Review by Warren Reed from News Weekly

Overlooked chapter in Australia's history

Jan Lingard, who is an honorary associate and teacher of Indonesian at the University of Sydney, has devoted decades to the study of our nearest neighbour and its relationship with Australia. What she has produced in Refugees and Rebels is a gem.

It's a shocking book, but in the most positive sense. How many Australians, even those who have spent much of their lives around the Asian region, are aware that 5,500 Indonesians lived here between 1942 and 1947?

When you consider that hard-won independence was soon to come to Indonesia and that some of those resident here were deeply involved in that movement, it is extraordinary that their presence wasn't embedded in the consciousness of Australians - or at least in our education system.

Human story

Be that as it may, Lingard tells a very human story. It's one that gave rise to life-long friendships between many of the Indonesians and Australians involved, and at a time when the White Australia Policy made this one of the toughest countries in the world for coloured people to live in.

The Indonesians who came here were all evacuees from the Japanese-occupied Netherlands East Indies. Some were military personnel who fled here with the Dutch; others were political prisoners - whom the Dutch claimed were dangerous activists who would do untold harm if allowed to remain and collaborate with the Japanese; many were merchant seamen who jumped ship here; and others were civilians. They included men, women and children, and among them were some highly educated people.

They were dispersed to cities and country towns, like Cowra and Casino, with some being imprisoned on behalf of the Dutch - an Australian ally - while others were free to move around. Some of the latter formed "Hawaiian bands", which were not only professional but also popular in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

When the war in the Pacific ended in August 1945, most Australians were indifferent to the plight of the Indonesians who, whether here or in their homeland, believed that the Dutch had no right to move back after the Japanese left and to resume the colonial rule they had exercised for 350 years.

The British, who were trying to regain their own colonies in Malaya, Singapore, Burma and Hong Kong, were actively helping the Dutch to return. An Australian public opinion poll at the end of that year showed that 60 per cent had read about the situation in the Netherlands East Indies in the press. Of these, 40 per cent favoured Dutch rule because the Dutch had done a good job and the Indonesians were not yet ready for self-government. Some 30 per cent favoured independence because the Indonesians had been exploited and, besides, self-rule was the right of all people. The remaining 30 per cent either opted for joint rule or simply didn't know what to think.

Australian unions provided consistent support for the Indonesians in Australia, especially for those who had jumped ship, and for the independence movement. They took direct action in blocking the loading of munitions and equipment onto Dutch ships in Australian ports - which attracted international interest - and also helped many of the Indonesians out financially.

This was a running headache for the Chifley Labor Government of the day, which was trying to balance its sympathies in one direction with its obligations to the Dutch as an ally. Inevitably, the Australian Communist Party was involved in much that was happening, which complicated matters inordinately. These were heady days for everyone involved.

Ultimately, it was the Australian Government that took Indonesia's case to the United Nations, with full independence being granted in 1949. As Lingard points out, this took Australia into its first independent political relationship with an Asian country.

She says: "The extent of Australian support to the Republic has been exaggerated ever since by both countries. Reference to it has become part of the formulaic niceties that form the prelude to diplomatic and political speeches on certain occasions.

"Nevertheless, the giving of that support was significant at that period in each country's history, and the memory of it gives some hope of better outcomes whenever the contemporary relationship between Australia and Indonesia is under strain."

Whatever role Australia played in its neighbour's struggle for independence, the Indonesians coming to Australia then had an important impact on our own process of maturing in the post-war world.

The final words in Lingard's book sum up the situation well: "This was the first time many Australians involved themselves directly in wider issues, shaking off their previous xenophobic mentality, looking outwards to their own region of the world with something different from the usual fear of the yellow peril and invasion theories, and actually engaging with Asian people, with the other, and challenging the racialism embodied by the White Australia Policy.

"When the dust settled, Australians and Indonesians had irrevocably become part of each other's histories."

This is a meticulously researched book, and one that avoids unnecessary academic jargon. Because of its easy-to-read style, it is ideal for school and university students as well as for the general public. Any Australian who reads it will be that much richer.

This review was reproduced from News Weekly

Book Launch
29 October 2008

49 Glebe Point Road
Glebe, NSW
6.00pm for a 6.30pm start

To be launched by Hamish McDonald, Asia Pacific Editor of Sydney Morning Herald.
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