Home » Columns

The Tanah Merah exiles in Australia

7 November 2009 8,567 views 2 Comments

IN Brisbane’s southern suburbs, among decidedly Anglo-Australian suburb names,  such as Loganholme and Meadowbrook, the name Tanah Merah stands out.

Few of its residents know that their suburb’s name means “red earth in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of our most populous neighbour, and was named after a notorious prison camp in Dutch West New Guinea.

Given our current, closer, relationship with the Republic of Indonesia, it is timely to reflect on the contribution to Australian and Indonesian history made by the 500 internees and their families from Tanah Merah who were interned in different camps around Australia, including one at Wacol, several kilometres from the current suburb of Tanah Merah, some from 1943 to 1947.

The prison camp Tanah Merah was a disease-ridden hellhole known as “the Dutch Siberia deep in the jungle north of Merauke in the then Dutch New Guinea. It had been started in the 1920s to house political prisoners. The Dutch evacuated in 1941 as the Japanese advanced, leaving the prisoners completely isolated for two years. At the end of this time its population, including women and children, totalled more than 500.

In 1943 Charles Van der Plas, the Chief Commissioner of the Netherlands East Indies government- in-exile in Melbourne, fearing the occupants of Tanah Merah could become a fifth column assisting the Japanese, decided to evacuate them to Australia. The Australian government was reluctant, so Van der Plas went over their heads to the American South-West Pacific Commander-in-Chief, General Douglas MacArthur, who gave his consent.

The internees, men, women and children, were taken to the Horn Island quarantine station in Torres Strait, some by boat and others in eleven flights in a flying boat from May 27 to June 2, 1943. However, weight restrictions on the aircraft only allowed them minimal luggage–which was destined to have grave health consequences later on. From Torres Strait they came, by boat and train, to their primary destination–Cowra, in the central west of New South Wales. At Liverpool railway station one managed to slip a note detailing their plight to a railwayman, who passed it on to his union, which, in concert with others, promptly began lobbying the Curtin federal Labor government for their release. On arrival at Cowra on June 17 the internees were marched for an hour before reaching the camp, which already housed Japanese and other internees.

The Official Visitor appointed by the New South Wales government to the camp concluded that, “the winter weather at Cowra is much too cold for the Indonesians and the fact that they are interned in such a climate is in some cases responsible for their deaths. At one time 130 of the internees were hospitalised. Fifteen died.

During their stay at Cowra there was a rising tide of pressure from trade unions and civil libertarians to release them. This happened belatedly in December 1943 and April 1944 when they were dispersed to various locations: those with women and children to Mackay; to Dutch-run hostels in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne; to the Dutch Hospital at Turramurra, Sydney; while most of the rest were sent to work in the 36th Australian Employment Company based at Wallangarra on the New South Wales,Queensland border, or to the Casino camp in north-east New South Wales. Recently unearthed documents confirm that some were also sent to Wacol, near Ipswich in southeast Queensland, in 1944.

But eighteen internees from Cowra were not released, on Dutch advice that they were “dangerous psychopaths. They were taken to Liverpool camp where they petitioned the Official Visitor to release them. This prompted the Commonwealth Director- General of Security, Brigadier William Ballantyne Simpson, a barrister, along with the Solicitor-General George Knowles, to advise the External Affairs Minister, Dr H.V. Evatt, that the Tanah Merahans had been illegally detained from the start of their internment. Evatt replied: In my opinion … there is no satisfactory ground for the further detention in internment of the Indonesians … The whole thing will have to be thoroughly investigated for the sake of the reputation of this country. I do not think there should be a moment’s delay …

BRIGADIER SIMPSON arranged a secret inquiry by the Advisory Committee set up under the National Service Regulations and presided over by two judges to determine whether or not the Detention Orders applying to the internees were valid. The committee confirmed Simpson’s opinion by ruling that Colonel Harold Redvers Langford, who had supervised the evacuation, had not, as he was statutorily obliged to do, exercised his discretion in deciding that all of the internees constituted threats to Australia’s national security. Thus the Detention Orders were invalid, allowing the internees to appeal against their internment. Eighteen of them did so on June 15, 1944.

