Countdown to an Indonesian Coup

West5Sunday, 22 January 1950. Turk Westerling was the most casually dressed warlord the press men had ever met. Reuters and Australia’s The Herald had a man each at this exclusive interview with Indonesia’s public enemy number one. No guards, no guns, just an old-fashioned colonial bungalow somewhere outside sweaty Bandung and a tough, sun-tanned Dutchman crushing the life out of one cigarette and lighting another.

Westerling wore a white polo shirt and khaki trousers. One journalist noted the brown socks and street shoes. The other jotted shorthand about the expensive gold watch and the gold ring set with a black stone.

The Turk had spread himself all over the international press with his threats to the new United States of Indonesia government. The country was independent, the Dutch had gone home, and everything was supposed to be peace and liberty. Then Westerling (‘a mystery man‘ according to local politicians) came out of nowhere and tore the place apart. The news agencies wanted a closer look.

A Streak of Fanaticism

The two reporters found a charismatic muscleman with eyes so dark blue they touched on black, and a hypnotic charm.

Throughout the interview Westerling gave the impression that he was not a reckless adventurer,’ an impressed Reuters man later bashed out on his typewriter, ‘but a man with a streak of fanaticism who had weighed up a tangled situation and was prepared to take action’.

The pressmen fired questions through the cigarette smoke. Westerling answered in fluent English. Of course he was not plotting a coup against Jakarta. That was all lies from government controlled newspapers. He was a concerned citizen afraid the republicans of the new Indonesian government wanted to rip up the federalist system negotiated by the departing Dutch. He did not trust Jakarta.

That was why Westerling had sent an ultimatum to the Sukarno administration. On 5 January he gave it six days to accept federalism and stop pushing for a united Indonesia; to end the “terroristic exactions” of its army; and to recognise his Angkatan Perang Ratu Adil private army as the men in charge of western Java.

The midnight deadline came and went. Westerling told the reporters in the Bandung bungalow he had extended it at the request of some United Nations observers. He dismissed the UN denial of involvement. The Turk had even less interest in Dutch High Commissioner Dr. H M Hirschfeld, an economist, who was keen to let the world know Westerling had no support from Amsterdam. Hirschfeld criticised everything about Westerling (‘illegal and objectionable’), hammered home the point that the Dutch Army had no connection to his activities, and loudly regretted that Westerling had been a private citizen since early 1949 and could not be court martialed.

A private citizen with a private army. The Angkatan Perang Ratu Adil was rumoured to be 20,000 Indonesians, with a sprinkling of Europeans and Eurasians, hiding in the jungles of West Java. Only Westerling knew its real strength and he kept that to himself.

Private Army

The Turk had recruited his army last year during days-off from getting rich running a Chinese transport company in west Java. Canvas covered lorries with the Koh Hien logo stencilled on the sides rattled along jungle roads all over the territory. Westerling’s set up Book 2was professional and well-organised, enough to make it stand out in the chaotic Indonesian business world. And his reputation scared off local bandits who liked to hijack anything on four wheels. Within twelve months Westerling had racked up 600,000 florins (£30,000) profit.

Back in the company’s early days a delegation of Indonesian peasants visited Westerling. They came from local kampongs, villages of tin-roofed mud huts built in the space between the palm trees and the hard sunlight. They wanted protection from the bandits.

They are afraid to fire on your lorries,’ they said. ‘They would not dare attack our villages if you were protecting them.’

The Dutchman did not need much persuading. Hundreds of militias were still scattered over Indonesia in various stages of loyalty to the Dutch or Sukarno’s Republicans. And a private army could be useful with Indonesian independence approaching. It was no secret he regarded Sukarno as unfit to rule.

Westerling’s first move was to get advice from the military about the politics of organising his own self-defence force. Relations with the Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (Royal Netherlands East Indies Army – KNIL) had been bitter since his resignation but he still had a few friends left in Jakarta. General Simon Hendrik Spoor, the suavely good-looking KNIL Chief of Staff, gave the matter some thought.

I think your present idea is excellent,’ said Spoor. ‘Of course, I can’t do anything officially. My hands are tied. But if you choose to go ahead on your own responsibility … .’

Spoor would die in mysterious circumstances only a month after giving Westerling the go ahead. The Dutchman had his suspicions about who was responsible. He carried on anyway, channelling his money into self-defence groups in villages and plantations near his home. The groups cleared off local bandits. He created more groups and extended his influence.

Like a drop of ink spreading through a sheet of blotting paper,’ he said, ‘the clear zone absorbed more and more of the previously blood-stained map.’

He kept the numbers to himself but select outsiders heard he had an 8,000 strong uniformed militia and 20,000 more bare-foot villager auxiliaries. Westerling paid them in fish and rice.

More territory meant more manpower. Westerling reached out other militia groups hiding in the jungle nursing grudges against Jakarta. There were sit downs with the Muslim militants of Darul Islam, dissident Republicans, renegade Trotskyites, and bandits with a conscience. Somewhere along the line the message changed from self-defence to promising a west Java made safe for federalism and Sharia law.

