Thursday, November 30, 2023 | 20:14 WIB

Soetan Sjahrir, Republic of Indonesia’s first Prime Minister – The Smiling Diplomat who defended RI sovereignty through diplomacy


Soetan Sjahrir (Source: Priv. Doc)

Becoming Political – at Home 

In the early 1930’s, the Netherland Indies Government put in place a stricter policy against Indonesian nationalist movement organizations. They raided these organizations and imprisoned the leaders of these movements in our Homeland. 

One of the consequences of this policy is the disbandment of the Indonesian National Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia – “PNI”) by its own activists. This grave news raised concerns among PI activists in the Netherlands. However, it spurred Sjahrir and Hatta on: they always encouraged PNI cadres not to weaken just because their leaders were imprisoned. For that purpose and many others, they were frequent contributing writers to the Daulat Rakjat or The People’s Sovereignty, the magazine belonging to the Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia or Indonesian National Education organization. They were united in their belief that the people’s education must be the primary duty of all political leaders: “First of all, let us educate the people. This will allow us to map the path towards Independence,” Sjahrir declared. 

In 1931, Sjahrir left his college. He returned home to dive into our nationalist movements. On arrival, he immediately joined “New PNI”, and even chaired the Party from June 1932. He then practiced his findings from his experience in delving into the proletarian world in our Homeland, and entered the labor movement. He contributed multiple articles concerning labor issues in the Daulat Rakyat, and also frequently orated about the labor movement in political forums. 

Hatta returned to Indonesia in August 1932, while Sjahrir was appointed Chairman of the Indonesian Laborer Congress in May 1933. Together, they steered the New PNI to become an organization that generates cadres for their movement. According to Dutch Colonial Government intelligence analysis, the political movements of the New PNI were even more radical than that of PNI during Soekarno’s leadership, which relied on mass mobilization! They also concluded that the New PNI is comparable to any reputable Western political organization. Despite lacking mass action and agitation, despite their slow pace, the New PNI solidly educated movement cadres who work inexorably towards their revolutionary goals. 

Exile – and Independence 

In February 1934, the Dutch Colonial Government arrested, imprisoned, then exiled Sjahrir, Hatta, and several other New PNI leaders to Boven Digoel in Papua. After nearly a year being stuck in the malaria-infested country, Hatta and Sjahrir were moved to Banda Neira, to continue their exile for six years. 

Sjahrir and Soekarno-Hatta parted ways during the Japanese occupation. While the two both cooperated with Japan, he established an underground anti-fascist movement. Sjahrir believed that it was impossible for Japan to win the war. Therefore, nationalist activists must ready themselves to seize independence at just the right moment. The hubs of Syahrir’s underground movement are New PNI cadres who maintained the movement, and his own cadres of progressive-minded students. Sastra, a senior labor activist who was close to Sjahrir, wrote: “Under Syahrir’s leadership, we moved underground, establishing subjective power, while waiting for the development in the objective situation and the arrival of the psychological moment to wrest power and independence.” 

Sjahrir learned about how the World War progressed by surreptitiously listening to the news broadcast by foreign radio stations, as the Japanese Colonial Government sealed off foreign news from our radios – then forwarded the news to Hatta. Meanwhile, Sjahrir integrated and solidified his underground movement, getting it ready to wrest power from Japan. Afterwards, he and his young men urged Soekarno and Hatta to proclaim our independence, on 15 August, once Japan had surrendered. 

Sjahrir and his underground mass were ready for a power takeover action, which would symbolize the people’s approval of their movement. However, unsure about the news, Soekarno and Hatta did not respond positively. They waited for information from the Japanese administration in Indonesia, as they believed that the independence must be proclaimed according to procedure, i.e. through a decision made by the Indonesian Independence Preparatory Committee (Panitia Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia – “PPKI”) created by Japan, i.e. to be proclaimed on 24 September 1945. 

The young activists were disappointed with this decision, because there is a real risk that the world would judge RI’s independence as a “gift” from Japan and that RI is a mere puppet country created by Japan. To drive their point home, they kidnapped Soekarno-Hatta on 16 August. This face-to-face meeting was successful, as Soekarno and Hatta proclaimed our independence on 17 August 1945. 

Fighting for national independence is a literal definition of a “revolution”. It generates an atmosphere of fear and rage, and it is hard to think clearly under such a situation. No matter when and where, very few people actually have the sensible, convincing concept and strategic steps needed to rein in the movement from turning into a bloodbath. At the moments before the proclamation, two thinkers became popular for their ideas, which many republic warriors adopted: Tan Malaka and Sutan Sjahrir. These two independence movement activists were deemed to be “clean” from the stain of having collaborated with the fascistic Japanese Colonial Government, even though they later parted ways in their method of fighting for the newborn Republic’s sovereignty. 


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