The hearings of all the internees, before a judge and two committee members, took place on July 20. Although they had initially been separated from the other Tanah Merahans on the word of the Dutch that they were “dangerous psychopaths, the committee asked no questions about those allegations. Rather the internees were asked about their political beliefs and whether or not they would work for the Dutch or the Australians. Most stated that they had been interned without trial before being sent to Tanah Merah, and that they would work for the Australians but not the Dutch.

All five judges who sat at the hearings expressed misgivings about the justice of the proceedings. One of them, Justice Edward Erskine Cleland, claimed:

On the one hand the Committee had before it the oath of the person detained subject to crossexamination and on the other hand the unsworn reports of one or more anonymous individuals (nearly always described as “a particularly reliable agent).

The upshot was that four were released but the rest were considered unfit for release owing to, “the bitterness owing to the treatment they had received, the trouble they had caused in the internment camps and their poor English.

The eighteen appellants became nine through death, illness and displacement, and were still interned in February 1945. Then General MacArthur, having been advised by General Thomas Blamey that, “their continued detention in Australia … is embarrassing to the Commonwealth government, directed that they be transferred to an area of the Dutch East Indies under Dutch control. Consequently the Australian Army turned a blind eye to their repatriation to Merauke soon afterwards.

Over the years 1943 to 1947 the Netherlands East Indies government-in-exile seems to have been constantly moving internees from one camp to another. Wacol, “Camp Columbia, was one of these, along with Chermside, Lytton and Gaythorne in Brisbane. Some Indonesians, probably including some of the Tanah Merahans released from Cowra in April 1944, were taken to Wacol as early as 1944 and stayed there until repatriation in 1945 or 1946.

When they learned that Indonesia had declared independence from the Dutch, many internees went out on strike, including several hundred at Casino in September and 230 at Wacol in October, who claimed that independence meant the Dutch could no longer hold them in detention for they were technically not POWs (although they were treated as such by the Dutch) but civilians–as they constantly reminded the Australian government–and under no obligation to the Dutch.

The Wacol internees complained that they had not been paid the local awards for the work they were doing in Brisbane inside and outside the camp and that the Dutch had purloined money and personal belongings before, during and after their travel to Wacol. Their cause was taken up by Brisbane trade unionists, who were still on the case in 1947.

ONCE THE WAR was over and the Republic of Indonesia was at last a reality, the Australians and the Dutch realised they had to do something about the thousands of internees released from Cowra and elsewhere. However, they failed to agree, the sticking points being the tenuous legality of the internees’ detention, the growing numbers of Indonesians on strike all over Australia, and the burgeoning practice of the Dutch abducting groups of internees and taking them to Dutch-held areas of Indonesia.

Meanwhile Tanah Merahans had caused trouble at Wallangarra, where an attempt was made to blow up the railway tracks. One of them threw a grenade at an

Australian soldier, and there was a strike over the refusal to allow them to light a funeral pyre for one of their dead. Such incidents continued and in November 1945 fifty-five of the suspected ringleaders were taken to Gaythorne camp near Brisbane for repatriation by sea.

One of the repatriation boats was the ship Esperance Bay which, with a human cargo of 1400 Indonesians, including some Tanah Merahans, set sail for Kupang, Java and Sumatra early in November 1945. The Dutch had agreed to this itinerary but changed their mind while the boat was still en route to Kupang. The Dutch and Australian governments reached a compromise whereby forty-four of the passengers considered by the Dutch to be “extremists would be disembarked at Kupang. However, when the ship berthed, the passengers physically prevented the removal of the “extremists. So the ship sailed on and eventually disembarked the passengers at Batavia (now known as Jakarta), except for the extremists, who were returned to Kupang. News of this debacle among Indonesians seriously impaired the goodwill generated by the Australian government’s repatriation efforts.