Sometimes whole gangs joined up. Sometimes all he got was a pledge of mutual support from a gap-toothed guerrilla leader about as trustworthy as a lawyer’s handshake.

Cut-throats and renegades needed strict discipline.

I did not permit my soldiers to abuse their uniform: the penalty for pillaging a kampong or raping a native girl – privileges my ex-terrorists had once allowed themselves as a matter of course – was execution.’

Any internal conflicts over religion, politics, culture, or race were solved by putting those involved into a makeshift boxing ring. The fight continued until one man was pulled out bloody and unconscious.

Book2Westerling got more disciplined recruits by digging into the disillusioned underbelly of the KNIL. Soldiers lapped up his talk about how Sukarno’s men would break their promises on wages and rank. The Republicans already had their own army, called the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Armed Forces – TNI), and were dragging their feet over a merger with the military machine soon to be left behind by the Dutch. Behind the diplomatic smiles it regarded anyone who had fought for the colonial enemy as a traitor.

The Turk’s most enthusiastic KNIL listeners were Ambonese Christians, originally from the Maluku Islands scattered like breadcrumbs in the eastern Indonesian seas. They feared losing their culture to a homogenising republicanism. Westerling volunteered to preserve it. They volunteered to desert when the signal came.

This tough crowd was just a nameless private militia until the day a gang of soldiers brought Westerling the ‘Pralembang Joyoboyo’, a book of predictions by a 12th century Hindu king from eastern Java. Joyoboyo was the Nostradamus of Indonesia. His words could mean anything.

The soldiers were impressed by one particular verse:

When the Serayu River becomes the red river,

The white buffalo will return to his stable.

The Chinese will no longer know what to believe.

Those who remain will be those who agree

With the new state of things.

And then will come the Ratu Adil

Who will be of Turkish birth.”

They pointed out the last line. Westerling was born in Istanbul. He was more interested in the line above. Most Europeans translated Ratu Adil as ‘Heavenly Host‘. The true meaning was closer to ‘Just King‘, a messianic figure who would bring justice and peace. Westerling chose to translate it as ‘Prince Justice‘.

Word about the prophecy spread. Superstitious villagers began to think the Dutchman was Prince Justice himself come to lead them into 10,000 years of prosperity. Old Javanese legends bubbled in a pot of mysticism alongside devout Islam and Ambonese Christianity.

Westerling was smart enough to keep the mysticism quiet and turn up the politics when he talked with the press agency men in Bandung. In a break between questions about federalism he gave them a juicy quote that doubled as a message for Jakarta, Amsterdam, and the world.

I cannot hold my men from action much longer,’ said Westerling.

The Map and the Territory

Indonesia may have been 13,000 islands but only four had political weight to throw around: Sumatra and Java curving from west to south like the blade of a scimitar; Borneo, a lump of land hanging over them to the north; and the Celebes like a dying starfish off Borneo’s east coast.

a-l-est-de-sumatra-affiche_219327_49209The Dutch had been battling nationalist rebels over the islands since the end of the Second World War. It should have been easy. An archipelago home to more than 360 ethnic groups speaking 700 languages found it hard to unite against a common enemy. But Sukarno’s republicans did a good enough job that from 1945 large chunks of Java and Sumatra were effectively independent.

In response Amsterdam brought together a collection of sultans, rajas, minority Christians, and underappreciated ethnic groups. All had their reasons for opposing the republicans. At the Malino conference, held in the Celebes through the summer of 1946, the Dutch split the territory they still controlled into patchwork quilt of federal states, hoping this placebo independence would be strong enough to contain Sukarno. It was not.

The federation wobbled on until Indonesia got self-rule in December 1949 and the territories were absorbed, still semi-autonomous, into the newly formed Republik Indonesia Serikat (United States of Indonesia, USI). Sukarno, the USI president, soon made it clear he regarded the federalists as Dutch puppets and would do anything necessary to get rid of them. His position had wide support. Many Indonesians had never much liked the way their sultans took the side of Amsterdam. But a significant chunk of the archipelago’s population disagreed. They saw the federal states as a useful shield against Jakarta’s power and were in no hurry to give them up.

The federal state in the frontline was Pasundan, a relatively new creation covering most of west Java. The Dutch had drawn its borders only a few miles from Jakarta itself and put in a local government that Sukarno’s men labelled traitors.

Westerling was well-known in Pasundan’s capital of Bandung. During the foundation of APRA he held talks with important figures in the federal government about what do when the republicans took power. Pasundan’s politicians were more interested in diplomacy. They gave him some honeyed words but no firm promises.

Things were different when January 1950 rolled around. The Pasundan government publically condemned Westerling’s ultimatum but lined up to shake his hand behind closed doors. Jakarta’s plan to erase federalism was starting to bite and the men in Bandung were worried.  In mid-January Westerling was invited to a secret cabinet meeting. He sat to the right of President Wiranatakusuma and across from Premier Anwar Tchokro Aminoto. The Dutchman laid out his plan to neuter Sukarno.

