Imagined Communities in Cyberspace

Pentecost, Kathryn, Social Alternatives
The growth of new technologies, particularly the internet, has allowed new communities of people to imagine themselves. These communities are linked by emotions, mutual interest and sometimes by a common curiosity to uncover hidden or silenced voices and stories. In this case, I am excited by the possibility of connection, dialogue and interchange offered by Facebook and my ‘imagined community’ of Dutch-Indonesians/Indos who are travelling a new road together to exchange knowledge about their hybrid family histories in what was once the Dutch East/Netherlands Indies and is now Indonesia.

Communities can be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined (Anderson 1991, 6).

On 17 August 1945, after approximately 350 years of Dutch colonial rule (and several years of the British interregnum 1811-1816), Indonesia was proclaimed merdeka (independent) by Sukarno and Matta, and Indonesia as a nation began its period of struggle and consolidation. During the period known as Bersiap (purge) after the end of World War Il and before the Dutch relinquished their claims to the archipelago, many Europeans, Indo-Europeans and Ambonese were slaughtered or terrorised by pemuda (young men) with the fire of revolution in their bellies. In the words of author Hans Meijer, translated from Dutch by Rob Kramer:

In Batavia (now Jakarta), posters called for the extermination of ‘Indische parasites’ and the slogan ‘Death to the Ambonese and Indos’ could be read on a building. The radical Indonesian populist leader Soetomo called for a vendetta against Indo-European bloodhounds …

Torture them to death, root out those watchdogs of colonialism … Brave warriors of Indonesia, countless generations of oppressed ancestors look down upon you. Their immortal spirits demand your revenge! Vendetta!’ (Meijer 2004 [1945], n.p., quoted on Facebook, Dutch-Indonesian discussion group, June 2010)

Many survivors of Japanese internment camps were forced to go on the run or stay in the camps with their former camp guards acting as protectors, until Allied forces could rescue them.

In the twentieth century, Indonesians had suffered greatly through the economic depression of the 1930s and from the colonial repression of nationalist expression (McKay 1976, 136). Sukarno and Matta had been tried and imprisoned. For ordinary people, the hope that the Javanese prophecy of Jabayaya would come to pass must have seemed palpable by the time of the Pacific War (McKay 1976, 136). The Javanese prophecy essentially pictured the ‘little yellow chicken’ (the Japanese) driving out ‘the white buffalo’ (the Dutch), to make way for the rule of Ratu Adii (a rightful king) – though Sukarno claimed that he never directly exploited people’s superstitions that he was Ratu Adii (McKay 1976, 136).

During 1945-1949, while the new ‘community’ of Indonesia was being established, several hundred thousand people who had called the Dutch East Indies ‘home’ were now being forced to consider their fate. After 1949, most would have to leave Indonesia, never to return again; many reminisced in the years to come about tempo dulu (times past/paradise lost) in the place they sometimes referred to as ‘the Belt of Emerald’. These traumatised migrants to countries such as the Netherlands, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia would often not explain more than fragments of their experiences to their children and grandchildren; they were silent for personal reasons or because of societal conditions in their adopted homelands.

In my own case, my maternal family lived in what is now Indonesia for approximately 240 years, from the early nineteenth century until 1949. The family were composed primarily of Dutch men who married Dutch or German women and brought them to the colony, or who married or lived with Javanese women (Lutter 1992). I am also descended from Javanese Muslim Raden (royalty): both male and female ancestors who lived mostly in Jawa Tengah (Central Java) and Jawa Timur (East Java). My great-great-grandfather, Raden Hadje Abdulhamed Djochria, had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, as symbolised by the inclusion of ‘Hadje’ in his name (Gillissen 2011). To add to the complex family ‘melting pot’, my maternal grandfather was a European Jew, tried and slaughtered by the Japanese for being a resistance fighter in the Corsica underground operating out of Malang. According to unofficial estimates, he was one of only about 2,000 Jews living in either Java or Sumatra in the 1930s (Cassuto 2005-2011).

