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Southeast Asia’s Forgotten Revolutionaries

On transnational futures that never came to pass

Republicanism, Communism, Islam: Cosmopolitan Origins of Revolution in Southeast Asia by John T. Sidel. Cornell University Press, 324 pages. 

Asian Place, Filipino Nation: A Global Intellectual History of the Philippine Revolution, 1887–1912 by Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz. Columbia University Press, 272 pages.

Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War by Taomo Zhou. Cornell University Press, 318 pages.

Revolutions are as much a question of resources and timing as they are of imagination. But official national histories, clouded by the haze of victory, tend to erase visions that went unrealized and the people who dreamed of them. The forgotten participants in the Philippine, Indonesian, and Vietnamese revolutions are the subject of several new books on Southeast Asia from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. As John T. Sidel writes in Republicanism, Communism, Islam, these interlopers and also-rans should be remembered, too.

Among them was Tan Malaka, an unorthodox Indonesian thinker whose mind did not bend readily to the logic of power. His existence, one of clandestine organizing and peregrination, was the stuff of fiction—it eventually inspired the five-part novel Patjar Merah Indonesia (The Scarlet Pimpernel of Indonesia). For twenty years, he drifted between the port cities that were Asia’s revolutionary hubs of the time: Canton (present day Guangzhou), Manila, Singapore, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. He lived under aliases and relied on friends to help him slip away from the colonial secret police and shelter him. Tan Malaka found that racism could be turned on its head; if Europeans thought all Asians looked alike, that meant he could pass himself off as Filipino or Chinese.  

Tan Malaka was born in 1897 in the Dutch East Indies. Like other, primarily male, members of the imperial underclass who would eventually challenge Western power, he was educated through the colonial system. He attended Dutch schools near his home in the Minangkabau highlands of Sumatra before spending World War I in the Netherlands, where he read Marx. After the war, he returned to teach on Sumatra’s plantations, where there were already hundreds of thousands toiling in conditions ripe for proletarian uprising—those who refused to work or ran away could be imprisoned, fined, or forced to work beyond the length of their initial contracts. He left for Semarang in Central Java, where he became involved in the newly founded Indonesian Communist Party, known by its acronym PKI, and rose rapidly within its ranks. By early 1922, in the wake of a pawnshop workers’ strike, Tan Malaka had become enough of a nuisance to the authorities that he was arrested and exiled.

These interlopers and also-rans should be remembered too.

Later that year, he attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. The conferences were a who’s who of revolutionaries; Nguyễn Ái Quốc better known as Ho Chi Minh, was also present. In Moscow, Tan Malaka shared his vision of a communist revolution with pan-Islamism as its handmaiden:

Pan-Islamism now means the brotherhood of all Muslim peoples, and the liberation struggle not only of the Arab but also of the Indian, the Javanese and all the oppressed Muslim peoples. This brotherhood means the practical liberation struggle not only against Dutch but also against English, French, and Italian capitalism, therefore against world capitalism as a whole.

Lenin was apparently nonplussed; as Marx famously wrote, religion is the opium of the people.

Iconoclasm would be Tan Malaka’s downfall. From exile, he championed a broad-based Indonesian communist movement that would harness the power of Islamic networks and forge a path independent of Moscow. He wrote in a distinctive style, peppering his texts with words and idioms from multiple languages. His writing circulated like samizdat through communist networks in Indonesia. Against his advice, the PKI launched a premature uprising in 1926–1927, which the Dutch crushed.

When the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies during World War II, the left was still fragmented and biding its time. Upon his return in 1942, Tan Malaka lived incognito and simply, avoiding friends who would have welcomed him into the circle of war-time political elites, such as future president Sukarno, a prominent nationalist who had been imprisoned by the Dutch and now had the support of the Japanese. Instead, he wrote a treatise on materialist dialectics and Hegelian logic alongside peasants and workers on the fringes of Jakarta before taking a job in a coal mine in Banten, in West Java. He laid low even after Sukarno declared an independent Indonesian republic in August 1945, two days after Japan surrendered.

