The East Sumatra revolution, also known as the East Sumatra Social Revolution, began on 3 March 1946. Across 25 "native states", many sultanates were overthrown and mass killing of members of the aristocratic families were performed by armed pergerakan groups (Indonesian nationalists). To the opportunistic pergerakan militants (especially Communist Party of Indonesia members Karim Marah Sutan and Luat Siregar), the revolutionary movement was seen as one of the means for East Sumatra to be freed from colonial overlordship and to join the larger Indonesian National Revolution. Participants of the revolution were believed to be provoked by leaders to kill aristocrats and create violence. These belligerents had three prime objectives: to eliminate the sultans and aristocrats (who were seen as Dutch allies), to seize their wealth (as sources of funding for the Indonesian independence campaign) and to eliminate the region's feudal social structure. The revolution brought about the formation of the State of East Sumatra), which was dissolved when the region became part of the Indonesian republic.
On 3 March 1946, thousands of armed men assembled to oppose the big sultanates after hearing the rumours that the Dutch were returning. Violence and bloodshed was involved, where seven princes, ninety aristocrats (in Langkat) and countless officials from native states were killed. The Sultan of Langkat's daughters were raped and poet Tengku Amir Hamzah was killed on 9 March by the Pemuda (young Japanese-trained militant) leaders and many Malay farmers were forced to give up their plantation land that they had acquired under the Dutch to be redistributed for those former plantation workers and non-Malay farmers. The militants under the leadership of PESINDO (Pemuda Republik Indonesia), the Indonesian Communist Party, and the Indonesian National Party attacked almost all of the Malay aristocrats. The wives and children of the aristocrat families were interned and their houses were ransacked for treasure by the pemuda. The sympathy that Malay aristocrats had for the Dutch and the threats that they represented to the independence of Indonesia were commonly seen as the two main reasons for the occurrence of this violent event.
There were three main objectives associated with the revolution that involved different groups of people: firstly, to seize Malay aristocrats and their principal supporters so as to thwart their plans for the return of the Dutch; secondly, gain control of kerajaan the Malay sultanates' wealth in order to sustain the expenses for the national struggle and thirdly, to exercise political and societal changes in accordance to the Marxist intellectuals who were involved in the event.
The 1946 East Sumatra social revolution was an outcome of class, ideological and ethnic tensions that had accumulated over several decades. Since the Dutch colonial period, the region's demographics, socio-political structure and economic system had undergone great changes. Many locals, especially those of the low and middle classed, who were consistently suppressed under the hierarchy system, became highly dissatisfied with the kerajaan hierarchy and the Dutch. The national revolution also reflected a great diversity of interests from almost all sections of Sumatran society and several complex issues behind the fight for independence in East Sumatra.
By 1942, the Dutch, who were accountable to the Netherlands East Indies government in Batavia, were holding on to majority of the administrative power in the region. A feudal government was formed over the four primary sultanates in the region (Langkat, Serdang, Deli and Asahan) and kerajaan before (and after) the arrival of the Dutch, Under Dutch rule, the kingdoms and principalities were absorbed into a centralised political structure and these indigenous elites were included in the administration (which they shared with the Dutch ) of the region. Consequently, both the Dutch and Malay aristocrats were able to use their political power to launch policies that suppressed the rights of the commoners. Opposition to the Dutch repression and Malay aristocracy then began to arise among ordinary people.
Apart from political causes, labour policies were also implemented to sustain the economy of the region. Large numbers of foreign labourers were brought in from China and Java to meet the strong demand for labour in East Sumatra's plantation economy (which made up 64 percent of economic production). "In the case of the plantation economy in this region, this foreign labour was predominantly from the relatively overcrowded island of Java: by the 1930s, 43 percent of the population was 'Javanese'." In addition to the Chinese and Javanese (who numbered about 192,000 and 590,000, respectively during the 1930s), the economy also attracted migrants from other parts of the Dutch East Indies. As a result, the percentages of the three main indigenous communities: the Malays, Karo Bataks and Simalungun Bataks in the region were significantly reduced. The changes in social structure prompted anxiety among the people of East Sumatra.
The change in the socio-economic landscape also resulted in stark class differences within East Sumatran society. In the 1930s, many farmers of the tobacco area (Deli-Serdang-Langkat) were told to cultivate smaller areas while the Malay sultans, Simalungun and Karo rajas benefited from preferential treatment by the Dutch in terms of land leasing. Those aristocrats were able to accumulate significant wealth by "leas[ing] wide tracts of land, the disposal rights over which frequently had lain traditionally with the village, to foreign companies..." and seizing most of the profits. Eventually, most of the rural masses went to seek help from local political parties such as GERINDO (Gerakan Rakyat Indonesia) and the Great Indonesia Party (Partai Indonesia Raya) so as to make their grievances heard. The feelings of dissatisfaction that rural farmers had against the aristocrats then became a form of support for these political parties.
There were a few groups of leaders that were involved in the revolution and all of them may be distinguished by differences in class, social mobility, nationalist seniority and ideology.
