Tanah Merah Concentration Camp

Concentration Camp Tanah Merah  – Dutch Papua New Guinea

In 1927 the Dutch Government established a concentration camp for political prisoners from Netherlands East Indies (NEI). This was not an extermination camp, there was a significant level of freedom within the camps. The level of freedom was provided in the knowledge that the area was so inhospitable and so inaccessible that escape was nearly impossible. These prisoners were held against their will, simply because they wanted to see the Dutch Government to move towards independence for the peoples of this large archipelago.  The camp operated till 1942 when the Japanese invaded NEI and the prisoners were moved to Australia.


In May 1925, the Communist Party ordered communists in Indonesia to form a united anti-imperialist front with non-communist nationalist organisations, but extremist elements called for a revolution to overthrow the Dutch colonial government. After a range of botched operations, false starts and changed plans a limited revolt broke out in Batavia in November 1926.

There was a  general rail strike, arson attacks, sabotage, cutting of telegraph cables and so on. While the uprising was reasonably well organised on paper it missed a strong level of execution and lacked internal communications; as a matter of fact, overseas supporters of an independent Indonesia – e.g. the Communist Party in Russia – had warned that the country was not yet ready for a ‘revolution’.

While sabotage did happen, the insurgents were no match for the military force of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger- KNIL).

Apart from the poor execution there was a  difference of what was to happen after a successful uprising. Within the leading communist there was a wide range of ideas on how to move on from here, at the time the prevailing slogan of the leaders was: ‘Soviet Power’, this certainly didn’t help their (international) cause.

While there was an overarching aim to create a unified Indonesian, to be achieved through mixed marriages at the same time many people in outlying islands simply wanted to maintain their own independence and just wanted the Dutch out (this had nothing to with the communists on Java and Sumatra or with communism). Also at that stage the idea was that this new Indonesia  would run from Aceh in the west of the archipelago to Celebes in the east and would not include the Moluccas, who remained largely pro Dutch.

There were also resistant leaders within the group looking at Japan to assist in liberating Indonesia[1]  on the other side those who had witnessed Japan’s invasions of Korea and China were worried about too close relationships with the Japanese.

Then of course there was the hard core of people who looked at the Soviet Union, they believed that this communist system would be the template for a future Indonesia.

Even though the 1926/27 revolt was put down, ongoing guerrilla activities continued till the final independence in 1949.

In all during and after the revolt 13,000 people accused of communist activities were arrested of whom three were executed.

While there was some sympathy among the more left-wing politicians in the Netherlands, the majority of political leaders in both the Netherlands and NEI had no understanding at all for the self-determination of the peoples of the archipelago and no effort was made to make this discus-sable. The only concession that had been set in motion was a greater participation of the peoples from these islands in local government.

It is important to place this in the context of the world seeing communism as a real world threat, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

A place for “the public peace and order”

The laws under which the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) government operated the so called Indische Staatsregeling and in particular Article 37 allowed the government to operate a specially appointed place for “the public peace and order”[2].  The Dutch Government decided to established this camp for those political prisoners that they classified as dangerous to the state.

The aim of the camp was ‘to reform’ prisoners and if that was successful, they were put on a list for release.

This place of exile for key leaders of the uprising was established, in early 1927 by Captain L. Th. Becking[3], soon after the revolt. It was built on the banks of the river Digul (Dogoel), 200 kms north – three days by steamer – of the provincial capital settlement of Merauke, South New Guinea.  In all less than 10% of those arrested were exiled.

Soldiers and external forced labour were used to build – from a total virgin jungle – the first barracks and they did so within a period of six weeks. By 1930 this camp – partly because it consisted of temporary barracks and partly because of flooding – was totally overhauled and replaced by individual villages and houses for the exiles.

Tanah Merah initially received the 800 independence leaders (plus 500 women and children), at its peak in 1928  it housed some 1500 people. Most communist exiles were men but remarkable there were also 15 females among the political leaders.

Most prisoners however, were released within a year and the total  dropped to an average of around 500-600 over the following years.

Over the 15 years of its existence several thousands of Indonesians were imprisoned here for shorter or longer periods.