When Tan Malaka did publicly surface later that year, it was to champion the activists whom he believed were Indonesia’s best hope. He urged them not to negotiate with the Dutch, who were trying to take back control of the archipelago, and to reject the moderate path advocated by Sukarno in favor of popular resistance and guerrilla warfare. During the chaos of revolution, Tan Malaka was mainly in jail—put there by Sukarno’s republican government, which had tired of his meddling. When he was released in late 1948, he was isolated, a target for the Dutch as well as the new Indonesian army. In the early months of the following year, he was executed by the latter in East Java.

If one measure of historical legacy is the number of streets named after you, Tan Malaka has fared poorly. CNN Indonesia reported last year that there were only two streets bearing his name, both in his native Sumatra. One is only about two meters long.

The role of imagination in fomenting nationalist revolution was made famous by Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, which, since its publication in 1983, has been a lodestar for scholars of Southeast Asia and of nationalism everywhere. Anderson’s starting point was “the philosophical poverty and even incoherence” of nationalism, which in his view was not an ideology—was not even a real “ism”—but something more like kinship or religion. What interested Anderson, who died in 2015 in East Java, not far from where Tan Malaka was shot dead, was how the nation, which he defined as an imagined political community, had become ubiquitous. Why could nations command emotions that were altogether disproportionate to their relatively recent appearance as a way of drawing boundaries between discrete groups of people across the world? He located the roots of Southeast Asia’s revolutions in colonialism, specifically in administrative and educational systems that established a state vernacular, which then was shared with a broader population through novels and newspapers.

Almost forty years later, nationalism hardly seems a force for good anymore, especially for scholars who lean left. Where nationalism was once about liberation from the yoke of colonialism, these days it suggests hardening borders and hardening minds. Anderson himself began to rethink the nation-state as a way of analyzing the world towards the end of his life. In his memoir A Life Beyond Boundaries, published shortly after his death, he mused that few people are ever pure nationalists; their views inflected with many other global phenomena and ideas, such as socialism, postcolonial theory, or even a love for Japanese manga.

Sidel, a former student of Anderson’s, colors outside the lines of national histories to show how global capital, Freemasons, the Comintern, Islam, and other factors explain the timing and success (or failure) of the Philippine, Indonesian, and Vietnamese revolutions. In his peripatetic retelling, these “cosmopolitan connections” were decisive because they helped revolutionaries organize and provided resources. He decenters the nation-state, but ultimately circles back to the same question: Why did these revolutions happen?

Where nationalism was once about liberation from the yoke of colonialism, these days it suggests hardening borders and hardening minds.

Where Anderson leaned towards literature, Sidel stresses structures that allowed for mass mobilization, such as religious networks or trade associations, inspired by comparative historical sociologists like Barrington Moore, Jr. The strength of the book lies here, in sketching the fault lines within revolutions and their enduring influence today. But his approach has the strange effect of making what revolutionaries achieved seem less impressive, aided as they were by a web of transnational forces.

Sidel traces the role of such forces in the Philippine revolution, which began in 1896. It was Asia’s first against Western colonial rule, and rife with divisions. Players included the polyglot writer José Rizal, whose novels Noli Me Tangere and El filibusterismo embodied the vision of the educated, nationalist upper class, called ilustrados. Rizal, along with other exiled members of the intelligentsia, wrote for a fortnightly paper founded in Barcelona in the late 1880s called La Solidaridad. Fluency in Spanish, the language of the colonizer, allowed them to travel, to write, and to be heard. Sidel argues that language and the “global circuitries” of the Catholic Church explain why Filipinos revolted when they did: they were exposed earlier than other Asians to ideas and networks that could be harnessed to challenge colonialism.

Filipino peasants, artisans, and workers revolted first. The Katipunan, a secret society founded by Andrés Bonifacio in Manila in 1892, led an armed uprising. As the rebellion spread, Emilio Aguinaldo, a Freemason and leader from Cavite, a province south of Manila and a Katipunan stronghold, usurped Bonifacio and became the leader of the provisional revolutionary government in 1897. (Like Tan Malaka, Bonifacio was executed by his former allies; he refused to accept Aguinaldo’s authority and was tried for treason.) Aguinaldo quickly signed a truce with Spain, but when the Philippines was ceded to the United States at the end of Spanish-American War in 1898, the revolution reignited, only to be brutally suppressed by American troops. The United States erected a liberal political order that co-opted nationalist elites like Aguinaldo and entrenched their power. The more egalitarian impulses among the Katipunan were quashed. The result, Sidel writes, is lingering “social inequality and injustice unparalleled elsewhere in Southeast Asia.”

