Tan Malaka (1897-1949)
Tan Malaka (June 2, 1897 – February 21, 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 National Hero of Indonesia by the Provisional People's Consultative Assembly (MPRS) in 1963
Tan Melaka was in Penang from 1925 to 1942
Early life and education
A member of the Minangkabau ethnic group, Tan Malaka was born in Suliki, West Sumatra in 1894 to Rasad Chaniago and Sinah Simabur. 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 the communist 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 elections for the Estates-General of the Netherlands. 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 Latin script 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.
In the Philippines, he befriend members of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, specially Crisanto Evangelista. as well as some government officials like President Manuel Quezon and former President and General Emilio Aguinaldo, unaware that he was a leader of a communist party then illegal.
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 war
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 autobiography, 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. He established his head quarter in Blimbing, a village surrounded by rice fields. He connected himself to major Sabarudin, leader of the Bataljon 38. In Malaka's opinion Sabarudin's was the only armed group that was really fighting the Dutch. Sabarudin however was in conflict with all other armed groups. On February 17, the TNI leaders in East Java decided that Sabarudin and his companions were to be captured and convicted following military law. On the 19th they captured Tan Malaka in Blimbing. On February 20 the infamous Dutch Korps Speciale Troepen (KST) happened to start the so called 'operation Tiger' from the East Javanese town of Nganjuk. They advanced quickly and brutally. Poeze (2007) describes in detail how the TNI soldiers fled into the mountains and how Tan Malaka, already injured, walked into a TNI-post and was promptly executed on February 21, 1949. No report was made and Malaka was buried in the woods.
Tan Malaka in Penang(1925-1942)
The following month, Penang was visited by another sort of visitor – the mysterious and legendary Minang revolutionary, Tan Malaka. Tan Malaka has been described variously in Indonesian history as ‘communist, nationalist, national commnist, Trostskyist, Japanese agent, idealist, Muslim leader, and Minangkabau chauvinist’.
In 1947, in the various jails of the newly independent republic of Indonesia, Tan Malaka a ‘hero of independence’ wrote his three-volume memoir which he called ‘Dari Pendjara ke Pendjara’. These memoir included accounts of his visits to Penang.
Tan Malaka must have found Penang a condusive place as he transferred the party executive (partijbestuur) to the island in 1926. The Penang leadership was composed of Tan Malaka, Magas Madjid, Abdul Karim with representatives from Singapore and Johor. The Partijbestuur is said to have been located at 126, Anson Road. (Poeze 1999: 67)
When Tan Malaka was in China between 1924-25, he met Sun Yat-sen several times in Canton to explore the possibility of cooperation between the Chinese Communist Party and the Indonesian Chinese Party. (Poeze 1988: 345, 357) Sun Yat-sen who spoke of his times in exiles in Penang, Singapore and elsewhere could have inadvertently suggested to Tan Malaka to move his base to Penang. (Poeze 1998: 346)
Tan Malaka's efforts to recruit communist party members from Penang and Singapore was unsuccessful as he found them ‘still very conservative in their way of living and thinking and are small bourgeois…’. (Poeze 1999: 24)
Tan Malaka viewed Penang as an imperialist base from which the British engineered their intervention into the peninsula. (Poeze 1999: 24)
On his way to Singapore from Bangkok in 1937, Tan Malaka broke his journey in Penang. (Tan Malaka 2000: 187-193) At the Penang harbour, he was detained by customs (duane). Tan Malaka was travelling in the name of Tan Min Siong, a suspect Chinese intellectual sought by the British authorities. On top of that he did not look very Chinese at all. (Poeze 1999: 253)
After some hackling, Tan Malaka resorted to “Ciak-teh”. Only then was he released. (Tan Malaka 2000: 194)
‘With the plague of Ciak-teh in the habours of Singapore and Penang, the English “immigration law” meant to “restrict” the entry of the Tionghoa race into Malaya (on the pressures from Indonesians in Malaya) It is only a farce, theater (sandiwara). Chinese from wherever, from whatever class and at any time can enter Malaya, so long as they pay small or big Ciak-teh. A Chinese tawkey can obtain a pass by paying Ciak-the, guaranteed from his pocket (literally kantong, Javanese for big pouch). An employer can pay for a Chinese Singkek coolie or by his own relatives who has been living in Malaya. The prostitution of the English’s “Immigration Law” is followed by the prostitution of its “Mining Law”. English laws meant to protect bangsa Indonesia (Melayu) by preventing alien or big capital from renting land or paddy lands belonging to putera bumi bangsa Indonesia, containing tin ore. However, Ciak-teh can easily penetrate the English laws to obtain the paddy lands wherever and whenever foreign capital wants it’.
Tan Malaka came to Penang again in April 1942 from Singapore, this time with the intention of crossing over into the Dutch East Indies. (Tan Malaka 2000: 242)
In Penang, he witnessed the destruction caused by Japanese bombers on the city of Penang, and the flight and cowardice of the British regime.
‘The Penang regime (pemerintah) have fled, just now a Japanese plane came to spy from up high. Because they have fled, the formal surrender to the Japanese military was not carried out. For days the Japanese bombed the city of Penang, which in fact has been abandoned by the English regime who fled helter skelter to Singapore, leaving hundreds and thousands of citizens who were supposed to be under British protection. Thousands of people died from the bombing and dozens of houses were burnt. According to a story a Japanese who got out of the English prison, wrote in Japanese characters in an open field, informing his countrymen that the English regime have long gone. Only then, the bombings stopped. Not long after, the Japanese army entered Penang and took over its administration’. (Tan Malaka 2000: 231-2)
In the middle of May 1942, Tan Malaka and his commrades left Penang in a tongkang. Tan Malaka commented that the Straits Steamship Co. liner, ‘Kapal Kedah’ would have taken 10 days to cross the Straits of Malacca, but 10 days after they left Penang, the coastline of Malaya can still be seen! (Tan Malaka 2000: 259) They eventually arrive in Belawan in the middle of June. (Tan Malaka 2000: 261)
(extract from article, Perceptions of Penang: Views From Across The Straits, by