In my experience, nationalism is frequently misunderstood. For that reason, I will begin my remarks by discussing briefly two common kinds of misunderstanding, using Indonesia as an example of a phenomenon almost universal in this century which is now crawling to its end.footnote The first is that nationalism is something very old and is inherited from, of course, ‘absolutely splendid ancestors’. Thus it is something that arises ‘naturally’ in the blood and flesh of each of us. In fact, nationalism is something rather new, and today is little more than two centuries old. The first Declaration of Independence, proclaimed in Philadelphia in 1776, said not a word about ‘ancestors’, indeed made no mention of Americans. Sukarno’s and Hatta’s Declaration of Independence on 17 August 1945, was essentially similar. By contrast, the mania for seeking ‘absolutely splendid ancestors’ typically gives rise to nonsense, and often very dangerous nonsense.

A nice local example is Prince Diponegoro (c. 1787–1855), who, in the 1950s, was anointed as number one National Hero, as if the Prince had led a movement for Indonesia’s national independence from the clutches of Dutch colonialism. But, if one looks at what the Prince himself said in his memoirs, his actual words about his political goal were that he intended to ‘subjugate’—yes, ‘subjugate’—Java. The concept ‘Indonesia’ was wholly foreign to him—as was the idea of ‘freedom’. Indeed, we all know that this strange Greco-Roman neologism is very new: it started to become well-known only about eighty years ago. The very first organization to use the word in its name was the Communist Party of Indonesia—in 1920 (when my mother was already a girl of fifteen).

The second misunderstanding is that ‘nation’ and ‘state’ are, if not exactly identical, at least like a happy husband and wife in their relationship. But the historical reality is often just the opposite. Perhaps 85 per cent of nationalist movements started life as anti-state movements aimed against either colonial or absolutist dynastic states. Nation and state ‘got married’ very late on, and the marriage was far from always happy. The general rule is that the state—or what, in my circle of friends, we often call the Ogre—is much older than the nation.

Indonesia, once again, affords a fine example. The genealogy of the state in Indonesia goes back to early seventeenth-century Batavia. Its continuity is quite apparent, even though the stretch of its territory increased vastly over time. The present stretch of Indonesia is—with the exception of East Timor—exactly that of the Netherlands East Indies when it completed its final conquests of Aceh, Southern Bali and Irian at the beginning of this century. Furthermore, we should always bear in mind that, in its last days, during the 1930s, 90 per cent—I repeat, 90 per cent—of its officials were ‘natives.’ There were, of course, some changes—extrusions and additions—during the Revolution, but, for the greater part, the personnel of the young republican state was continuous with that of the colonial state. The first post-1950 parliament was also full of former collaborators with colonialism, and the new republican army also included plenty of soldiers and officers who had fought against the Republic during the Revolution.footnote1

As far as the national territory is concerned, there is an irony that General Sayidiman was among the first to point out. Because the Suharto régime made the 1945 Constitution into something sacred—though, in fact, it was drawn up in great haste in August 1945 in a confused emergency situation—its detailed specification of the new nation’s borders could not be changed (for fear this would undermine its sacral character). This meant that the annexation of East Timor, which lies outside those specified borders, was, from the start, absolutely unconstitutional. Luckily for him, Sayidiman was a general, so not in much danger for saying such a thing.

In a word: what I have just said is meant merely as a kind of warning. Beware of people who make an a sacred idol of the State, and beware of those who talk a lot about ‘our splendid ancestors’. Your pocket is about to be picked.

What, then, really is nationalism? If one studies its brief global history, one can say that it is not something inherited from the ancient past, but is rather a ‘common project’ for the present and the future. And this project demands self-sacrifice, not the sacrificing of others. This is why it never occurred to the founders of the independence movement that they had the right to kill other Indonesians; rather they felt obliged to have the courage to be jailed, to be beaten up, and to be exiled for the sake of the future happiness and freedom of their fellows.