In the days after the meeting Westerling seemed even more confident than usual. His anti-Jakarta rhetoric ramped up. He told anyone who would listen that Sukarno’s government was forcing him to take the initiative or look weak. Jakarta responded by telling the press it did not like being pushed around by a Dutch renegade with blood on his hands. A bitter newspaper campaign made sure everyone on Java knew the dangers of taking sides with the man who had killed so many nationalists in the Celebes four years ago. Then the government issued an arrest warrant.

If Westerling attacks us,’ said Prime Minister Hatta, ‘we will defend ourselves.’

By the back half of January 1950, Turk Westerling was the most wanted man in Indonesia. The two press agency men commented on the lack of security around his Bandung bungalow. The Dutchman smiled.

I am not afraid of the Indonesian Army. The police are my friends and the people of West Java know I am their friend.’

He was not lying. Only a few days ago he had driven into the heart of Bandung and asked the police chief to arrest him.

The Politics of Force

When the revolver hit the floor Westerling and the Indonesian officer in charge of the roadblock both froze. The officer still had Westerling’s identity card in his hand and a look of disbelief on his face.

West3There were photographs of the Dutchman in every police station in Java. Arrest this man on sight. And here he was, alone in a jeep, casually driving into Jakarta.

The officer at the roadblock had barely got over the shock of recognising Westerling when the Dutchman’s sleeve caught the revolver in his pocket and dumped it on the ground. The two men looked at each other. Then the Indonesian gave back the identity card, saluted, gestured to his men to clear the road, and picked up the revolver.

Go ahead, Captain,’ he said and handed over the gun.

Westerling drove off. It was proof that no-one in Java really wanted to put the cuffs on him. They knew the APRA would go on the rampage if its beloved leader disappeared. No-one from the roadblock officer all the way up to Sukarno himself wanted to risk that.

The Dutchman took advantage. Westerling visited Jakarta three times in mid-January, meeting contacts, plotting, and indulging in the occasional bit of bullying theatre.

After the roadblock incident he drove his jeep to the military police headquarters and threw his gun on the Police Chief’s desk.

I hear you want to arrest me.’

The Police Chief came to attention.

Not at all, Captain, not at all!’

A wanted poster of Westerling was stuck to the wall behind him.

A mistake, Captain. Just a mistake. No-one wants to arrest you.’

As you please.’

Good luck, Captain,’ the Police Chief said as Westerling left. Then he collapsed in a chair.

One Minute to Midnight

Back in the bungalow, Westerling lit another cigarette. The interview was winding up. He talked a final bit of geopolitics with the journalists. The Indonesians were preparing to invade Dutch New Guinea, he told them, and did not care about Australia’s response. It was a nice bit of reputation smearing, all the better for being nearly true.

West2As the agency boys gathered up notebooks and pens, squashed out cigarettes, shook hands, Westerling told them not to believe Jakarta’s claims. He had no intention of launching a coup.

He was lying. The coup was planned for tomorrow. All those trips to Jakarta, the plotting, the straight-faced denials to journalists were all leading to one thing: the attempted take-over of the United States of Indonesia.

Westerling let insiders know his motives for the move:

I knew, as I have already explained, that the Republicans preferred that it should be I who took the first overt action. But I had to oblige them. There was no other possible strategy. The only alternative was to do nothing, and that meant letting the anti-Federalists win by default.’

APRA men were already moving in on a weapons cache they intended to steal from the KNIL armoury. Other APRA men pasted up leaflets on Jakarta walls: ‘The APRA is coming to liberate you!‘. A Dutchman called Julius van der Meulen Nebert, a former police commissioner, had deserted his post managing guards at an estate to organise an attack force on Bandung. Over 200 Indonesians in the KNIL had applied for twenty-four hour leave, starting tonight.

Politicians were also on the march. Premier Aminoto and another minister from the Pasundan government were on their way to Jakarta. Ostensibly they wanted to talk about federalism. Only Westerling had been told Aminoto had another mission.

The press agency boys knew none of this as they left the bungalow and drove back into Bandung to file their scoop interview. They just needed more background before they hit the teletype machine. They asked around. Who was this Dutch soldier of fortune? Where had he come from?

That road started in the heart of the old Ottoman Caliphate with stops everywhere from Egypt to Nazi-occupied Holland. Along the way it picked up lessons in dirty tricks and ungentlemanly warfare when some polite British men taught Westerling how to win a war by any means necessary.

The Dutchman had lived an adventurous life. It was a miracle he made it to Indonesia in one piece.

The coup would fail, of course.

This all came from a book I was planning to write on Raymond ‘Turk’ Westerling a few years ago. It didn’t work out and I wrote Lost Lions of Judah instead. The publishing world’s loss is your gain. Find out more about the Dutch adventurer in The Turk Westerling Affair and Jihad Guerrillas in the Dutch East Indies

If you want to show some love for this blog then feel free to buy my books in paperback, hardback, or ebook:

Soldiers of a Different God: How the Counter-Jihad Created Mayhem, Murder, and the Trump Presidency [or]


Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or]


Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or]


Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or]

3 thoughts on “Countdown to an Indonesian Coup

  1. Pingback: Jihad Guerrillas In The Dutch East Indies | Christopher Othen

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