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Semaoen was born in Curahmalang, Jombang, East Java. In 1915 at the age of sixteen, he was elected as one of the first Indonesian members of the Union of Train and Tramway Personnel (VSTP), soon quitting his job as a railway worker to become a trade union activist full-time. Also in 1915 he was elected vice-chairman of the Surabayaoffice of the Indies Social Democratic Association (ISDV), which was to become the PKI. By 1918 he was a member of the central leadership of Sarekat Islam (SI), then the dominant nationalist political organization in the Dutch East Indies.

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