A ‘humane’ camp

There was opposition against the internment in the Netherlands and through a range of  inquiries it was made sure that these exiles were not treated as prisoners, within the camp they basically were allowed to do as they wish. This resulted in problems for the management of the camp as the political concessions to facilitate this level of freedom often clashed with the running of the camp. The following event shows the extend of which the management tolerated conflicting behaviour.

The death of communist leader Aliarcham

A remarkable event was the death of one of the communist leaders, Aliarcham.


The dying leader (tuberculosis)  was transported from Tanah Tinggi (see below) to Tanah Merah when he died on board of the river boat, after some deliberations the Dutch captain ordered to lower the flag on the boat out of respect for the dead.


On arrival the prisoners laid out the body in the middle of their camp with a big sign of the communist hammer and sickle. They also published a poem that didn’t hide the struggle for independence. The funeral draw an attendance over several hundred people.  A significant grave was established again with the hammer and sickle sign on it.


The camp doctor Schoonheyt did question if the camp  management had gone too far by allowing such acts of defiance[4].



Another interesting example that highlights this conflicting situation is that  leaders of the independence movement such as Hatta and Soetan Sjahrir enjoyed similar levels of freedom within the camp and they were of course able to organise meetings and thus keep the flame of independence going among their fellow prisoners. When they finally were separated from the main camp and transported to another camp, Hatta was said to have 15 suitcases of books[5].

Finally the prisoners has made up their own words on the Dutch National Anthem, protesting against their imprisonment and the defiance to get independence.

But this level of tolerance allowed the authorities to portrait the camp as ‘human’.


The lay-out of the camp

There were three segments of the compound, the civil compound for management and administration which also included the river port, utility facilities such as electricity and communication, workshops, storage,  accommodation and other facilities for the 300 staff. Then there was the military compound with some 100 personnel and thirdly the actual camp for the exiles.

Together with the prisoners there were in all around 1,000 people in the extended Tanah Merah community.

The compound for the exiles was set up as a village – allowing for the ethnic variations – with farms, shops, it had football clubs, schools and a hospital. Most people could freely walk around both inside and outside their enclosures (the military compound was later on made off limits). Some prisoners their own businesses and were able to also sell goods and services to their inmates as well as to the civil staff. Many prisoners worked in other parts of the compound and intermingled with non-prisoners and local Papua’s.


Different groups of prisoners

Exiles in Tanah Merah were divided in three groups. They were basically free to do what they wish within the camp compound and there was no forced labour. Those who voluntarily agreed to work in the camp  could be part of building and maintenance teams, they also maintained roads, dug trenches, worked in the administration, the utilities and in the households of the civic staff. Many of the prisoners were educated and had an administrative background and a large number was therefore involved in the running of the camp. Those who decided to work received apart from their food 40cts a day.

The second group were those who didn’t want to work because of their political conviction or physical state just received their rations.

The third group didn’t want to participate in any work in the camp, even not in cleaning their own house, they were called the irreconcilable  (onverzoenlijke).

Tanah Tinggi for the irreconcilable.

After the infighting among the prisoners in 1928 it was decided to separate the most fanatic freedom fighters.  First in separate location in the compound. But a year a separate camp Tanah Tinggi (=high ground) – three hours north up the Digul (30 kms). Here the ‘onverzoenlijke’ and ‘most troublesome’ cases were incarcerated.


Initially 125 people were send to this camp (including 2 women and 7 children) but this declined to around 80 by the mid-1930s.


The group included some of the leaders of the independence movement: Sardjono, Aliarcham, Boedisoetjitro, Soenario Soemantri and Dahlan.


However the situation here was significantly worse and many exiles opted to return to Tanah Merah.


This camp also housed those prisoners who had conducted criminal offences in Tanah Merah.



Throughout the period there was ongoing defiance and passive sabotage from most of the internees.


The operations of the camp

There were plenty of problems at the start, the Dutch had little experience with deportation camps and the initial freewheeling attitude from the authorities didn’t work as in whatever way you tried to run it these people were here against their own free will. Under the law they were internees and forced labour was not allowed.

