolution is unfinished’ internally, in Indonesia itself. His ideal was to have a permanent revolution. As long as people in colonised countries are not yet liberated, are not yet free, we will continue the revolution, that was actually the meaning. While this differs again from Hatta who was more oriented towards how to manage this country, to eradicate poverty and so forth. These two different persons had their own approaches; Hatta was an administrator, who aimed to create a managerial state, while Sukarno was a solidarity maker. So maybe that’s the meaning of ‘the revolution is not over yet’. Sukarno was more oriented towards creating a state without oppression and so on, a bit utopian.

I think Sukarno’s thinking is still relevant in many ways. Of course, in the twenty-first century the problems we have are more complex compared to what he faced a century ago. Still he has relevance, because he put forward an eclectic nationalism, which could unite people in one solidarity against colonialism. But we have to admit that the road of nationalism then also became muddled, unclear. Or maybe not yet clear. Gus Dur, Abdurrahman Wahid, used to joke, ‘Indonesia is a country that is bukan-bukan’, neither this nor that. Not communist, not capitalist, not socialist, but all of that. You can see it also in Pancasila, we are a country that believes in God, but we also embrace the idea of democracy; meanwhile we also want to have social justice, and we are in favour of unity. It’s all of that. So yes, this nationalism is eclectic, and as a project it’s unfinished. And that aligns with Sukarno’s thought.

So revolution also doesn’t need to be fixed to a certain period as a project.

Yes, it continues. Actually I now start to realise that we cannot blame colonialism all the time. It’s a postcolonial country, we tend to think that we are always the victim. I’m not in favour of that idea continuously. Already for seventy plus years we are free and our fate is in our own hands. We know that there are problems that we inherited from colonialism, but now the problems aren’t because of Jan Pieterszoon Coen or the VOC. But not everyone has the historical awareness to disentangle that. Indonesia is a postcolonial country; there are unfinished issues when it comes to collective memory. It’s a process. And that’s our call, to share the knowledge of history to people.

The exhibition at the Rijksmuseum is part of that process?

Well, the idea for that exhibition did not come from me, it was us together. It started in 2017 or 2018 when I was in Amsterdam. I met Harm Stevens (curator at the Rijksmuseum), Martine Gosselink who was the head of the History Department in the Rijksmuseum, now the director of the Mauritshuis. We had a discussion and decided to create the exhibition Revolusi! It should have happened in 2021 but due to the pandemic it became 2022. The idea was to approach revolution from the perspective of personal stories. My part was to add historical context to every subject, to the storyline. Meanwhile Amir [Sidharta] served as the art historian, who advised on the art works related to the revolution.

It’s a shame that again there was a controversy, following your opinion piece in NRC, where you argue that the exhibition should drop the term Bersiap because it paints an image of Indonesians as primitive, wild people, and because the term is too simplistic to depict a situation that was much more chaotic. You wrote that the atmosphere of revolution actually revolved around a sense of colonial injustice, not just anti-Dutch, which also involved Indonesian people and they also became targets of the people’s anger.

Yes, that’s correct.

But that wasn’t how a certain Indies group in the Netherlands perhaps took it.

I was even reported to the police!

Were you shocked by that response? Or did you already anticipate it?

Well, to be honest, the commotion I faced in the Netherlands, I was used to that. For our friends at the Rijksmuseum it was a big thing. But for me, as someone who engages in public history in Indonesia, I had even worse experiences in Indonesia. For example, in 2019, my books were confiscated by the military. That book was about Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh; I was the chief editor of this book, which consisted of a number of articles that were previously published in Historia. The army took it from the book shops because this book allegedly related to communism. They accused me of being communist, of being linked to the Indonesian Communist Party, that thing. It happened in Padang, West Sumatra; the army announced at a press conference that this book ‘contains communism’, so they had to take it off the shelves because it is ‘very dangerous for the young generation’, blah-blah. But I resisted, and it became a hot issue; I even appeared at a television debate with a general. So for me, what happened in the Netherlands, it was no big deal. I tried to stay cool. But I refused to revoke what I wrote in NRC. We can solve this problem in a seminar, not in a trial. Why did they have to file a report to the police?

If you compare the controversy that happened around the Multatuli Museum back in 2018 in Lebak, with this one in the Netherlands, what’s the difference, or similarity?

The big difference is that the students who went to the streets protesting the idea of the establishment of a Multatuli Museum did not go to the police station. They just demonstrated. At the end of the day we sat together in the same room, at the same table, to discuss the matter. Then it was solved, we arrived at an agreement. In the Netherlands, a small group… Well, I understand very well that they are traumatised. I don’t deny that this violence occurred during the revolution, I fully acknowledge that. What I do in that article is try to explain my position in a discussion that developed within the curatorial team of the exhibition. We were discussing the purpose of this exhibition and who is the main audience. Of course, the purpose is to share the knowledge about Revolusi, to explain what happened in Indonesia at that time. And because the main audience are the Dutch, it was reasoned that we needed to use things that are familiar to them. One of the words, one of those things was Bersiap. Which for me is a bit complicated. Say if there was one gallery with a big title, ‘Bersiap’, the part about violence, that won’t be balanced. If we wish to balance the narration, for me it was better to choose a neutral term, which is of course ‘violence’.

