Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The little known prime minister

The Jakarta Post | Tue, 03/10/2009 12:26 PM | People

It’s official: Sjahrir (left) is shown signing Linggadjati Agreement documents in Jakarta on Nov. 15, 1946, while Dutch-appointed special commissioner general leading the negotiations, Willem Schermerhorn, looks on. Courtesy of Rushdy HoeseinIt’s official: Sjahrir (left) is shown signing Linggadjati Agreement documents in Jakarta on Nov. 15, 1946, while Dutch-appointed special commissioner general leading the negotiations, Willem Schermerhorn, looks on. Courtesy of Rushdy Hoesein

Surprisingly enough for a nation’s first prime minister, Sutan Sjahrir receives few mentions in Indonesia’s history book – even though his diplomatic skills were responsible for the nation being recognized by the international community.

“Sjahrir, who became prime minister at the age of 36, is little known by the public,” Sjahrir’s daughter Siti Rabyah Parvati Sjahrir said at the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Sjahrir’s birth at Balai Agung in Jakarta on Thursday.

“Sometimes he has been misidentified as [literary critic] Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana or Sjahrir the [late] economist.”

Sjahrir was born in Padang Panjang, West Sumatra, on March 5, 1909, the son of an adviser to the Sultan of Deli. He studied in Medan and Bandung, before moving to Leiden in The Netherlands around 1929 to study law.

In Holland, he gained an appreciation for socialist principles, and joined several labor unions as he worked to support himself. He was briefly the secretary of the Indonesian Association (Perhimpunan Indonesia), an organization of Indonesian students in the Netherlands.

He returned to Indonesia in 1931 without completing his law degree, and helped set up the Indonesian National Party (PNI). Around this time, he became a close associate of future vice president Mohammad Hatta.

His nationalist activities saw him imprisoned by the Dutch in November 1934 for many years, first in Boven Digul, then on Banda. In 1941, just before the area fell to the Japanese, he was moved to Sukabumi.

At the time when Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta were compromising with the occupying Japanese forces, Sjahrir was involved in a clandestine movement that he believed would help prepare the nation for independence when the time was right.

In November 1945, then president Sukarno appointed him prime minister, a position he held until June 1947, during which time he worked on winning international recognition for the newly independent country.

Sjahrir is shown during the campaign for the 1955 general election.Sjahrir is shown during the campaign for the 1955 general election.

Sjahrir founded the Indonesian Socialist Party in 1948, which, although small, proved to be influential in the early years after independence because of the expertise and high education levels of its leaders.

But after January 1950 Sjahrir no longer held any government positions, and his party performed poorly during the 1955 elections.

After a 1958 revolt known as PRRI or “Revolutionary Government of Indonesian Republic” in 1958, his relationship with Sukarno deteriorated, and the president banned his party two years later.

At 4 a.m. on Jan. 16, 1962, Sjahrir was arrested at his house in Jakarta. Three months later, he was sent with other political prisoners to Madiun, Central Java, before being moved back to Jakarta in 1965.

Despite his long and fervent political career, Sjahrir was always devoted to his family — he had two children, Kriya Arsyah and Parvati. He wrote in his prison diary on June 3, 1963, “My thoughts and my memories again and again turn to home, to my children. I want them to grow up to be happier and have a better life than me. … I want them to be honest, upright and loving, and not be obsessed with titles and stars.”

Sjahrir’s daughter, Parvati, was just two years old when her father was arrested. “I had to take a train back and forth from Solo to Madiun just to meet Papa,” she recalled. “When my father was moved to Jakarta, it was not easy for my mother to get a permit letter to visit Papa.”

The imprisonment, she said, was unjust. “Ironically, after Independence, he was detained without facing trial. He was accused without verification.”

As he was ill, Sjahrir was allowed to go to Zurich, Switzerland, for treatment. He died there on April 9, 1966, “far away from the country he co-founded, from the country he dearly loved, from family members and friends”, Parvati said. “Sjahrir went to Zurich as a political prisoner and returned to his homeland as a hero.”

He was a hero for his daughter as well.

“For me, Sjahrir, Papa, was a moral character who deserves to be emulated,” she said. “He was honest, brave and consistent with what he fought for. He did not fight for his own interest or for power or wealth. He fought for the freedom and the maturity of people to be free from oppression and the exploitation of others.”

—JP/Matheos V. Messakh

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