The Blood of the People: Revolution and the End of Traditional Rule in Northern Sumatra portrays the events as an internal Indonesian affair though it does not chronologically confine itself to the 1945-50 period, it deals extensively with developments during the 1930s and the Japanese occupation. The author also explores the circumstances of Sumatra’s sharp break with the past during what has been labelled its “social revolution”.
In northern Sumatra, as in Malaya, colonial rule embraced an extravagant array of sultans, rajas, datuks and Ulèëbalang. In Malaya, the traditional Malay elite served as a barrier to revolutionary change and survived the transition to independence, but in Sumatra, a wave of violence and killing wiped out the traditional elite in 1945‒46. The events in northern Sumatra were among the most dramatic episodes of Indonesia’s national revolution, and brought about more profound changes even than in Java, from where the revolution is normally viewed.
Some ethnic groups saw the revolution as a popular, peasant-supported movement that liberated them from foreign rule. Others, though, felt victimised by a radical, levelling agenda imposed by outsiders. Java, with a relatively homogeneous population, passed through the revolution without significant social change. The ethnic complexity of Sumatra, in contrast, meant that the revolution demanded an altogether new “Indonesian” identity to override the competing ethnic categories of the past.
Whoever wished to know more than just such skeleton-information was obliged to wait until the publication of Reid’s new book. The Blood of the People fully satisfies our curiosity with regard to both the factual account of the events and the social and political background. The first part of the book (chapters II-V) is devoted to a description and analysis of the political process and the struggle for power and influence among various social groups in the territories under Dutch colonial rule and during the years of the Japanese occupation.
The second part (chapters VI-VIII) deals with the highly complicated and confusing situation in the months immediately after Japan’s surrender and the proclamation of the Republic: the weakness of the central government and its representatives in Sumatra, the role of the Japanese and the British, the numerous rumours circulating as to the contacts between members of the traditional ruling groups and the Dutch, the many organizations that emerged and took part in the power struggle in which various social groups, ethnic communities, religious and political leaders and quite a few armed bands were involved or, in the case of individuals, allowed themselves to get involved—all this leading up finally to the destruction of the traditional Ulèëbalang-class in Aceh and the “social revolution” in East Sumatra in the initial months of 1946.