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  • Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence by Mary Margaret Steedly
  • Audrey Kahin (bio)
Mary Margaret Steedly. Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013. 414 pp.

In this fascinating picture of life in the Karo Batak area of North Sumatra during the first three years of the Indonesian Revolution, Mary Steedly moves away from the conventional narrative histories of the period, which have generally reflected the perspective of male revolutionaries and leaders, to a more deeply textured portrayal of the experiences of ordinary people during the independence struggle. While she dedicates her book to the “eager girls and daring boys of Karoland’s 1945 generation, who imagined independence in myriad ways …” (v), it is the women’s wartime experiences that she places at the heart of her story.

Steedly has a deep knowledge of the society of this area of Sumatra based on her years of anthropological research there in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which found its first expression in her pathbreaking Hanging without a Rope.1 In Rifle Reports, she aims to give an ethnographic history of the early years of independence, drawing in particular on the interviews she conducted during the late stages of the Suharto period with elderly Toba Batak women who recalled their youthful participation in the postwar struggle that led to Indonesia’s independence. The transcribed texts of her interviews form the core of this book, but, recognizing the limitations of her pool of informants, she has arrayed around them “a range of other fragments: my own comments and reflections, pieces of published histories, newspaper accounts, fiction and poetry, items fished from colonial archives, literary criticism, [and] anthropological commonplaces, the theoretical touchstones of academic legitimacy” (68).

The area with which she is concerned has its center in Kabanjahé, north of Lake Toba. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the economy of this region has been based on plantation agriculture (tobacco, rubber, palm oil), and in 1904 the Dutch incorporated it as a district in Sumatra’s East Coast Residency. Rifle Reports focuses on events there in the months between Indonesia’s declaration of independence in August 1945 and the signing of the Renville agreement in January 1948. During this period the Batak people witnessed the departure of the Japanese occupiers, the internecine warfare between the new Republic’s regular forces and the much stronger local militias, and, ultimately, the forced massive evacuation of most of the indigenous population through the highlands in the closing months of 1947, as Dutch troops spread out from their Medan base of operations. (After the Renville agreement was signed, the struggle shifted to a different plane, one about which the author is less concerned.)

In tracing the history of the region between 1945 and 1948, Steedly is interested in the “form” as well as the “content” of what she hears, allowing her informants to determine the starting and ending points of their stories. This method leads to personal accounts of the women’s experiences and the specific tasks they fulfilled, rather than a [End Page 119] straighforward narrative of the course of the struggle. Two major series of tasks or events seem to have dominated the memories of these elderly women: the burying of a cache of guns, seized from the Japanese prior to their departure; and the forced trek of the Karo population through the highlands during the first Dutch “police action” in the latter months of 1947. These events form the main foci of the narrative.

In the first of these episodes, Steedly narrates at length how Piah Manik, wife of TKR (Tentara Keamanan Rakyat, People’s Security Army) commander Slamet Ginting, took over responsibility for organizing the burial of a cache of guns seized from the Japanese, and hid them until her husband could pressure the politicians in Medan finally to declare independence on September 30, 1945. While military accounts of these events focus on their contribution to the independence struggle, Steedly emphasizes how Piah Manik views them principally as part of a “sequence of assigned tasks,” and in her recounting of the women’s [or “the villagers’”] performance braids this strand of the Republic’s history...


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pp. 119-122
Launched on MUSE
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