Indonesian History: World War II--Famine (1943-48)

Figure 1.--Here in Jakarta on Java, at the time Batavia, we see sarving people. The photograph was taken August 21, 947. The caption blames the independence struggle for the famine, but in fact it was comntinuing impact of the Japanese World war II occupation. The caption read, "Waiting for the death wagon: The war between the Indonesian Republic and the Netherlands Government has placed a burden od starvation and privation on a great section of the populace. In the heart of Tanjong Priok, the Dutch naval base about 5 miles from Batavia, a death wagon makes daily stopsto pick up the bodies of those who through illness or starvation have died overnight. These women, bandages, ragged with bones showing through their bodies, are awaiting such a wagon. Under the hatin the background is the body of a child. What seems like grim laughter here is hysteria on the face of the ill-fated woman. This picture was made by Donald Smith, a U.S. radio operator."

One of the poorest reported attrocity of World War II was the famine in the Japanese controlled Dutch East Indies. The fatalities appear to be a combination of Japanese mismanagement, seizure of food stocks, and lack of concern about the consequences for the local population. Food production and consumption appears to hve been adwquate in the DEI before the Japanese invasion. We know of no overall study for what occurred in the DEI, but sone unformation is available on the main islands (Jva and Sumatra). The availavility of food on Java fell sharply within a year of the arrival of the Japanese. The situation appears to have been especially severe in deensly populsted Java. The primary cause of food shortages were Japanese efforts to regulate the domestic trade of food products, including price controls. The Japanese also imposed a coercive system of purchasing rice for distribution. The impact was a disincentive for farmers to produce rice and other foods. The result was a horific famine. We see estimates during the Japanese occupation from 2.4-4.0 million deaths. [Van der Eng, pp. 35-38 and Dower, pp. 29596.] No one really knows the precise numbers. The DEI famine is not well covered because the Nationalist collborated with the Japanese and thus bear somne degree of reponsibility for the famine. As a result Indonesian historians find it more convenient simply write the tragedy out of history. Indonesia for much of its history had a coinytrooled press, but even since the the rise of democracy, we see no appetite for addressing this tragedy. Food shortahes persisted after the War, although not as severe as during the Japanese era. We are not sure just why. America food aid prevented famine in many countries after the war. We do not at this time know if American food aid reached Indonesia. The major oroblem appears to be the fighting which broke out between the Dutch and Nationalists. This appears to have adversely affected shipments of food between the food producung rural areas into the food deficient cities. The food supply recovered with the end of the fighting (1948-1950). [Van der Eng]


Dower, John W. Dower War Without Mercy (1986).

Van der Eng, Pierre. 'Food Supply in Java during War and Decolonisation, 1940-50' MPRA Paper No. 8852 (2008).


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Created: 3:07 PM 10/14/2015
Last updated: 3:07 PM 10/14/2015