If the Philippine revolution was undertaken in the same spirit as the liberal and republican revolutions that Europe had experienced during the long nineteenth century, the Indonesian and Vietnamese revolutions were of a very different era: Japan had emerged as a major power after defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905; China was in tumult after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911; and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 provided new ways of thinking about political order as well as resources for revolutionary struggle elsewhere in the world. Sidel’s comparison of Indonesia and Vietnam sketches the contours of revolutionary action in each alongside shifting regional and global dynamics. Why did the communists fail in Indonesia yet seize power in Vietnam?

In Indonesia, leaders inspired by Marxism, such as Tan Malaka, were ultimately thwarted by the uneasy relationship between communism and Islam. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, their networks were often entwined. Sarekat Islam, an organization founded in 1912 in Solo, Central Java, swelled to half a million members within two years, becoming one of the first mass organizations to emerge in the Dutch East Indies outside the bounds of capital, colonial authority, or traditional Javanese hierarchy. Its genesis was economic marginalization: Javanese merchants founded Sarekat Islam so they would have a trade organization separate from Chinese firms whose power was rapidly expanding.

Union leaders became increasingly involved, radicalizing Sarekat Islam by the end of the 1910s. Some figures, like Haji Misbach, were revolutionary socialists who were also active in Islamic circles. By the early 1920s, conservative leaders within the organization had pushed out Misbach and others who were involved with the newly founded PKI. Islam and communism never mixed in Indonesia in the same way again, and because both were internally divided, they were sidelined by the more moderate nationalist leadership of Sukarno.

Sidel’s book ends here, but the tensions continued to play out in the early post-independence era. Sukarno tacked alternately right and left, until 1965 when at least five hundred thousand alleged members of the PKI were killed in a campaign waged primarily by General Suharto and the Indonesian military, with the connivance of Muslim organizations in some areas. The deep animosity between the PKI and its enemies on the right spurred the violence, yet the massacres had a strong international dimension, too. The United States, which viewed Sukarno’s dalliances with the PKI with trepidation, had ties to the army officers responsible; the eradication of the Indonesian left served American Cold War interests.

New information about the killings is still coming to light. Taomo Zhou’s Migration in the Time of Revolution is based on documents from the Chinese foreign ministry archives that were briefly available during her research. They show that Dipa Nusantara Aidit, head of the PKI, told Mao Zedong in advance about a plan that resembled what happened in the early hours of October 1, 1965, when a handful of leftist army officers kidnapped and killed six anti-communist generals and a military committee led by an underground PKI member seized power. Zhou argues that the records show that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was informed but not involved.

Transnational ties were as much a liability as an asset for revolutionaries once the Cold War set in.

In any case, General Suharto quickly overpowered the putschists. In late November, the military executed Aidit. Although the killings primarily targeted suspected members of the PKI—the party had between three to five million members at the time—ethnic Chinese were also caught up in the violence, for two reasons: Suharto accused the CCP of orchestrating the attempted coup, and Beijing ratcheted up its anti-Suharto rhetoric in 1966 after initially exercising restraint. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations the following year. By centering her account on the lives of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia from the end of World War II to the mid-1960s, Zhou shows that transnational ties were as much a liability as an asset for revolutionaries once the Cold War set in.

As for Vietnam, Sidel qualifies Ho Chi Minh’s triumph by noting that he was dealt a very different hand than his counterparts in Indonesia. One factor was the deeper involvement of the Comintern and Vietnam’s proximity to China, which served as a staging ground for revolution. In the mid-1920s, there were hundreds of Indochinese cadres training alongside future luminaries of the CCP at the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton, which had been set up by Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen with help from Soviet advisors. After Japan invaded China in 1937, Ho Chi Minh returned from the USSR, where he had spent most of the 1930s, and resumed organizing along the Indochinese-Chinese border.

Ho Chi Minh also faced less internal resistance than his communist counterparts elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Sidel argues. There was no conservative, educated upper class blocking Ho Chi Minh and his allies. French colonizers had dismantled elite networks that existed before them, and the dominance of Chinese and French capital squeezed local businesses and landowners. French colonialism had reshaped society in ways that meant there was no one like Sukarno standing in the way.