The prisoners arrived in a very inhospitable environment, basically a big swamp, invested by mosquitos and malaria was a very big problem in the early years and many people died of this disease.

Initially detainees received 40 guilders a month to buy food and other goods but that was far more than they could spend, so all sorts of money schemes were developed, and corruption followed. There was one official shop run by a Chinaman, he got so rich that he very quickly took all of his money he had ‘earned’ in his little monopoly and moved back to his home. Soon those payments were dropped significantly, which of course led to unrest, however that remained the payment structure throughout the period the camp was in operation..

While not everybody wanted to work in the camp, most internees did however volunteer in building their own houses and creating their own villages and community activities.

Those who wanted to work only had to do so in the morning, so there was plenty of free time, this led to a large range of clubs, some with a short life others lasted for many years. There were a couple of football clubs, others clubs catered for: jazz orchestra, gamelan orchestra, Javanese dance and opera group, singing, art, photography, agriculture education and philosophy.

The Gamelan Digul was brought to Australia

When, in 1942, the prison camp was evacuated to Australia, the prisoners brought with a gamelan that had been constructed by them with the assistance of the Javanese court musician and political activist Pontjopangrawit, who had entertained at the court of king Paku Buwana X as a child. It was here that he learned how to build gamelans, and also became a sought-after teacher.


He was imprisoned here from 1926 until 1932 but was later arrested by the Indonesian government during the 1965 communist purge and died in the mass killings that followed.


De camp doctor L.J.H. Schoonheyt also mentions the gamelan. In translation: Also Tanah Merah didn’t lack a gamelan (a Javanese drum orchestra) and this was especially in later years excellent. At the start they had to improvise, and it was made from empty tins of sardines and from ‘patjols’,  (stolen) blades from shovels. Later the prisoners were, at special festivities, allowed to borrow the gamelan from the military and very quickly it became clear that there were several excellent musicians amongst them. The specific native gamelan music fits of course much better with these people than the from the West imported jazz music and hopefully that modern music  will never replace it[6].


A gamelan is the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali in Indonesia, made up predominantly of percussive instruments. The most common instruments used are metallophones played by mallets and a set of hand-played drums called kendhang which register the beat. In the case of the Gamelan Digul this one was made from prison materials including pans and utensils – was taken by the “Digulists” to the Cowra POW camp and from here it went with some of them to Melbourne, where it was used in performances during the war; on the repatriation of the Digulists, it was given to the Museum of Victoria and ended up at Monash University, some pieces are in the Australian Museum in Canberra[7].



While as mentioned the camp was situated in a malaria infested region in the middle of the muddy jungle along the river Digul, within a few years’ malaria was brought under control and the physical conditions of the camp improved. There were two hospitals and the camp doctor commented that the one for the prisoners was better housed and equipped than the one for the management and the military, several civic staff were for that reason treated in the prisoner’s hospital. But it is also important to note that when the prisoners arrived in Australia there were still a significant number of people in the transport suffering from malaria and tuberculosis.

To address the problems arising from the lack of females, wives and fiancées could move to Tanah Merah, also other women (potential brides)  were invited to come over, but most of them who did so left often with babies back to their homes on their home islands.  On average there were around 150 children in the camp. There were several schools at the compound where the children were educated.


Boredom and mental illness

Prisoners who later reflected on their imprisonment in Tanah Merah – especially the ‘irreconcilable‘ incarcerated in Tanah Tinggi – had a quite different story about the ‘model camp’, there were several epidemics, and malaria never got totally away but they  especially remembered the boredom and mental illness that had led to several suicides, there were also many escape efforts but only a few were successful. Journalists who visited the camp received the ‘model tour’ but several could meet with the prisoners, so mixed reports arrived in the Netherlands, many of them not positive about the internment of these political prisoners. This caused ongoing political problems for the government in The Hague.

Prisoners of Tanah Merah included Mohammad Hatta and Soetan Sjahrir (they later became the first vice president and premier of the Indonesian Republik). Soetan Sjahrir was imprisoned here from 1934. This is a description he gave of the place: “The weary faces, the shy, sometimes queer-looking eyes, with deep, dark lines under them, bear testimony to this suffering, most of them appear to be permanently broken in spirit…” [8].

