Dutch Recognition: Too Little, Too Late
Johannes Nugroho | August 23, 2011
Perhaps unknown to many, 2011 marks the sixth anniversary of the official recognition by the Dutch government of Aug. 17, 1945, as Indonesia’s date of independence.
Before 2005, so far as The Hague was concerned, the Dutch East Indies were granted sovereignty only in 1949, after the Round Table Conference. Thus, in a masquerade of diplomatic coolness, the Dutch ambassador to Jakarta was always conspicuously absent at the State Palace Independence Day celebration. The boycott was also indicative of the bitter nature of the country’s secession from Dutch rule, which has cost both Indonesia and the Netherlands lost opportunities.
For the Netherlands, the biggest loss has been cultural and linguistic. At the moment, some 20 million people use Dutch as their first language with an additional 5 million using it as their second language. The latter mostly reside in Dutch dependencies and former colonies in the Caribbean and South America. Interestingly, Indonesia, once the brightest jewel in the Netherlands’ colonial crown, is not among the Dutch-speaking countries.
The acrimonious struggle between the Netherlands and newly born Indonesia between 1945 and 1949 fostered bitter anti-Dutch sentiment in the country. Forced expulsions of Dutch citizens immediately after independence and the nationalization of Dutch companies and assets in 1957 were testimony to Indonesian aversion to the Dutch.
With President Sukarno increasingly leaning toward the Moscow-Beijing Axis in the 1960s, it was clear that the political elite were desperately trying to find a new identity radically different from the colonial era. The Dutch language was phased out of use in the country.
To begin with, the Dutch language was off-limits for most of the natives of the East Indies. In 1942, for example, only 2 percent of the population here spoke Dutch. Unlike Britain, France and Spain, which brought their respective languages to their colonies, the Dutch promoted Malay as the lingua franca between themselves and the natives.
The background of this anomaly can perhaps be best understood if we take full account of the history of Dutch occupation in the country. The Dutch presence in the region began in the 16th century with the Dutch East India Company (VOC), a private enterprise backed by Dutch capitalists. As such it differed from the state-sponsored colonialism of other European powers. The VOC was mostly interested in profits from the colonies and cared very little about the education of the natives.
It was only in 1800, with the bankruptcy of the company, that the Dutch government decided to take over the colonies. In the meantime, cataclysmic events in Europe such as the Napoleonic wars, the loss of Belgium in 1830 and rebellions in the Dutch East Indies themselves made it impossible for the Dutch colonial government to implement a more ethical policy until the late 1870s.
Even then only a miniscule number of the natives could enjoy full access to Dutch education, with mass education beginning to be implemented by the colonial government only in the 1910s. Owing to this late start in introducing the Dutch language to the population of the Indies, compounded with the bad blood after the 1945 Declaration of Independence, it was difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Dutch language could retain any kind of prominence in the country.
The Dutch reluctance to instruct the natives in their language also meant that the colonies were administrated mostly by Dutchmen since official papers were written in Dutch. In effect, the natives had no real experience in state administration when the new republic was born in 1945. This is in sharp contrast to India, which gained its independence from Britain two years later, but with a fully formed civil service.
India had enjoyed partial autonomy and even had local elections in the 1930s. Compared to the Indians, Indonesian leaders in the new republic were navigating uncharted waters. Untrained in modern statehood, our first civil servants implemented feudal values in carrying out their jobs.
The country may have been mentally ready to cast off its former colonial master, but in terms of human resources and administrative experience, it was found horribly wanting. So, in effect, the last 60-odd years as an independent nation have really been a learning experience in how to govern.
The revolutionary nature of the divorce between the Netherlands and Indonesia resulted in the latter foregoing a period of de-colonization. By contrast, other Asian colonies such as Malaysia and Hong Kong underwent a process in which the locals gradually replaced the British as state administrators, ensuring a less bumpy road.
In refusing a process of de-colonization by the Dutch, Indonesia lost one of the most important stages in the transition from subject state to independent nation. By the same token, the Netherlands, in its failure to introduce its own language into the country as well as its rigidity when dealing with independence, missed an opportunity to build a more international foundation for its own culture, and lost 200 million potential speakers of its language.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer based in Surabaya.
(a good article x the JG)