In 1856, W. L. Ritter, writing De Europeanen in Nederlandsche Indie, explicitly set out to describe who was a ‘European’:

We count as European all those with white faces, who are not born in the Indies, all Dutch, English, French, Germans … even North Americans… Readers, … a European … in the Indies is an entirely different being than in his own country … There, he identifies himself so much with all that surrounds him that he no longer can be considered as a European, at least for the duration of his stay in the Indies, but rather as belonging to a specific caste of the Indische population … whose morals, customs and habits are certainly worthy of close examination. (Ritter 1856, 6, quoted in Stoler 1995, 104)

Ritter’s book expressed the colonial anxiety that Europeans coming to settle in the Indies would fall prey to the markedly different culture that existed in the colony as distinct from the ‘mother country’, the Netherlands. The Dutch even had different words to distinguish ‘real whites’ (echte) from ‘creole whites’ (mestizen) but the reality of life in the Indies was that intimate relationships between the Dutch, Javanese and other ethnic and cultural groups had been going on for hundreds of years. Prior to the arrival of the Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, Indians and Arabs had come to the archipelago to trade; some of these groups had also settled there and intermarried.

Despite Dutch (and British) colonialism, Indonesia was always and continues to be a place of diversity, ethnically, culturally and spiritually. The most populous Muslim nation on earth, Indonesia has 240 million people, 700 local languages and 300 distinct ethnic groups living in the approximately 6,000 inhabited islands throughout the archipelago (Jackman 2011). The motto of the Republic of Indonesia, ‘Unity in Diversity’, certainly reflects this. During the late colonial period, however, colonial administrators of the Indies were concerned about how to define Dutch citizenship (burgerrecht) and shore up ‘civilised morals’, and so attempted to enforce sanctions against inter-racial marriage (Stoler 1995, 120-1). According to Ann Laura Stoler, perhaps the foremost authority on Dutch colonial racism, The family, as Foucault warned, was not a haven from the sexualities of a dangerous outside world but the site of its production. Colonial authorities knew it only too well’ (2002, 153).

The colonisers and the colonised were classified under the Tripartite Racial Policy as ‘European’, ‘Native’ and Other Foreign Oriental/Chinese’ (Wiseman 2000, 1). Roger Wiseman contended that this classification system was by no means simple or transparent and that the ‘majority of those identified as European’ were actually ‘Indo-Europeans’ (or ‘Chinese-Europeans’) (2000, 1). Furthermore, Stoler suggested that the lateness of the prohibition against intermarriage was part and parcel of a wider socio-political agenda designed to slow the decline of the colonisers’ power. Classification by race meant difference of opportunity in education, career and entitlement to social welfare (Stoler 1995, 120-1). By the 1940s, 250,000 people in the Indies were classed as ‘Europeans’ – though many (if not most) of these people were actually Indo-Europeans (Krancher 1996, 5).

In Australia, it has been my experience that until recently I have not been able to fully contextualise the stories of my maternal family from the Indies/Indonesia. For most of my life, I have felt as though we were some sort of historical anomaly; fundamentally ‘illegitimate’ in the scheme of things. For instance, I have always felt that, although on the surface we were as Australian as anyone else, underneath it all our differences from the mainstream made us less entitled to claim our national identity with quite the same vigour as those from a wholly Anglo-Protestant background. It has also been my experience that people who were born here and whose families have lived here for several generations tend not to understand what I am talking about. When they look at me, they do not see any strong visual differences that signal my Otherness’ and so they are quite surprised when I mention the Indies/Indonesia as the home of my maternal ancestors.

In 2009 I discovered a community of people who immediately understood my situation. Not only did they understand my ‘hybrid ancestry’ but they were keen to exchange stories and information about Indonesia’s history including Dutch colonialism, World War 2, life under Japanese occupation and the period known as the Bersiap. The second and third generation descendants of those who left Indonesia after independence have now located the diaspora imaginatively in Cyberspace.

On Facebook: Dutch-Indonesian discussion group and The Indo Project website, individuals add their voices to an open-ended community of people whose description is based on the term ‘Indo’ – an abbreviation of the term ‘Indo-European’, though the term ‘Indo’ is neither universally agreed upon or one that only encompasses Dutch-Indonesian ‘mixtures’. In addition to discussions, internet contributors add a wealth of family photographs, often showing warm scenes of ‘mixed-blood’ families before World War 2, mostly in Java and Sumatra.

