The 5-star hotel in Indonesia that sparked a bloody war against colonialism

  • Hotel Majapahit in Surabaya, in Indonesia’s East Java province, was the scene of the ‘Flag Incident’ in 1945, a watershed moment in Indonesian history
  • Now an art deco monument that invokes the grandeur of a bygone age, it features 144 rooms and suites decorated with historical paintings and handmade furniture

On September 18, 1945, a group of Dutchmen led by WVC Ploegman arrived at the Hotel Yamato, in Surabaya, an ancient seaport that is now the capital of Indonesia’s East Java province.

The previous month, the hotel had been occupied by the Imperial Japanese, who had named it after a historical area in their homeland’s Nara prefecture surrounded by yama: mountains.

But following Tokyo’s surrender at the end of World War II, the grand whitewashed building had been sequestered by the Allies as a rehabilitation centre for internees and prisoners of war.

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Accounts of what exactly happened next vary, but after checking into room 33, Ploegman appears to have ordered his colleagues to fly the tricolour red, white and blue Dutch flag on a pole on the top floor of the hotel to mark the recent birthday of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

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Hotel Majapahit was named Hotel Oranje when it opened in 1910, before being renamed Hotel Yamato during the Japanese occupation. Photo: Hotel Majapahit

It was also a means of symbolically reasserting control over the Dutch East Indies in the face of a burgeoning Indonesian independence movement determined to oust the European colonialists who had ruled over them with an iron fist for more than 350 years.

The provocation infuriated the youth of Surabaya, who had recently seen their leader, Sukarno, read the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence in the capital, Jakarta, and thought their days of being a colony were finished.

The following morning, thousands of protesters massed in front of the Yamato Hotel. As the crowd surged, General Raden Sudirman and two other rebel leaders marched into the lobby and told Ploegman to pull down the flag.

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The Dutchman replied that as the Allies had won World War II, the Netherlands, a member state, had the legal right to rule over the Dutch East Indies again.

“Republic Indonesia? We don’t recognise it,” he scoffed.

Ploegman then pulled out a revolver. A scuffle ensued. Ploegman, two other Dutchmen and a member of Sudirman’s entourage were killed.

Meanwhile, other members of the resistance had climbed onto the rooftop of the hotel, pulled down the Dutch flag, tore off the blue section and raised the remaining red and white – the colours of the Republic of the United States of Indonesia.

The crowd roared their approval. “Merdeka!” (“Freedom!”), they shouted, again and again.

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People climb onto the rooftop of Hotel Yamato, now Hotel Majapahit, to pull down the Dutch flag on September 19, 1945. Photo: Indonesian Government Archives

Known as the Flag Incident, the event proved to be a watershed moment in Indonesian history, sparking a bloody war of independence that culminated in 1949, when the Dutch finally ceded their claim to the archipelago.

In February this year, the Dutch government formally apologised for the “extreme violence” its forces meted out during that period.

Today, the room where Ploegman stayed is called the Merdeka Suite. It is one of 144 rooms and suites decorated with historical paintings, handmade teak furniture and bathtubs with brass taps at a property now known as Hotel Majapahit – a name that recalls a much earlier period of Indonesian history, when the Majapahit empire ruled large swathes of Java and Bali in the 14th and 15th centuries.

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A room at Hotel Majapahit. Photo: Hotel Majapahit

Another of the hotel’s VIP suites is named after British comic actor Charlie Chaplin, who stayed here in 1932, during his South Asia tour when the building was still known by its original name: Hotel Oranje.

Launched with great fanfare in 1910, Hotel Oranje was built by Lucas Martin Sarkies, son of Martin, one of the Sarkies Brothers of Iran who founded a chain of luxury hotels in South Asia in the late 1900s: the Strand Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar; the Eastern Hotel (now the Eastern & Oriental Hotel) in Penang, Malaysia; and Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

Now part of France’s Accor Group, Hotel Majapahit is an art-deco monument that invokes the pomp and grandeur of a bygone age. The lobby is warm and inviting, with thick paisley-patterned carpet, classically engraved ceilings, chandeliers, and pillars layered with teak and stained glass accents. In the corner, there’s a baby grand piano.

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The executive lounge at Hotel Majapahit. Photo: Hotel Majapahit

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The Balai Adika meeting room at Hotel Majapahit. Photo: Hotel Majapahit

At the rear of the lobby, glass doors open to geometrically perfect courtyards where colonnaded walkways surround green lawns edged by manicured tropical gardens. The only things you can hear are birdsong and the trickling of water fountains.

“Guests tell us they forget they are in the middle of the second biggest city in Indonesia when they are here,” says Tenny Gustiva, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “They say it’s like Europe in the summertime.”

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The North Garden at Hotel Majapahit. Photo: Hotel Majapahit

From the courtyards, flights of whitewashed stairs lead to the flag terrace, where 90-minute long Heritage Hotel Tours, which are offered to guests and the general public for 200,000 rupiahs (US$12.80), culminate. This is also where the Flag Incident is recreated every year, in the second weekend of September.

“The city closes off the entire street and we invite all the veterans and dignitaries to see actors climb to the top of this building to raise the flag,” Gustiva says. “It still brings tears to many people’s eyes.”

The writer was hosted by Hotel Majapahit

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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