Time for Dutch Courage in Indonesia

Paul Doolan looks at the continuing controversy over Dutch 'police operations' post-1945 in Indonesia.

Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Dutchman, Cornelis de Houtman, on the island of Enganno, off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. Now, over four centuries later and nearly fifty years after the ending of their rule in Indonesia, the Dutch are engaged in a soul-searching debate concerning their colonial past.

Between 1946 and 1949 two military campaigns, euphemistically called 'police actions', resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Indonesians and, according to one Financial Times Service report, 6,000 Dutch soldiers. However, the colonial power found itself politically isolated as well as economically near bankruptcy, and independence was reluctantly conceded in December 1949; a fact that even today causes controversy.

Criticism of Dutch colonial policy dates back at least to the appearance of Edward Dakker, the Dutch master known as Multatuli's Max Havelaar . At the time of its publication, in 1860, this 'J'accuse' was considered a biting attack against the exploitation and abuse of the poor majority of Javanese by their European and local masters. Today, the novel is generally regarded as a classic work of nineteenth-century Dutch literature, its criticisms been neutralised and made safe due to the passing of time.

The period 1945-49 in Dutch colonial history, however, is still highly sensitive. Indeed, this chapter is conspicuous among colonial studies by its absence. Unlike Vietnam, which Hollywood has transformed into an icon of contemporary culture, post-Second World War Indonesia constitutes something of a collective blind-spot in the Dutch psyche. The case of one of the Netherlands' leading historians, the late Jan Romein, is enlightening. His wife, Annie Romein-Verschoor, had grown up in colonial Dutch East Indies. They were both self-confessed Communists, progressive idealists and committed to Indonesian independence. Yet when Jan Romein published his major study of decolonisation, De Eeuw van Azie (The Asian Century) in 1956, Indonesia earned only a superficial mention. Of the 300 pages, twenty-five were on Indonesia, while the bibliography of 267 titles contained only ten relating to it.

In 1980 a leading Indonesian historian, Taufik Abdullah, referring to the loud Dutch silence, remarked that international historiography was the monopoly of the conquerors. After all, far more works have appeared analysing German and Japanese brutality during the Second World War than the Dutch police actions – actions which took place while Nazi leaders were standing trial for crimes against humanity in Nuremburg. If the Dutch historians were not prepared to do it, announced a historian from Singapore, Yong Mung Cheong, then he would attempt his own analysis of the complex events of 1946-49.

A significant breakthrough in terms of Dutch historiography occurred in 1988 when a new volume of L.de Jong's The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War appeared in Dutch bookstores. Each volume of de Jong's massive work had been awaited with anticipation, not only by professional historians, but also by the Dutch reading public. Bestseller status was assured. Of the eleven volumes the arrival of each invariably led to praise, criticism and open discussion in the national press. When the 1988 addition appeared, however, the outcry from some veterans of the colonial army and the conservative press was bitter and the ensuing debate more heated than usual. De Jong, who is considered a figure of national importance, had dared to criticise the atrocities that the Dutch had inflicted during their police actions.

Another writer, Ewald Vanvught, published Legal Opium in 1983 in which he argues that the control and expansion of the opium trade was a prime motor in Dutch colonial policy. Vanvught says that his work has been inspired by the inertia of the professional historians – he himself is a freelance author. More recently he has claimed that the record of the Dutch presence in Indonesia is one of systematic and continual atrocity, while he accuses Dutch historians of disguising this fact under a cloak of silence. He has cited certain established historians as presenting misinformation as a science, and of forming a tradition in which painful features of the past have been deliberately suppressed.

A number of incidents in recent years have further highlighted how painful this whole issue really is. Ponke Princen was a young Dutch man drafted into the army in 1946 and sent to Indonesia. There he deserted and switched sides, fighting for Indonesian independence. For Indonesians he became a hero but to the Dutch he was a traitor. As the decades slipped by many progressive Dutch citizens began to see Ponke Princen as a principled individual who had been sickened by the immoral acts he was ordered to carry out. But when he applied in Jakarta for a visa to revisit his former homeland for the first time in nearly fifty years, all the old cries of 'traitor' were heard again. Despite having the support of the Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs Princen was initially refused entry into the Netherlands. In 1992 Gra Boomsma published the novel The Last Typhoon . It was the first fictionalised account of the police actions to have appeared in Dutch. In a newspaper interview the young writer made the mistake of saying that Dutch soldiers, while certainly not the same as the SS, could be compared to the SS in some ways. Both he and the interviewer attracted the wrath of the colonial veterans and were charged in court with slander. In June 1994 they were acquitted.

January 1995 saw the appearance of a book of photographs of the Indonesian campaign taken by the late Dutch photographer, Hugo Wilmar. These included shots that had been banned by the military censors at the time. A leading national weekly carried excerpts from the book and the Dutch Photo Institute in Rotterdam held a five-week exhibition. These pictures are in some ways reminiscent of images that we are familiar with from Vietnam; wounded and dead lie on the jungle floor, guerrilla suspects are being interrogated and manhandled by Western troops. For a country that has enfolded a significant part of its past in silence, these are disturbing reminders.

This was followed in July 1995 by the publication of Verboden voor honden en inlanders (No Dogs or Natives), a collection of interviews in which Indonesians who had experienced Dutch colonial rule were given the opportunity to tell their stories. The following month, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands arrived in Jakarta for a ten-day official visit. At home, her visit had been preceded by a bitter debate over whether she should apologise to the Indonesian people for 350 years of colonial rule. Her main speech stopped short of an outright apology. Instead she spoke of feeling 'very sad' at the deaths that had been caused by colonialism.

Ironically, the majority of the Indonesian population are barely aware of their historical link with the Netherlands. The Dutch left little cultural heritage behind and many Indonesians are more interested in the future, rather than in any study of the past. However, for the Dutch, the integration of their recent past with the image of their country as a bastion of tolerance and human rights is a dilemma not yet resolved.

The well-known Dutch cultural critic Ian Buruma recently published his The Wages of Guilt , an excellent analysis of how the Germans and the Japanese have reacted and coped with the horrors of their not-too-distant past. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before his countrymen feel able to turn the lens to their own past too.

Paul Doolan is the Head of History at the International School of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo.



In Print


The App