How Many National Heroes Do We Need?

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By: Asvi Warman Adam

Indonesia today has 156 national heroes. From 1959, when the first hero was declared, up to the end of Soeharto’s regime in May 1998, a total of 104 heroes had officially been named. But only within the last 13 years, the country has awarded national hero status to 52 individuals.

The question now is how many national heroes does Indonesia actually need?

Female figures account for less than 10 percent of the above total (12). Three married couples join the list (Muhammadiyah founder Ahmad Dahlan and his wife Nyi Ahmad Dahlan; Acehnese freedom fighters Teuku Umar and Cut Nyak Dhien; and Sukarno and the country’s original first lady Fatmawati) along with a father and son pair (founder of Nahdlatul Ulama, Hasyim Ashari and Wahid Hasyim).

The title of “national hero” cannot be withdrawn. In 1963, Tan Malaka, an anti-colonialist freedom fighter was declared a national hero, and a communist figure, Alimin, made it into the list the following year. But after Soeharto came to power in 1968, these two leftists were given no place in the country’s history that was taught in schools, despite their hero status.

The idea behind the national hero award is to evoke a spirit of nationalism. The tales of their struggles are told in schools or via the mass media, particularly on television on numerous occasions. But by my count, only 10 percent of these figures are popular among the general public.

Nomination requirements and criteria for national heroes have been set forth in a number of regulations, including a 1957 presidential decree, a 1964 law and, most recently, a regulation enforced in 2009.

The latest law on national heroes says that a national hero is “a citizen of Indonesia or a person who fought against colonial forces in regions now within the territories of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia who were killed or died defending their people and country, or who, during the course of their life, carried out an act of heroism or made a great achievement and produced outstanding work that were key to the development and progress of the people and the country of Indonesia”.

National heroes come from both the military and the general public. During the New Order era, the military dominated the country’s political life and the writing of Indonesia’s official history.

The suppression of insurrections in several parts of Indonesia by the armed forces was reported in detail. This is the reason why the military rejected the nomination of leaders involved in insurgencies, such as the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI) rebellion and Permesta (Perjuangan Semesta), for national hero status.

A candidate for “hero” is usually nominated by regional governments (municipal or regency level), which then submit the name to the provincial government and later to the Social Affairs Ministry. Following a selection phase at the ministry, the name is taken to the Board of Title, Order of Merit and Decoration that has a membership of seven, for examination before final approval is given by the President.

Thailand has far fewer heroes than Indonesia, and most of them have been military leaders and monarchs. Since the country was never directly colonized, their national heroes are individuals who fought, for instance, against Burma. Their selection procedure is not as complicated as Indonesia’s, according to Thai historian, Charnvit Kasetsiri.

In France, “national heroes” are comparable to figures who were (re-)buried at the Panthéon in Paris. The total number of “residents” in the Panthéon is no more than 80 and includes scientists and Nobel laureates Pierre Curie and Marie Curie, and writers Voltaire, Rousseau, Émile Zola and Victor Hugo. The body of Alexandre Dumas was only moved there in 2002, 132 years after his death.

The latest internment, in 2009, was Albert Camus, whose books have been translated into Indonesian. Those buried here are “Great People” and recognized by their country.

The next question would be: when would be the right time for an individual to be declared a national hero, and how long would the nomination process take? Sukarno became a national hero in 1986, or 16 years after his death.

It is said that the nomination of Bung Tomo, a prominent figure in the Battle of Surabaya on Nov. 10, 1945, was rejected twice during the New Order regime. Chinese Indonesians had to wait 50 years before their candidate, John Lie, was declared a hero in 2009.

There is, however, no national hero of Arab descent on the list. We have authors and songwriters listed but no figures from the local world of sports.

The nominations of some candidates took a long time, while the nominations for others were speedy, such as the cases of Soeharto’s wife Siti Hartinah and Gen. Basuki Rachmat, who delivered Supersemar (the Letter of March 11), which marked the transfer of power from Sukarno to Soeharto in 1966.

Islamic figures Mohammad Natsir and Sjafruddin Prawiranegara were proposed more than once. Natsir’s nomination was approved in 2009, but Sjafruddin’s hero title only came last month. The two were involved in the PRRI.

Two points can be made here. First, history is now a subject of negotiation as well as a victim of government intervention, as evident during the New Order regime. Second, the military is no longer involved in political decision-making.

The successful efforts to make Natsir (2009) and Sjafruddin (2011) national heroes introduced “new blood” in preparation for the upcoming election for Islamic parties, which recently lost a great deal of votes.

Less intense moves were also driven by a Catholic figure, Harry Tjan Silalahi, who initiated the nomination of Ignatius Joseph Kasimo as a national hero. Kasimo also made it to the national hero list this year.

There are two conclusions that can be drawn from this discussion.

First, it is difficult to limit the number of national heroes as it depends on how people value the fighting spirit of candidates.

Only a small number of national heroes are widely and publicly known. But as regional autonomy takes root, the spirit to nominate national heroes from various regions seems set to mount.

What is the “quota” for a province? Of the 33 provinces in Indonesia, some have more than 10 heroes while some have none.

Second, it is also important to note when a figure can be nominated. Former presidents Soeharto and Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid have been nominated for years, but many groups resist their candidacy.

Soeharto is deemed ineligible for the status due to his alleged involvement in corruption and serious violations of human rights. But if Gus Dur were to be named a hero, pressure would mount for equal treatment for Soeharto.

This kind of problem may be addressed if there were a law or government regulation stating that a figure can only be nominated a national hero at least 10 or 15 years after his or her demise.

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Notice: This article was quoted in the online newspaper The Jakarta Post on December 15, 2011. This article is able to be reached at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: December 16, 2011].

Dr. Asvi Warman Adam is a Historian at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta. The article is an abridged version of a paper presented at the seminar “History as Controversy: Writing and Teaching Contentious Topics in Asian Countries”, in Singapore on Dec. 14-15, 2011.

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