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How Indonesia's revolution paved the way for decolonization worldwide

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Indonesia is sometimes called the quiet giant of Southeast Asia - giant because it has the fourth-largest population in the world, the biggest Muslim community on Earth, and quiet because the rest of the world so often overlooks this massive, influential country. It's an oversight that historian David Van Reybrouck aims to address with his epic new book, "Revolusi: Indonesia And The Birth Of The Modern World." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAVID VAN REYBROUCK: Hi. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: In this book, you argue that Indonesia should fascinate everyone, that as much as we learn about Mao or Gandhi, we should learn about the people responsible for Indonesia's independence. Why?

VAN REYBROUCK: Well, because it was the first country to declare its independence after World War II. Only two days after Japan capitulated, young Indonesians proclaimed their independence. It took 4 1/2 years before they got it in '49, but it was an incredible movement of young people starting, basically, the decolonization of the world.

SHAPIRO: And so in your argument, Indonesia was kind of the first domino that set off a whole series that followed. How do you figure?

VAN REYBROUCK: That's exactly it. That's exactly it. I mean, first of all, it's such a big country. I mean, you never hear about it. If you project it on the map of Europe, it starts in Ireland, and it finishes in Kazakhstan. And if you put it on the map of the United States, it's going to be sticking out on both sides in both oceans for about a thousand kilometers. I mean, that's the archipelago. That's the country we're talking about. So it's a major country. It's a massive country - 17,000 islands, the third-biggest democracy in the world and the first colony to proclaim its independence right after the end of World War II.

SHAPIRO: And not only did it proclaim its independence, but it wrote pluralism into its founding documents. The word is pancasila.

VAN REYBROUCK: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What do you think the rest of the world can take away from that piece of Indonesian history?

VAN REYBROUCK: I think what was crucial is that at the end of World War II, there was this question, what are we going to do with these colonies of Western nations that have been fighting each other for five years now? And the ideas were around that this should be a gradual, slow process. And Indonesia's made clear that the time of empire was over, and they basically created a template of how to decolonize a country. It should be done fast. It should be done totally, with all the powers and all the territories that it implied. And that model was realized for the first time in Indonesia. And then 10 years later, in April '55, the country organized an incredible conference, the so-called Bandung Conference, the Asia-Africa Conference of Bandung.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, this is incredible. I had never heard of this. It was the first-ever conference of world leaders that did not include Western powers.

VAN REYBROUCK: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Like, what a statement. How revolutionary was that?

VAN REYBROUCK: It was. There was a French diplomat who was there as an observer, one of the few white people, and he wrote a book afterwards saying that this is like the second French Revolution, but this time on a planetary scale. When I was a high school student in Belgium, I heard about it, that this was the beginning of the Non-Aligned Movement of the Third World, of basically countries that were gaining freedom and independence and who refused to partake in the Cold War logic that you should belong to the First or the Second World, to the capitalist American world or the communist Soviet world. They proudly said, we are the Third World. We want to be independent. We want to collaborate with whoever cares to do so, but we have just liberated ourselves from colonialism. We will not take part in a new form of imperialism. It was really a fascinating meeting that unleashed a dynamic of liberation, cooperation, freedom and independence.

SHAPIRO: I'd love to talk a little bit about your methodology and your research because historians take a lot of different approaches to their work, and you rely heavily on oral histories. You conducted hundreds of interviews in - what? - 20 languages or thereabouts?

VAN REYBROUCK: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Why is that your preferred method?

VAN REYBROUCK: I think the best - I like to do archival research in open air.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

VAN REYBROUCK: It's so great to sit down with the last living witnesses of major political revolutions but at the same time to talk about the intimacies of their personal lives, their family lives, what food they ate, which language they spoke, how they dressed, how colonialism got under their skin, how - what the Japanese occupation meant for them. I traveled to Indonesia many times, and I visited many of its islands, traveled to Japan. I did a lot of interviews also in the Netherlands, the former colonizer. It was fascinating to hear all these bits of truth, all these aspects, all these narratives and trying to bring them together in this polyphony, which...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

VAN REYBROUCK: ...The book "Revolusi" has become.

SHAPIRO: You describe interviewing people who are over a hundred years old, living in either retirement homes or houses on stilts in remote islands. Can you tell us about one person you met who you will never forget?

VAN REYBROUCK: Oh, there's so many. But one of the first people I interviewed was an incredible lady, Siti Ayesha (ph). She was in a hospital or home for the elderly on the outskirts of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. And when I arrived there, I realized it's too late. This woman is ill, and I should not bother her. I had brought some cake. We sat down. I had been learning a bit of Indonesian. I changed - made small talk conversation with her. And then all of a sudden, she started talking about how she, as a 14-year-old girl, had joined the independence fighters, how she had sailed to Borneo, Kalimantan, another island, where she had been in the forest, fighting the Dutch, sleeping on the ground, being afraid of orangutans more than of the Dutch.

And all of a sudden, she started singing these marching songs. And this is where you see the real riches of oral history. The song that she sang, I don't think it's in any archive. But all of a sudden, she sat up in her bed and started singing. And I took down the words of that song, and it was so interesting to show the energy of that young generation fighting for their freedom - absolutely extraordinary.

SHAPIRO: What were some of the words?

VAN REYBROUCK: Oh, she said, like, (non-English language spoken). Go on. Go on. We always go on. We march. We sleep on the ground. We're not afraid. We're the young people. We're going to liberate it - really reinvigorating song for the next hike through the forest.

SHAPIRO: Wow. You say at the beginning of the book that anyone who believes that young people cannot make a difference in the struggle against global warming and the loss of biodiversity needs to study Indonesian history now. What will that study show them?

VAN REYBROUCK: Oh, well, I was writing and doing research for this book as they had this entire movement of young people taking to the streets to ask for more robust climate action. And they were, you know, brushed aside as, like, they're too young, they should go to school. And then you realize, but without people of their age, Indonesia might not have become an independent country. Yes, there were a handful of political leaders like Sukarno, who became the first president, but it was an entire generation of people between age 15 and 25 who basically became the masses that were calling for independence with an impatience and with an energy that was not to be seen anywhere else. And were it not for this younger generation, the whole decolonization process might have taken decades, if not more. One of the leading Dutch administrators in the late 1930s had said, listen, folks. We have been here for 300 years. We're going to stay another 300 years. After that, we can talk. That was the state of mind of the Dutch colonizer just a few years before.

SHAPIRO: David Van Reybrouck is the author of "Revolusi: Indonesia And The Birth Of The Modern World." Thank you for talking with us.

VAN REYBROUCK: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICTORIAN PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S "INDONESIA RAYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
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