Both the Facebook group of ‘Dutch-Indonesians’ and The Indo Project website are locations where cultural transmission and interaction regularly take place. The ‘Indos1 on Facebook and The Indo Project encompass a wide variety of people of mixed ethnicity who are descendants of the diaspora of original inhabitants of the Indies, including, for instance, even someone of ScottishChinese ancestry. The ‘style’ in which the community is imagined is pluralistic, fluid, inclusive and empathetic. The community is also curious, communicative, multilingual and multi-faceted. Participants engage in detailed discussions about history, culture, language and family heritage. On Facebook, one can participate in any or all of a number of streams of discussion; for instance: ‘Spelling reform in Bahasa Indonesia’, ‘Books’, ‘Movies’, 1Do you feel more of a connection with Holland or with present day Indonesia?’ or even one entitled The Asian Squat’. In such discussions usually three languages are used – English, Dutch and Bahasa Indonesia – and participants also help one another with translations from one language to another, and between older and newer versions of Indonesia’s official language (once known as ‘Administrative Malay’). Within these contexts, participants may meet up with long-lost (or unknown) relatives and/or uncover previously hidden dimensions of their family history. Because the Bersiap was such a traumatic period for our relatives, most Dutch-Indonesians on Facebook are trying to fill in the missing pieces of their family histories by discussing the period with one another. Discussion of history is not confined, however, to the late colonial period, as many families have roots in the archipelago going back (on the European side) for a number of generations, and on the Indonesian side for hundreds of years.

Due to my interaction on Facebook, I have recently discovered several relatives across the world; all descendants of an extended clan of van de Poels/van der Poels – some of whom originally came from the Netherlands to South Africa and then to the Indies. Many were born and/or settled all across Java, from Jakarta (Batavia) to Bandung, Garut, Tegal, Semarang, Ngawi, Madiun, Kediri, Besuki, Surabaya, Malang, Pasuruan, Probolinggo, Jember and Puger. Among these relatives, there is a young Muslim relative (saudara) living in Yogyakarta who contacted me on the ‘Indo’ (DutchIndonesian) site via a discussion board called ‘What is your family name?’ So far, we have had extensive online discussions about our ancestors while trying to unravel the complexities of the family tree information that is written in Dutch. Among other things, she and I have also discussed the efforts of relatives trying to protect the graves of ancestors in Tegal, West Java, which are still being defiled by those seeking to erase any traces of Dutch colonialism. ‘Why should they protect those graves if they don’t have any respect for these “Europeans”?’ she asks.

Organised by some of the participants of the DutchIndonesian discussion group on Facebook is The Indo Project, a USA-based not-for-profit organisation with a colourful website that offers historical information, blogs and sumptuous personal photographs of Indo families, Indo culture and old maps of the Indies. The intention of the organisation is to preserve ‘Indo heritage and culture’ and to act as a ‘source of education’ to raise awareness of the ‘role of Indos in society and history’ Indo Project (2009, 1). To this end, the organisation is also engaged in documenting on digital video the personal stories of the survivors of World War 2 and the Indonesian revolution.

Older ‘Indos’ and their descendants outside Indonesia are controversial because they are often considered (by contemporary Indonesians and postcolonial academics) as part of the legacy of colonialism. Young ‘Indos’ are also controversial within Indonesia, in the sense that they are often stereotyped as coming from ‘affluent or regal’ families (Kebon 2011, 2). In addition, for many years the Indonesian entertainment industry has capitalised on the ‘perceived charm and allure’ of these ‘honey-milk skinned’ people who feel that they are trapped inside unrealistic social expectations of achieving high levels of fame and success (Kebon 2011, 2). The online quarterly, Inside Indonesia, has recently published a series of articles on ‘being Indo’ which has highlighted both historical and contemporary issues about ‘bicultural’ Indonesians (2011).

While Benedict Andersen’s quotation about the ‘style’ in which communities can be imagined emerges from his book about the evolution of nation-states in a time of expanding print capitalism, perhaps it still offers a way into thinking about ‘communities’ in general. In this twentyfirst-century era of cyber communication, there are many ways to traverse and challenge national boundaries and concepts of national identity. The internet- through email, social networking sites, personal blogs, online publications, podcasts and other forms – offers myriad opportunities for people all over the world to reconceptualise themselves as both individuals and communities. Indeed, within the ‘Indo’ diaspora, Cyberspace is a realm where people can ease some of their persistent heimwee (homesickness) and where younger generations can uncover the background to the more traumatic parts of the family stories that their parents and grandparents have been reluctant to share. It can, perhaps, also be a place to heal the wounds of the past as well as move with dignity into the future. Within Indonesia, Cyberspace is certainly an avenue for young ‘Indos’ to discuss social expectations, consider how to shape their own destiny and perhaps even influence the evolution of their nation’s identity.