Firstly, educated Indonesians who were sympathetic to the ideology of nationalism were involved in the revolution. Most of them received tertiary education and have adopted Western values and practices in their daily life. The connections with the traditional aristocratic families did not manage to stop these people from having strong beliefs in nationalism. Ultimately, they recognized that the presence of kerajaan might be one of the hindrances for East Sumatran society to achieve full liberalization. Members of this particular group were local governors and regional deputy governors such as Teuku Muhammad Hasan and Mohammad Amir.
Besides, there was also another group of leaders who shared a similar ideology of nationalism. Unlike those mentioned earlier, this group of leaders were actively involved with nationalist movements before the Pacific War. Most of them used to collaborate with the Japanese occupiers as administrative personnel and they were motivated to join this revolution so as to promote the political ideology of nationalism as well as to continue their leadership during the post-war period.
Secondly, locals who rose to prominence after undergoing military training in Japanese military organisations during the period of Japanese occupation were also responsible for the revolution. These "people's volunteer armies" were equipped with rich military experiences and that has imbued them with a deeper commitment to radical nationalism. Eventually, some of them became militia leaders in the earlier phase of the social revolution. Many scholars including Anthony Reid and Mohammad Said have highlighted the importance of these people in initiating and executing the 1946 social revolution in East Sumatra.
Thirdly, Muslim reformist forces were involved in Islamic movements to resist against the kerajaan and Malay aristocrats. Supporters of the Islamic movements had faced oppression by the sultans who claimed that they were advocating an Islam that was different from the Malay orientation. In order to protect their own religious interests, these anti-kerajaan activists came together to fight against the Malay elites.
The influx of Chinese, Javanese and other ethnic immigrants into the region during the 1930s spawned several official associations that were connected to royalty to identify specific indigenous elements to form the cultural core of East Sumatran society. Even though the Karo people, Malays, and Simalungun people were all recognised as indigenous communities in the region, the royalty and associations chose to emphasize more on preserving the Malay cultural identity. Special privileges were granted to the Malays (such as accessing to plantation land) by the Dutch and the social status of the Malays appeared to be much higher than the other indigenous communities in East Sumatra. As a result, members of the other two indigenous communities as well as the other locals felt this was unfair and that resulted in unwanted ethnic tensions. An increasing number of locals began to disagree with the Dutch and the Malay aristocrats due to the bias that these elites had towards the Malays.
Another division between the Malays and the two groups was religion, whereby the Malays were mostly Muslims and majority of the Karo people (Indonesia) and Simalungun were Christians or animists. Despite being the third-largest group in the 1930s, the Javanese, in particular the Abangan, were perceived by the Malays to have a lower social status and their practice of Islam was seen to be nominal. The Malays were usually regarded as the traditional protectors of Islam by the authorities and the other Muslim reformist forces who advocated an Islam different from the Malay orientation were seen as threats to the authority of the sultans. The former was known as the Kaum Tua (old group) and the latter as the Kaum Muda (young group, reformist) who "...sought to free the Islamic communities from superstitious beliefs.".
There were two major modernist Islamic movements launched by the Kaum Muda: firstly, the Muhammadiyah movement that involved conflicts over religious texts and teachings and secondly, the Jamiatul Wasliyah organization which shared common interests with Muhammadiah. Even though the Kuam Muda presented themselves as "non-political" Islamic leaders, the kerajaan still regarded those organizations with hostility and decided to support the Kuam Tua instead. Hence, the Malays were said to claim dominance in both political and cultural spheres, which led to resentment of the Malay aristocratic class and Malays in general.
During the late 1930s, the national movements led by the pergerakan were developing rapidly among urban and educated sections of the Indonesian community. One example was the East Sumatra Association, which was created in 1938 by Dutch-educated Malays and was later led by Dr Tengku Mansur (who was connected to the Asahan royal family). The political association aimed to improve the social status of East Sumatran natives, including Simalungun people and Karo people (Indonesia). The national movement then slowly reached out to small farmers of the tobacco-growing area, which eventually provided the rudiments of an important rural base for the two nationalist parties, GERINDO and PARINDRA in East Sumatra. Besides raising voices that disagreed with the Dutch repression and Malay aristocracy, the two parties also played important roles in initiating and mobilizing resources to support the 1946 East Sumatra social revolution. Moderate members of PARINDRA even took the initiative to form a Comité Indonesia in an attempt to present a united pergerakan front to the Japanese. They were motivated to launch a new Indonesian-controlled administration with the support from the Japanese. However, the garnering of support from the Japanese did not work out well because the priority of the Japanese was to obtain the oil and plantation produce from East Sumatra rather than making any significant political changes to the existing government structures. Furthermore, the policies adopted by the Japanese were seen as a continuance of Dutch support for the kerajaan that caused nationalists to hold stronger negative feelings towards the Sultans and Malay aristocrats.