Following Indonesian independence the armed resistance of the nationalists to the Dutch re-occupation continued. This meant that the Australian government, one of the first to diplomatically recognise the new republic, had to prevent any repatriation of Indonesians by the Dutch to Dutch-held areas. The danger of this occurring is borne out by incidents that occurred at Casino.

There are different accounts of what happened on September 10, 1946, in the compound, a jail within a jail for the most anti-Dutch of the internees at the Casino camp, when guards found an internee, Soerdo, dead. In order to arrest Lengkong, Soerdo’s alleged killer, the Dutch marched the prisoners in single file past the gates where a guard was posted to apprehend Lengkong as he passed. Just as he neared the gates of the compound, some of the other prisoners caused a distraction by moving towards the guards, who told them to stand back or be shot. The unarmed prisoners continued to advance on the guards, who shot volleys into the air and the ground. Meanwhile most of the remaining prisoners threw themselves on the ground. However, the others began to mill around the guards crying, “Up With Republic Indonesia. When a guard, hard-pressed by the mob, was seen to fall, the other guards fired towards them and three of the prisoners were hit, one of them fatally.

Thirteen of the Indonesian internees, whom the Dutch claimed were implicated in Soerdo’s death and the subsequent riot, were segregated and placed in close confinement until midnight on November 7, 1945, when they were driven to the Evans Head air force base and flown to Batavia to face courts martial. However, the Dutch later admitted they did not have enough evidence to secure a conviction and took the thirteen back to Timor, where they were jailed until 1948.

The ALP Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell, was furious when told of this abduction. In an internal memo he said:

the incident is regarded as a grave abuse of hospitality … No Australian authority … was informed and this failure to inform … can only be construed as a deliberate attempt to circumvent the Australian Government … This action is bound to react most unfavourably against the interests of the Netherlands and prejudice the development of good relations.

During 1946 and 1947 the last of the Tanah Merahans were repatriated on Australian ships. This was finally a happy ending to the rather sad story of a group of civilians wrongfully interned in a foreign country for some three years. Although their actions and indeed their existence are largely unknown to Australians their influence on Australian and Indonesian politics is worthy of recognition.

When this research into the Indonesian evacuees began, the fiercely anticommunist President Suharto was still in power. As 213 of the 273 male Tanah Merahans were allegedly communists, the dozens of letters sent to the internment survivors requesting information about their experiences remained unanswered because, even after so many years, they were still afraid of retribution. However, with the advent of a more open government in the Republic of Indonesia with whom Australia now has good relations, surely the time has come to tell their remarkable story.

Just as the growing affluence of the Japanese, Koreans and now Chinese has enabled them to visit Australia, so in the future we may see many Indonesians here as cultural tourists. Wouldn’t it be good if, by that time, the lands where the internment camps stood had been transformed into small remembrance gardens with plaques in them to tell the internees’ story to their descendants?

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of thirty-one books. Graham Irvine is the author of none but has written chapters in books and articles for scholarly journals and has had a long career in academia and radio current affairs.



  • Troy Reeves said:

    My grandfather stayed at Tanahmerah prison camp with the Army during WW2. His recollection was that it was the best accommodation they had during the whole War, much better in particular than the troop ship that they left Townsville on – a converted cattle carrier with remnant smells.

  • Gorinne Latham said:

    This is an interesting findings… as I am an Indonesian, married with Australian man, which has been several times passing the street sign Tanah Merah whenever I travel to Brisbane.

    In the beginning I thought it is an aboriginal name, and I think that maybe aboriginal has a ‘secret chain’ to indonesian history.

    Then I said to my husband that Tanah Merah means Red Soil in Bahasa Indonesia. And he said there is a street in there name Jalan. Which is in bahasa Indonesia Jalan means street. So, I believe there is a connection with an Indonesian.

    But still I could not believe the story hidden behind the name of Tanah Merah.

    Thanks Professor Fitzgerald.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.