Hovering behind the renewed scholarly interest in revolutions is a desire to unravel teleological national narratives and tie history’s loose ends together in new ways at a time when the failures of modern nation-states to uphold the rights of their citizens and solve problems requiring collective action, from climate change to inequality, are starker than ever before. Could a different politics have emerged from this time? Sidel writes of the “egalitarian premises and promises” that motivated revolutions in Southeast Asia, but he engages less with the substance of these ideas than Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz does in her intellectual history Asian Place, Filipino Nation.

On the one hand, CuUnjieng Aboitiz sees the ilustrados as more radical than Sidel does, writing that her subjects “were redrawing their geographies of political affinity and envisioning quite a different world order, ordered along lines of Asian solidarity.” Filipino revolutionaries were not mimicking European nationalism; they had a distinctive pan-Asian vision because of their place on the periphery of the region. La Solidaridad and the Katipunan were both imagining a politics that defied the logic of the nation-state even as Filipinos succeeded, very briefly, in establishing a new secular republic. CuUnjieng Aboitiz refuses to reduce their transnationalism to a tool for achieving nationalist goals.

On the other hand, she acknowledges the outmoded aspects of ilustrado thinking. Her subjects were Social Darwinists whose conceptions of race were shaped by colonial encounters. Rizal and other members of the intelligentsia believed that Malays—a new identity that Filipino nationalists embraced as they reimagined their place in the world—ought to be higher on the Darwinistic pecking order. Rather the dispute the notion of racial hierarchy, they thought inferior status was not immutable.   

To elevate their standing, ilustrados turned to Japan. They felt a bond with the Japanese as fellow Asians and believed they could learn from that country’s modernization during the Meiji restoration, a process that began under threat of Western imperialism. For someone like Mariano Ponce, the Philippines’ first “pan-Asian emissary” who lived in Yokohama at the turn of the twentieth century, that admiration only intensified after Japan won the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895 and the Dutch parliament passed a law in 1899 that gave the Japanese the same status as Europeans in the Dutch East Indies. CuUnjieng Aboitiz writes that Ponce believed that “enlightened colonialism had a tutelary function”; Japan might have imperial tendencies, but from his perspective, colonization by Japan was preferable to subjugation by Spain.

An explicitly left-wing transnational politics from below, such as that which existed a century ago, hasn’t been revived.

Japanese imperialism looms uncertainly over CuUnjieng Aboitiz’s narrative. What could a more egalitarian pan-Asianism have yielded without Japan’s attempt to create the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” lurking on the horizon. Still, she writes that there are glimmers of what could have been: Third Worldist solidarity; the Non-Aligned Movement founded in Bandung, West Java, in 1955; and the fleeting existence of Maphilindo in 1963, an effort by the Philippines, Malaya, and Indonesia to create a supranational entity. But as Zhou demonstrates, the 1950s and 1960s in Asia were a time of chaotic domestic politics, foreign interference, and Cold War tensions against which transnational solidarity had little chance.

It’s hard to pinpoint who has inherited these revolutionary transnational dreams today. The Cold War reshaped national and regional politics in Southeast Asia along sharp ideological lines, which are still with us decades later, if blurred by globalization and the shared quest for market-based economic growth. An explicitly left-wing transnational politics from below, such as that which existed a century ago, hasn’t been revived. One contemporary analogue is perhaps “the Milk Tea Alliance,” a loose association of young protesters confronting their authoritarian leaders in Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong, and beyond. But their solidarity is mainly enacted online and offers few of the practical resources that their revolutionary predecessors needed to overthrow colonial powers.

If a more potent destabilizing transnational politics is alive in Southeast Asia, it exists in a form far removed from the liberatory impulses described in these books. The rebellious colonial underground’s best modern parallel would be the region’s jihadists who, much like Tan Malaka and Ho Chi Minh, have been adept at working across borders and exploiting the in-between spaces that separate nation-states to evade capture. Places such as the southern Philippines, where state control is weak, have made it possible for them to train and mount attacks—at one point, a few years ago, with funding from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—in the service of an ideology that rejects a secular, democratic politics. Transnationalism may threaten the state-centered status quo, but not always in ways that expand rights for all.