Can we reconcile Dutch and Indonesian history?
Calvin Sidjaya, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, April 01 2016, 9:23 AM
In December 2015, the Netherlands recognized rijstaffel as part of Dutch cultural heritage. Unfortunately, this story slipped under the radar of mainstream news in Indonesia and Netherlands, thus the public in both nations dismissed it as unimportant although Indonesia and Netherlands have established a common cultural heritage.
The lack of a sense of belonging between both nations can be traced to the end of World War II in Indonesia. In March 1942, the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies and destroyed the rigid Dutch social caste system, and radicalized the Indonesian natives to hate the Dutch.
After the Japanese lost the war and Sukarno declared Indonesia’s independence on Aug. 17, 1945, it would take another four years of brutal wars before the Dutch finally recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty on Dec. 29, 1949.
However, little is known in Indonesia’s general collective memory about the massive waves of violence after the declaration of independence, which historian Robert Cribb has described as “a brief genocide”.
During 1945-1947, the pemuda (youth), murdered Dutch civilians indiscriminately, and many victims died in brutal ways that could constitute war crimes. Many survivors are still traumatized to this day and rarely talk about it to their children.
Thus, many Dutch in the diaspora whose roots come from the Dutch East Indies, more often than not, try to remember the good tempo doeloe (old times), when the Dutch still colonized the archipelago, and they had a high social status instead of running to save their lives from the Indonesian youth.
This period is mentioned by Dutch history books as bersiaptijd (time of getting ready, or bersiap), while in Indonesia it is described as a power-vacuum period.
Indonesian history books depict the pemuda as brave youths who used spears in an asymmetrical war with the Dutch war machine, while in reality, these spears were used to impale and murder Dutch civilians.
These details have never been mentioned in Indonesia’s history books in order to maintain the nationalist narrative.
The descendants of the survivors began to question their history and their roots in the Dutch East Indies. Many of them were asking why their grandparents or parents left Indonesia for the Netherlands. Why did they not stay
Many of the descendants only know their Indonesian roots from, for instance, their penchant for Indonesian culture and Indonesian dishes, they are reluctant to embrace Indonesia as part of their whole, because their history left them bitter memories about the tropical country they once cherished.
There are several reasons behind the lack of political willingness by the Indonesian and Dutch governments to reconcile their history.
First, Indonesia has a long history of human rights violations. The public remembered “Gestapu” as the darkest chapter in its modern history, not the bersiap period. While the Dutch military aggression caused heavy casualties on the Indonesian side, Indonesia itself finally secured its independence.
Second, the dissolution of the short-lived United States of Indonesia finally detached Indonesia’s history from that of the Netherlands.
Both sides view their colonial past as an anathema not worth revisiting. The history of both sides ended badly with the dissolution of the Netherlands-Indonesian Union in 1956.
Third, the Dutch side fears that reconciliation means massive lawsuits followed by monetary compensation. In fact, the Dutch government only decided in 2015 to compensate its civil servants and military personnel for service during the Japanese occupation. Sadly, only 1,100 survivors are eligible as most have died.
This discrimination was not applied to the Dutch military and civil servants in the German-occupied Netherlands during World War II, as those people were compensated for their service.
This reluctance is based on the legal ambiguity regarding who legally administered the Dutch East Indies during 1942-1945. As the Dutch lost control of the Dutch East Indies this raised the question: who was responsible for the demise and misery of millions of lives killed during the Japanese occupation? Was it the Japanese? The Indonesian government? Or the Dutch?
The same questions apply to the bersiap period: were those youth Dutch or Indonesian citizens? Who was responsible for the murders of the Dutch and Dutch-Indonesians during that period? Things would be even more complex if the Dutch government recognized Aug. 17, 1945 as the de jure independence day of Indonesia because it could create further complications around the legal citizenship of the perpetrators.
This is where the Indonesian and the Dutch governments have to establish truth commissions to reconcile their history once and for all. While Vice President Jusuf Kalla lambasted the International People’s Tribunal in 1965 and stated that Indonesians could also “put the Dutch on trial” here for the deaths of millions under Dutch colonial rule, it is unknown whether the Indonesian government has the political willingness to sue the Dutch government for war crimes given Indonesia’s own long history of human rights violations.
In fact, the Rome Statute on human rights violations has not been ratified to this date. Most of the initiatives to sue the Dutch government over war crimes have been initiated by NGOs and individuals not the Indonesian government.
The Dutch government states that it has a special relationship with Indonesia due to its historical ties; both nations could have a better post-colonial relationship. The Indonesian and Dutch governments must reconcile this history so they can have an equal relationship where both sides can stand with genuine respect and have a common sense of belonging.
The remaining survivors and descendants of World War II in the Dutch East Indies to this date are still waiting to see the day when they receive the justice they deserve.
The writer is a researcher at the Marthinus Academy in Jakarta.
The Jakarta Post