Simon Marcus Gower
“This is a great and very old city. It is a wonder of Indonesia,” said a proud resident of Palembang as he waved his arms across the panorama of the Musi River, enthusiastically welcoming visitors.
“Take a boat trip,” he went on, “very cheap and surely you will enjoy it.”
He did not seem too aggressive at first, but he grew more insistent and it became clear why. Although there is little evidence today, the South Sumatra capital is filled with history, and it was once a major center of power.
From the 7th to the 13th century, Palembang was the capital of the Sriwijaya empire, considered to be one of the greatest maritime empires in Southeast Asia, and people from all over the region were drawn to the city. During the empire’s run, which lasted more than 500 years, it grew to be a center of regional and cultural trade.
Monks and scholars voyaged there to learn Buddhist teachings and translate Sanskrit texts. This attracted many travelers to the area, especially Chinese pilgrims, who established an important community in the city that remains today.
Although Palembang has lost some of its luster, it is still a significant seafaring port. Bisecting the city is the Musi River, which is deep, wide and busy, with large tanker-like vessels that dock alongside industrial sites.
This industrial nature is a product of the city’s history. The colonial Dutch, who sought to develop Palembang for their industrial avarice, focused on creating deep-water port facilities on the river to serve the tin mines of Bangka Island and the plantations of South Sumatra.
This port capacity helped turn the city into an administrative center of South Sumatra’s oil industry, and as a result, the Japanese saw Palembang as a strategic center during World War II. Their interest in the city led to the Battle of Palembang in February 1942, during which Japanese paratroopers made an assault to seize control of the city and its port.
Only about five years later, similar skirmishes occurred between the returning colonial Dutch and the rebellious independence fighters, as both sides struggled for control of Palembang and the surrounding oil and coal fields.
This struggle became known as the Battle of Five Days and Nights and is commemorated by a major monument in the center of the city.
The Monumen Perjuangan Rakyat Sumatera Bagian Selatan, or the People’s Struggle Monument of South Sumatra, is a huge concrete monolith that sits opposite the town’s grand mosque. Like Jakarta’s National Monument, better known as Monas, it also has another name that is less of a mouthful: Monpera.
The monument, which is gray and rather foreboding, at first appears completely closed off. However, upon walking closer, visitors are greeted by an elderly man who invites them to explore.
“Please come, see our heroes,” he implores as he eases his fragile figure toward them. His words are welcoming, but also emphatic and almost demanding.
Soon he is leading the way into Monpera, and within the building’s concrete walls, various displays come into view. Among them are old weapons, including some that were probably used in the struggle to free Palembang from foreign controllers.
Other displays show faded photographs, heroic paintings, immaculate sculptures and portraits, all paying tribute to the handful of rebels who once opposed against Dutch. Palembang, it seems, has been the home of tough fighting people for a long time.
Take a look at a Rp 10,000 banknote and you will see a portrait of another rebellious son of the city. The note shows a tough and stubborn-looking man known as Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II, who led the fight against the Dutch in the 18th century.
He is also responsible for a fort that fronts a long stretch of the river and serves as another remnant of the fight against the Dutch.
Benteng Kuto Besak fort was built during the 1780s at his behest and was then used for defense against invading forces. Although its high and mighty walls no longer fend off invading forces, it is still home to the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI).
Near the fort stands a structure that has become an important symbol for the city and is, in fact, often referred to as the “pride of Palembang.” The Ampera Bridge is high and wide, stretching more than 1,000 meters across the Musi River. In some ways, it represents the city’s modernity, linking the two halves that are bisected by the river.
This impressive structure again has roots in the struggle and strife that has blighted much of the city’s defiant history. Its construction was funded by reparation payments made by Japan for what it did in Indonesia during the war.
Palembang has a rather checkered past, and perhaps this has helped shape the character of its local residents.
They appear to have many different ethnic origins, but whether they are Chinese, Indian, Arabic or from around the Indonesian archipelago, they all seem to share a straight-talking, no-nonsense attitude, and while that can sometimes seem abrupt, it is also rather refreshing.