In the Indonesian language there is still a saying that refers to the Digul Camp: “Di-digul-kan” which means ‘having to face death’.

One of history’s most amazing escapes

There is also a harrowing story of 4 prisoners escaping from Tanah Merah and three of them survived the trip through 200kms of jungle – one was speared by a Papuan warrior on the way and died later – they arrived in Merauke and were cared for by the Melanesian population here and they received a canoe and ended up on Thursday Island. They were able to hide themselves among the locals and even opened a shop (hairdressing)[9]. However, they were picked up by the Queensland authorities and handed over to the Dutch.


Trade unionists in Darwin petitioned the Australian Government to provide political asylum but under the ‘White Australia policy’ that was cruelly refused. They ended up in the even more infamous Tanah Tinggi concentration camp. One of them Abdul Rachman was one of the prisoners who arrived in Australia for a 2nd time, this time brought by the Dutch (see below).


In Australia Abdul became a student at an English language class for Indonesians conducted by English teacher Mrs Gwyn Williams from Darlinghurst, who wrote down the stories of her students. Her teaching also greatly assisted her students to far more effectively communicate in Australia and to create effective propaganda materials.


There were several escape attempts – in total 16 – to either Australian Papua New Guinea and one more to Australia (Thursday Island) but in all only 5 people succeeded.. In most situations they were captured or killed by Papua’s[10].



The Japanese invasion

The Japanese had landed in Hollandia on 6th of May 1942, in their haste to flee the Dutch had failed to blow up their facilities so this ended up undamaged in the hands of the Japanese, however, after they took what they wanted the Japanese scorched the place and then they simply left.

The southern part of New Guinea was not occupied by the Japanese, but the Dutch were worried about their advance. If the Japanese would also occupy that part were worried that the Tanah Merah prisoners would ban together with the Japanese. In the end the Japanese never occupied South New Guinea and was in fact the only unoccupied Dutch territory during WWII.

The Dutch considered it safer to transport them to Australia and in mid-1943 they decided to deport 295 political prisoners plus another 212 women and children to Australia.  The Deputy Governor General of NEI Charles van der Plas was send from Melbourne  to Merauke and from here he travelled over the Digul to Tanah Merah to organise the transport. The prisoners had no idea that there was a world war going on and that the Japanese has taken over most of NEI. A few old and sick prisoners were left behind as the Dutch reasoned that they would be of no use to the Japanese. The liberation of NEI was launched from Merauke in 1944 (but rapidly moved to Hollandia the capital on the northern shore  of the island).


The Digulist in Australia

When the Dutch evacuated Tanah Merah the prisoners were cramped in the Dutch KPM[11] steamer ‘Both’ and after the trip from Merauke the ship docked for resupply in the Queensland port of Bowen. From here it travelled to Sydney and after disembarking the prisoners went to Central Station and were transported by train to Liverpool on the outskirts of Sydney and to the Australian prisoners of war camp in Cowra. Here they became known as the “Digulists” (originally all people prisoners and non-prisoners in Tanah Merah referred to themselves this way.


As the Dutch kept very quiet about both the prisoners, the trip and what happened with them afterwards, most of the following information comes from Australian sources and above all Reuters reporter Rupert Lockwood who wrote a book on the arrival of these prisoners and the consequent extraordinary events that followed [12].


On their way prisoners were able to pass on notes about who they were and where they came from and this alerted workers on the wharf in Bowen. A note ended up in the hands of Mr. J.C. Henry, then Queensland State leader of the Communist Party of Australia in Brisbane. He personally took the note to Sydney. A note from one of the original Indonesian railway strikers from 1926 – known to the Australians as Jo-Jo also reached the Civil Rights League in Sydney. This note also mentioned the many sick (malaria) and asked for medical attention. (Jo-jo suffered from tuberculosis and died soon after his arrival in Sydney). The information had also reached some of the Australian soldiers who together with Dutch soldiers were involved in guarding the camp and the Australians established that these people were no friends of the Japanese and rapidly food and fruit parcels as well as medicines were organised for the Indonesians. Laura Gapp of the Civil Rights League contacted the Australian Government, while there was not an instantaneous result the process was started that a few months later would lead to liberation of the prisoners.