During the occupation, the Japanese implemented policies that were perceived as a continuance of Dutch support for the kerajaan. Under the policies, the kerajaan were able to gain access to various incomes, titles, and religious authority that they used to have in the 1930s.The regaining of Malay aristocrats' power during the Japanese Occupation resulted in suppression of the peasant community in East Sumatra. Many Japanese officials managed to exploit food and labour supplies from the peasantry through the kerajaan hierarchy and that had increased the amount of economic pressure faced by the farming population of East Sumatra. Consequently, the credibility of those traditional, nationalists and religious leaders, who were assigned by the Japanese, was severely damaged. A new leadership was then formed by a group of pemuda (youth) who had received their formative education under the Japanese military groups (Giy?gun, Heiho and Tokkeitai). The military training guided by Japanese ethics and values fanned their nationalism and motivated them to defend their lands. These Japanese-trained pemuda then took on active roles in fighting against the Dutch and Malay sultans during the 1946 East Sumatra Social Revolution.
After the Japanese surrendered, the independence of Indonesia was declared in Jakarta and Sukarno was chosen as the president of a new republic. Sumatra was then declared to be a province of the new republic and Medan was chosen as its capital. Despite this, many leaders were worried about the possibility of the Dutch returning and of the Malay aristocrats regaining their former power. Many of the Japanese-trained pemuda were then recruited into informal organizations such as Badan Oentoek Membantor Pertahanan Asia (Body for Assisting the Defence of Asia / BOMPA) and Persatuan Pemuda Latihan (Trained Youth Association) to defend the Republic under the arrangement of Xarim M.S - the executor for former BOMPA property.
Before the landings of the Allied (British) forces, these young pemuda were actively propagating information about the republic. They persuaded the senior Indonesian officials to resist the Japanese, the Dutch and Malay aristocrats. Therefore, these pemuda were seen as"very nationalistic, eager to resist the return of the Dutch, and unsympathetic to the various kerajaan."
The landings of Allied forces (the British) and the actions of the Dutch, caused some of the pemuda to panic. On 13 October 1945, the pemuda decided to react strongly by resorting to violence towards the Allied forces. During the fighting, two Indonesians and one Ambonese woman were killed. The tide of pemuda violence then spread from Medan to Pematang Siantar within two days and many including the Dutch, Ambonese, pemuda and Swiss people were killed as a result. On 18 October 1945, the control of Medan became the responsibility of the British, immediately after official orders were issued by Republican leaders for pemuda to surrender their weapons to the British troops.Nonetheless, the pemuda of East Sumatra managed to acquire some weapons that were left over by Japanese soldiers after the surrender and used them to confront the British in the south of Medan on 10 December 1945. A strong sense of contingency was said to be present in the British policy as the political circumstances in Indonesia forced them to make decisions that were seemingly neither pro-Dutch nor pro-Indonesian. Tensions between the Dutch and British modes of operation as well as the strong resistance from Indonesian nationalists resulted in low British morale throughout the post-war British occupation.
Armed clashes with the British, Dutch, and Japanese remained at a low level for the next two months until rumours that the Dutch were about to attempt a landing started spreading among the locals. On 3 March 1946, thousands of armed pemuda surrounded the palace in Tanjung Balai in response to the wide dissemination of reports that claimed that the kerajaan had formed a Comité van Ontvangst (reception committee) to welcome the Dutch. The outbreak of violence between the kerajaan and the armed pemuda hence marked the start of the 1946 East Sumatra Social Revolution.
The revolutionaries, including the armed pemuda, were able to fight the Dutch return with a common unifying goal in 1945, but there were insufficient resources to last through a longer period than 1947. The Dutch return during the second half of 1947 had to rely on the support from Malay aristocrats, especially when it was facing tougher guerrilla opposition after the ceasefire. In addition to Malay support for the reinstatement of Dutch rule, representatives of other groups expressed similar concerns (some Toba leaders and the Chinese community, in particular; these groups had benefited economically from Dutch rule). The Chinese community, who were economically advantaged, were also targeted by the pemuda and their property was seized. In this uncertain milieu, the Chinese community saw the British and Dutch colonial forces as protectors.
The East Sumatra Union (Persatuan Sumatera Timur) had been formed in 1938 by the westernized Malay elites to reassert Malay and Simalungun ethnic interests through support from the Dutch. With the support of these Malays, the Dutch attempted to establish a federal Indonesia consisting of a Dutch-supported State of East Sumara (Indonesian: Negara Sumatera Timur (NST)). The threat felt by the Chinese also motivated them to co-operate with the Malay aristocrats, most of the Simalungun rajas, some Karo chieftains and the Dutch in creating the NST. Dr Tengku Mansur (a member of the Asahan royal family) was selected as head of state and the NST lasted from December 1947 to August 1950. While the Dutch wanted the NST to be seen as an orderly and progressive alternative to the republic, the western-educated aristocrats saw NST as a bastion for their own ethnic interests. The NST began to disintegrate as soon as Dutch military support was withdrawn. The short-lived state was viewed with suspicion, and Dr Tengku Mansur eventually surrendered authority to the republic in August 1950. Consequently, East Sumatra was merged into a larger province of North Sumatra, where it has remained till today.