As many readers would be aware, last week was Indonesia’s national birthday. I intended to complete a post on the day, but ultimately merely flagged at the time that a more substantive post would follow.

Where to start in responding to the 71st anniversary of Indonesia’s independence? Perhaps by making a few brief points starting with the idea that the day celebrates Indonesia’s birth like a baby. The inherent notion that nations suddenly appear is appealing, not least because the concept offers a neat sense of innocence and a convenient excuse for initial stumbles*, but I believe that sometimes obscures the reality.

Nation states (including Indonesia) never begin as an empty territory simply waiting to have a flag raised and be populated with the right kind of people (a concept that white Australia, among others, is still coming to terms with). Instead the land itself already has history, as does the arriving population who increasingly see it as their own.

Indonesia’s Independence Day is potentially better understood as a celebration of reaching national adulthood, present in the shouts of “Merdeka” (independence) that characterise the celebration. Every polity is selective about what is included and excluded in the national story however, and I suggest a large part of the appeal and meaning of Indonesia’s Independence Day is demonstrably isolating Indonesia from the preceding colonial era. Noticeably there is a much more muted consideration of what followed not long after in Indonesia, including one of the worst genocides of the last century.

The question of whether Indonesia was ready for adulthood as a nation state at that time belongs to history, and I won’t seek to consider that further now. What I will look at however, is how Indonesia celebrated the day this year. I found the story of Indonesia sinking “71 foreign vessels as the country celebrated 71 years of independence” curious, reminding me of a form of power that, in acting against a powerless opponent, merely highlights its limitations.

Stepping back to the broader politics I also see that power limitation in Jokowi’s inflexibility in fighting illegal drugs and willingness to take lives in pursuit of that policy. Like President Duterte in the neighbouring Philippines the domestic political benefits that accrue are, of course, entirely coincidental, but I sense they reflect less of a meaningful policy achievement than an exhaustion of politically or technically palatable ideas.

Finally, turning to Indonesia’s longer term historical context, “Merdeka” is only fully understandable in the context of time and place. On Indonesia’s national day, across Java and other islands that are closer to the political, ethnic and religious ideal, such sentiments are welcomed and celebrated. Meanwhile, in days previously, and in days to come, cries of “Merdeka” in places on the national periphery, like Aceh and Papua, are inflammatory and treacherous.

In this, I suspect “Merdeka” unintentionally has both a meaning and a message. The meaning is that Indonesia has grown up and has concluded its search for identity, but the message may be different. That message says that independence is desirable and achievable, and it is a right of all Indonesians. Yet on the national periphery such claims to independence are denied.

In combination with that residual sense of powerless in Indonesia’s body politic this leaves me wondering how, if the years ahead see new flags raised and polities populated with the right kind of people, which histories might be included and excluded in multiple variations of “Merdeka” across the archipelago.


* Thailand intermittently still tries the argument of adolescent naivety when questioned about their struggles with democracy. At over 80 years that is quite an adolescence.