The Dutch has been less than honest and had informed the Australians that these prisoners were enemies of the allied forces and therefor had to be treated as prisoners of war. When that proofed not to be true, first the Dutch were forced by the Australian Government to transport the sick to the Dutch Princess Juliana Hospital in Turramurra.

It was clearly seen as inappropriate for Australia to jail political prisoners from another country. After the release of the sick the rest of the prisoners in Liverpool were released and finally on December 7th, 1943 also the detainees in Cowra. Many joined the trade unions, and this resulted in a better understanding among more and more Australians of the plight of the Indonesians.

Most of them went to a for them a more climate friendly North Queensland. Some worked on the sugar plantations and other worked for the Dutch military forces in Mackay. It was also here that they formed one of the first Indonesian Independence Committees in Australia, known as the Mackay Committee.

It is rather ironic that after all the effort to keep the Digulists out of the hands of the Japanese, so they could not use the occupation to continue their plight for independence, they became potentially an even more important force for the independence of their country thanks to the Dutch bringing them to Australia.


The camp failed to deliver on its purpose

The camps brought a great variety of ethnic people together from across the archipelago who did not necessarily got on well together, especially when they were all housed together in the initial barracks.  As mentioned, there were also different interpretations of communism and this led to many internal fights, including one death. The situation improved around 1930 once individual houses and villages were established. Also by that time the committed and defiant communists and freedom fighters had already been separated from the rest and moved on to Tanah Tinggi.

The utopian idea that through this rather friendly approach these people would shed their ‘communists’ beliefs did of course not work. Once released most of the exiles rapidly became again involved in local independence activities, once back home. Some prisoners were therefor not released to their home island, but transported to other islands but most of them, eventually ended up at home in one way or another.

As is so often the case these freedom fighters were villainised by the oppressor as extremists and indeed most were committed communists, so the Dutch blamed Communist Russia for inciting the uprising – while adversely the Communist Party in Russia had advised against the uprising in 1926/27. While most prisoners were indeed communists the authorities never admitted or even suggested that what these people wanted was their freedom.

The lack of a more sophisticated strategy by Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) of that time, which should have squarely been aimed at independence is also to blame for its failure as they used the slogan ‘Soviet Power’ not ‘National Independence’, the latter only became their slogan from 1944 onwards and this Soviet Communist focus clearly did send out the wrong message not just to the Dutch but also to other democratic nations.

But in their defence, without any willingness from the Dutch to discuss ‘independence’ the freedom movement reverted to the ideas of a communist revolution to overthrow the Dutch colonialists. In the camp none of this was discussable at any official level with the authorities, there were no active policies and strategies in place to ‘reform’ the prisoners, they thought this ‘reform’ would simply happen through ‘humane’ imprisonment, incredibly naïve.

In reading the various Dutch reports on the camp it is indeed remarkable that the authorities in the camp and elsewhere in NEI or the Netherlands did not grasp or understand or perhaps didn’t want to see the strong feeling of independence among the prisoners. Nowhere, in the documents have I come any inquisitive discussion on that issue, other that they couldn’t understand why these people revolted. This arrogance came of course from a widespread underlaying racist and paternalistic colonial attitude towards the local population in general. Furthermore, the Dutch economy depended for 25% on the income from NEI.

With those pre-conceptions in mind and the blinkers on the Dutch simply thought that after the internment in their ‘humane’ reform camp, these ‘communists’ would simply become willing colonial subjects again and they were puzzled that many prisoners kept resisting.

While what happened in Tanah Merah was despicable for a democratic country such as the Netherlands what followed in what the Dutch euphemistically called ‘Police Actions’ but in all reality were outright war activities between 1946 and 1949 was far worth, this was the Dutch colonial policy at its worse and was right so widely condemned by the international community. Finally kicking and screaming the Dutch were forced to accept the independence of Indonesia in 1949. Australia played a key role in this process. A role that can directly be linked back to the prisoners from Tanah Merah who  once in Australia where able to put their case for independence forward and win over the support of Australia.