For Indonesians it doesn’t mean anything; bersiap is simply to get ready. But when people in the Netherlands, especially the Indo-Dutch community use this word it becomes so loaded, it becomes conceptual. Meanwhile, in Indonesia there are many more terms to describe the period. For instance, I interviewed my grandmother, and she said, ‘Oh, revolusi, that was when we had to leave our kampung, our own village’, and this was called ‘ngeli’, when people have to leave their village to take refuge, to save themselves. If we want to introduce the diversity of terminologies let’s do it, not only use bersiap. That’s one. Second, people who use this term always do so as if the whole of the Indonesian revolution were mainly about violence. For me, as an Indonesian and as a historian, the Indonesian revolution was not merely about violence. There were also stories, about people being highly motivated to create a better life than they had before.

There was hope.

Yes, there was hope, there was spirit, there were goals, there were destinations, there were ideals. Therefore, in the era of revolusi there was Usmar Ismail who made a film, there was Chairil Anwar who created poetry, there was Ismail Marzuki who composed music, there was Pram who wrote novels, there was Soedjojono who created paintings, and Basuki Abdullah, Affandi, Henk Ngantung; there were civilised people who lived and created art works. There was a desire to express ideals. Surely it wasn’t only about killing.

Third, the violence did not come out the blue. There are those who felt that this could happen because the Indonesian government back then didn’t have the power to maintain order, so it became a lawless society, then people went amok and so on, as if it happened overnight. But as I said, this was rooted in the colonial period. For instance, concretely, the victims of the violence came from five different ethnicities and races: the Dutch, so white people; then Indo-Europeans, Chinese, Manadonese and Ambonese. But did those nationalist fighters say, ‘okay, let’s make those people our enemy’. Did they categorise them this way, who is the Chinese etcetera? Obviously not. This was rooted in the colonial era. People at that time perceived these five groups in ethnic and racial categories because of that history of colonial categorisation.

Moreover, there is evidence of a racist tendency in the Dutch conception of that period. For example, in a memoir written by a former civil servant named J.A. van Baal, he mentioned a statement made in Australia in 1946 by Van der Plas, the governor of East Java before the war. Van der Plas said, now the Javanese people are no longer the sweetest, the most obedient people in the world, as the Javanese suddenly ran amok, in blind fury and so on. Is that not a racist tendency? So that’s what I gave as evidence, that there was a racist tendency in the term bersiap.

Factually, on 19 September 1945 the British army arrived and the Dutch too, and they provoked the people, for instance in Jakarta in Kramat, they shot their guns, so it started happening. Of course, I acknowledge that it was wrong to kill civilians, non-combatant people, they don’t have any guns to defend themselves, they were interned in camps, that was wrong, children being killed, clearly wrong. But as historians we have to have two ways of viewing history; first you use your eagle eye, you see the whole map of history and you put this story into context, and sometimes you have to dive like a fish and use your fish eye to see the granularity of stories. For example, in a newspaper article that I found in the archives, there was a Chinese who was arrested because he was involved in the bersiap killings, in Jatinegara in 1946. This Chinese was on the side of the Republic, he killed two Dutch men, and he was a Chinese, and he was not the victim, he was the perpetrator, and he fought against the Dutch on the Indonesian side. So these categories were blurring, making the story more complex.

That’s what I wanted to convey. It’s okay if the term Bersiap is used by the Indies community as a way to talk about traumatic experience. But when you talk about the Indonesian revolution please don’t simplify. My message in that article was just that. But then the title [‘Delete the term Bersiap because it’s racist’] became very much clickbait.

Let’s end then on the positive side of the story, the creative outburst of the revolution. Which artist or art work in the exhibition did you like most? And which story is most inspiring to you, and what can we learn from these persons?

There is one painting by Sudarso of a woman, Tanja Dezentje. Her story is very… To be honest we found her during the research, because it’s not a famous person. In Historia I always say during editorial meetings, please write a story that has never been found on Google. And she was never found on Google, before this. So Amir found this painting, and we researched it. It turned out she was an Indo-European who worked in the Republic as a propagandist.

Bonnie Triyana standing in front of a portrait of Tanja Dezentjé (oil painting by Sudarso, 1947) /Bambang Ponco, Kabar Belanda, 25 February 2022

She campaigned all over the world to announce Indonesian independence, to bring the message from Indonesia and to convince other countries to recognise Indonesian independence. Before, she was held in an internment camp, her husband died in Japan, then she still decided to fight, on the Indonesian side! To join the Indonesian struggle against the Dutch. For me that’s not about nationalism and all that; for me it comes down to human choice. It’s a choice, of a person. Maybe each person has a turning point in their life, and she chose to be on the Indonesian side. At the end of the day that proves she stood up on the right side of history. She wasn’t like Abdulkadir Widjojoatmodjo who became chairman of the Dutch delegation during the Renville negotiations. She chose to be on the Indonesian side with a lot of sacrifices. This needs a very strong awareness. So for me this is one of the people who is very inspirational.

I also liked the work contributed by Merapi Obermeyer, and from the paintings I most liked ‘Ibuku’ (‘My Mother’) by Trubus Soedarsono. It gave me goose bumps. Trubus had a pitiful fate, he was killed, disappeared in the 1965 events, but he played an important role as a painter. So this made me reflect on Indonesian history; the history of the Indonesian revolution is not only about those with arms, who were physically involved in the battle, but also people like those mentioned. People who make a choice.

Should people like these also be given the status of hero? Or is that only symbolic politics?

Oh sure they deserve the recognition. But for me that’s not important, because… Well, we can talk much longer on titles, national heroes. Bottomline is that we have to move away from a history of heroes and hero-worshipping towards matters that turn history back to the people, and be more appreciative of people that made a contribution to Indonesian history in their own way.

Yatun Sastramidjaja ([email protected]) is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and an Associate Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

Inside Indonesia 150: Oct-Dec 2022

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