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  • From Foe to Partner to Foe Again:The Strange Alliance of the Dutch Authorities and Digoel Exiles in Australia, 1943-1945
  • Harry A. Poeze (bio)

The Netherlands East Indies, the vast Dutch colony, was invaded by the Japanese and occupied with relative ease. The Indies government surrendered on March 8, 1942. In the days leading up to the surrender, on orders of the Dutch Governor General, a number of government officials left for Australia. The Dutch government in exile in London—Germany occupied the Netherlands from May 1940—authorized the formation of an Indies government in exile in Australia, named the Netherlands Indies Commission. The commission was inaugurated on April 8, 1942, and was headed by H. J. van Mook. Starting in April 1944, the Raad van Departementshoofden (Commission of Departmental Heads) acted as Van Mook's cabinet. It consisted of six members, with Loekman Djajadiningrat as the sole Indonesian among them. Matters regarding the Dutch and Indonesians in Australia were supervised by Ch. O. van der Plas, who held the rank of Chief Commissioner for Australia and New Zealand and who was undoubtedly the most influential member of the Raad.

The Indonesians stranded in Australia beginning in March 1942—mostly seamen and soldiers—cost Van der Plas a lot of time and caused him much worry. Moreover, [End Page 57] he was also responsible for the almost forgotten community of political prisoners, interned in Boven Digoel, in the Southeast New Guinea jungle. That part of the Netherlands Indies was all that was left of the Dutch realm. But the area was threatened, and for that reason Van der Plas organized an evacuation of Digoel internees to Australia in March 1943. The influx of some five hundred Indonesians was to cause a lot of work for Dutch and Australian officials. But the unconventional Van der Plas also seized the opportunity to employ former exiles for anti-Japanese propaganda activities within the Netherlands Indies Government Information Service (NIGIS). He went even further by endorsing, or perhaps even stimulating, the establishment of Serikat Indonesia Baroe (SIBAR, Association for a New Indonesia), an organization intended to become in the post-war Indies a national party, with official Dutch backing. He consciously sought the support of the exiles, many of whom were communists, to promote SIBAR. For these communists, cooperation fitted in with the Allied struggle against fascism, even if this involved siding with a colonial power. Examples of such cooperation are also to be found in Vietnam, Malaya, and the Philippines, but none went as far as the Dutch partnership offer, and nowhere else was a colonial government more deeply involved with communist leaders as was the Indies Commission in Australia. This qualitative difference distinguishes SIBAR from other colonial-communist wartime cooperation endeavors, and justifies the designation "strange alliance."

Boven Digoel

In 1927, the Dutch colonial government founded its internment camp, Boven Digoel, which comprised settlements named Tanah Merah and Tanah Tinggi, deep in the inhospitable jungle of New Guinea, three days by ship up the Digoel River. The Governor General of the Netherlands Indies could use his discretionary powers, granted to him under article 37 of the Indische Staatsregeling (Indies Constitution), to send a person considered a threat to law and order to a designated place in the Netherlands Indies, from which place the person was not allowed to leave. The term of detention was for an indefinite period, and only the Governor General could lift the detention. He was not required to justify his decision in each case.

The direct reason to develop Boven Digoel was the communist insurrection of 1926-27, which surprised and shocked the colonial government and colonial society. Mass arrests followed, and no fewer than thirteen thousand people were placed in custody initially. To start judicial procedures against such an enormous number of people was, of course, beyond the capacity of the courts. Moreover, the majority of those jailed could hardly be prosecuted under the existing criminal law, despite the presence of a number of broadly worded clauses. Nonetheless, about forty-five hundred individuals were processed, convicted, and sent to jail. Of the eighty-five hundred others, the vast majority were released. About a thousand were considered...


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