Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World by David Van Reybrouck - review by Max Lane

Max Lane

In Search of Indonesia

Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World


Bodley Head 639pp £30

How much do you know about Indonesia? Measured by population, it is the fourth-largest country on earth. But it certainly isn’t the country with the fourth-highest profile. Its presidential election in February, in which 200 million people were eligible to vote, passed largely unnoticed in the West. One reflection of Indonesia’s low international profile is the small number of books on its politics and society written for the English-language-reading public. There are only a handful of introductory books on Indonesian history. One is Adrian Vickers’s A History of Modern Indonesia, first published in 2005 and reissued in 2013. The other is M C Ricklefs’s A History of Modern Indonesia Since c 1200, whose fourth edition was published in 2008. Both Vickers and Ricklefs were academics and their primary audiences were students. I can’t avoid mentioning my own book here too, Unfinished Nation: Indonesia Before and After Suharto, published by Verso in 2008.

It needs to be understood that Indonesia hasn’t always gone under the radar. There have been a number of times when it was the focus of the world’s attention. The first was during the period 1945–9, when Indonesians fought a war of independence against the Netherlands. A Dutch colony before the war, Indonesia had been lost to the Japanese in 1942. After the Japanese defeat in August 1945, Indonesian nationalists under the revolutionary Sukarno moved quickly to proclaim independence and set up a government and an army with both regular and irregular units. The Dutch sent an army from Europe to reconquer the country. It took four years of fighting and heavy international pressure for the Netherlands to relinquish its claims to Indonesia.

The period 1945–9 is covered in both Ricklefs’s and Vickers’s books. Readers wanting a detailed account, enriched with oral testimony, can now also go to David Van Reybrouck’s Revolusi. It is a mammoth work of over six hundred pages. Although by no means complete, the extensive bibliography will be a

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