For Southeast Asia, Japan’s sudden invasion and occupation of the region had the effect of suspending all indigenous demands for political reform and decolonization. Never before had a single power established its rule over the entire region. Beginning with the December 7, 1941, surprise attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia proceeded rapidly and efficiently. From bases in Indochina, Japanese forces landed near Pattani in Thailand and proceeded south through Malaya to capture Singapore on February 15, 1942. Another invasion force landed on Luzon and by January 3, 1942, the Japanese had captured Manila. The surviving US forces in the Philippines fled to Corregidor Island and eventually surrendered on May 6, 1942. The Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies was completed on March 9, 1942. By June, Japanese forces invading through Thailand had captured all of Burma.
The Japanese were not as well prepared to administer such large and diverse areas as they had been to conquer Southeast Asian colonies from weakened colonial powers. The Japanese assumed complete control with plans to pursue two competing objectives. They expected to win widespread popular support from the population for their defeat of colonialism. They were also determined to seize control of strategic resources, such as tin, rubber, oil, and rice production to sustain the Japanese war machine. The latter objective was given priority over the former, but in their planning, both objectives were assumed to be complementary. To gain popular support, they expected to establish rapport with the common citizenry through a combination of anticolonial propaganda and support for the religions of their new subjects. For Indonesia, this meant a pro-Islamic policy enlisted to support Japanese rule. Shortly after their arrival, Japanese authorities announced the formation of an organization to prepare for the unification of the Islamic community. The two largest Muslim organizations were Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, each with significantly different Islamic constituencies. Leaders of both organizations were unwilling to give up control over their schools and welfare networks, forcing the Japanese to convert their proposed unification of Muslims into a loose ineffective umbrella grouping. In 1943, the Japanese made a second attempt to create a unified Muslim organization under their control. With various inducements, both Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama finally agreed to join a single mass Islamic organization, called Masjumi, but they did so without merging.5 By then, most Muslim leaders had become suspicious of Japanese motives.
The failure of Japan’s pro-Islamic policy came partly because of serious rice shortages. To address this issue, the Japanese demanded that Indonesian peasants make compulsory deliveries of rice to support the war effort.6 Early in their rule, the Japanese conscripted from the lower classes some 300,000 persons into “Labor Battalions” called Romushas. Most of these laborers were sent to Thailand for construction of the Burma-Siam railway to provide a supply link to Japanese forces in Burma. Smaller contingents worked on Japanese military projects in New Guinea (Irian Jaya) and northern Moluccas (Sulawesi and Halmahera). Their labor conditions were so harsh, brutal, and unhealthy that fewer than 70,000 Romushas survived their service as slave laborers. While the burdens and hardships of the war were shared by all sectors of Indonesian society, those burdens rested most onerously on peasants and the lower classes.
The Japanese military commanders were initially skeptical about cooperation from Indonesian nationalist leaders, whom they viewed as having too little public support, of being too eager to seek political power, and therefore likely to create complications for Japanese rule. Even so, to provide a semce of legitimacy for their rule, the Japanese established a central advisory committee, and nominated Sukarno to chair that body. The advisory bodies the Japanese established had virtually no power without Japanese apval, yet Sukarno used his symbolic authority to build a constituency of supthat became greater as the war progressed.
Although nationalist activists had been forced into a form of “self-exile” Japanese restrictions on political activities, deteriorating conditions in Insia and Japanese losses in the war prompted the Japanese to change their policies. In 1943, after Japanese reverses in the Pacific and Allied incursions northern Burma, the Japanese granted nominal independence to Burma and the Philippines in an attempt to gain popular support from populations under their control. Indonesia was not offered nominal independence, but instead they formed Pusat Tenaga Rakjat (Putera), which was intended to be a mass organization that could mobilize support for Japan’s war effort. Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, who had been founding members of the PNI, were selected by the Japanese to head Putera. That organization was promised limited autonomy and later the Japanese made a vague promise of eventual independence for Java and other nonspecified areas.
In combination with Putera, the Japanese also authorized a special volunteer Muslim military force known as Peta that was headed by an Indonesian politician but organized under Japanese command. This force was armed and trained by the Japanese army, and it expanded to a force of about 120,000 Indonesian volunteers and draftees. Apparently, the Japanese expected Peta to become a Muslim counterforce to the secular nationalists in Putera, but after the defeat of Japan, these two bodies were able to combine to lead the Indonesian nationalist movement.
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On August 17, 1945, two days after Japan’s surrender, Sukarno declared Indonesian independence and shortly thereafter formed a provisional republic that he headed as president with Hatta as vice president. More >>
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For Southeast Asia, Japan’s sudden invasion and occupation of the region had the effect of suspending all indigenous demands for political reform and decolonization. More >>
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