Tanah Merah after the war

After the war the current town of Tanah Merah evolved from what was left of prisoner’s camp. While the camp was abandoned it remained a central place in this part of New Guinea. During the war it was briefly used by Australian soldiers of the so called Merauke-Force[13]. After the war the remnants were again used as a government centrum for the Boven-Digoel area (Upper Digul).


A sister of my father, Annie Budde, became a school teacher first in 1956 in Merauke and a year later she moved to Tanah Merah where she stayed until 1962 when also Dutch New Guinea (West Papua) was handed over to Indonesia. In 2010 Tanah Merah had around 1,000 inhabitants, a similar number to when the camp was in operation, however this time occupied by the Papua’s.


Annie remained committed for the rest of her life to support the independence of the Papua’s. It was not until after WWII before the Dutch belatedly started to pay any serious attention to the development of Dutch Papua New Guinea  so by the time, she left there was still only a basic level of human development. After her departure she witnessed the suppression of the Papuans by the Indonesians, a situation that continues till today[14].




Both Captain L. Th. Becking in charge of building the camp and the camp doctor L.J.H. Schoonheyt after their return from Tanah Merah to NEI were disillusioned with Dutch (colonial) policy and became members of the NSB[15] party of NEI, Becking was the leader of the party. While they both quitted the party in 1940 when the racial aspects of the party became clear, they were still on the member list when the Dutch Government started a crackdown on the party. They were both arrested and now they themselves arrived in the prison camps for them this was in Suriname, this camp was significantly worse than the one in Tanah Merah. Becking died in Suriname and Schoonheyt was released in 1946[16].  Schoonheyt later on in his life admitted that his views on Tanah Merah had been naïve and that the Dutch Government had been wrong in establishing it.


Paul Budde, 2019


[1] One of their leaders was Mohammed Hatta – who later became Indonesia’s first President, during the 1920s  travelled through Europe and Asia to argue for his country’s independence and also visited Japan where he was  received as an hero and was called the ‘Gandhi of Indonesia’. He travelled there again during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia and again was treated  with all due respect.

[2] Dutch Imperialism exposed  https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-348267842/view?partId=nla.obj-348270537#page/n0/mode/1up


[3] Boven-Digoel – L.J.H. Schoonheyt https://www.papuaerfgoed.org/files/schoonheyt_1936_digoel.pdf


[4] Boven-Digoel – L.J.H. Schoonheyt https://www.papuaerfgoed.org/files/schoonheyt_1936_digoel.pdf

[5] Boven-Digoel – L.J.H. Schoonheyt https://www.papuaerfgoed.org/files/schoonheyt_1936_digoel.pdf

[6] Boven-Digoel – L.J.H. Schoonheyt https://www.papuaerfgoed.org/files/schoonheyt_1936_digoel.pdf

[7] The Gamelan Digul and the Prison Camp Musician Who Built It – http://profiles.arts.monash.edu.au/margaret-kartomi/2002-book-the-gamelan-digul-english-translation/


[8] Out of Exile, by Sutan Sjahrir, New York, 1949

[9] Boven-Digoel – L.J.H. Schoonheyt https://www.papuaerfgoed.org/files/schoonheyt_1936_digoel.pdf

[10] Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog = Loe de Jong

[11] Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij – KPM (Royal Packet Navigation Company)

[12]  Rupert Ernest Lockwood (10 March 1908 – 8 March 1997) was an Australian journalist and communist activist. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Lockwood.  He wrote the book:  Black Armada https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/26436607


[13] Merauke Force http://paulbuddehistory.com/annie-budde-in-nieuw-guinea-in-dutch/personal-recollection-of-merauke-from-the-86-f-squadron-raaf/

[14]  Annie Budde in Nieuw Guinea – http://paulbuddehistory.com/annie-budde-in-nieuw-guinea-in-dutch/

[15] Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (The National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands) was a Dutch fascist and later national socialist political party.

[16] Interneringskampen in Indië, zogenaamd – Joost van Bodegom – https://javapost.nl/2016/07/08/interneringskampen-in-indie-zogenaamd/