Dutch crimes in colonial Indonesia – time for a review?

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Three major Dutch institutions are calling for a new investigation into the violence used by Dutch soldiers to counter the struggle for independence in colonial Indonesia between 1945 and 1949. They say Indonesian scholars should take part in the historical review.

The Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), the Dutch Institute for Military History (NIMH) and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), say there should be new research into the post-WWII period in what was then the Dutch East Indies.

At the end of 2011, 70 years after the events took place, the Dutch government finally offered its official apologies – and damages - for the massacre at the village of Rawagede on Java. In 1947, during the hunt for an independence fighter, Dutch troops shot dead at least 120 men at Rawagede. Local people put the death toll at 431.

Dutch soldiers are blamed for other massacres in what is now Indonesia, including one in South Sulawesi (then known as South Celebes) in which hundreds are said to have been killed in cold blood.

Historian Gert Oostindie says that, although these war crimes are now accepted history, more research still needs to be done.

“It’s come out bit by bit over the decades. An incident comes up now and again, such as this latest one at Rawagede, with the Dutch government admitting that its soldiers were guilty of excesses. There’s no overall picture, though. That’s why everyone can say what they like about the period.”

He explains that there’s no overview because, for decades, it was deliberate policy in the Netherlands not to investigate this black period of Dutch history.

“On the Indonesian side, it was a long time before they said, ‘we should be objective about what happened’. You can see people now have the room, both in the Netherlands and Indonesia, to look into it jointly. It’s not just about excesses perpetrated by Dutch soldiers. The Indonesians did all kinds of awful things, sometimes to each other.”

Excellent idea
Lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld recently represented the families of the Rawagede victims in their case against the Dutch state. In an article in de Volkskrant newspaper, she questions what the point would be of new research when most of those directly involved in the events are dead. On the other hand, that historical distance can also be positive, argues Oostindie:

“I think it’s only recently become possible to do this as a Dutch-Indonesian project. During the Suharto period, it wasn’t possible for Indonesian scholars to question the Indonesian side of the story: they are now showing great interest in the subject.”

In de Volkskrant, Indonesian historian Bambang Purwanto welcomes the idea of a joint investigation as an excellent idea. He points out that a standard work on the country’s history is just now being written in Indonesia.

Terrible things
“There has been no systematic thought given to the question of how soldiers or civilians in certain situations are capable of doing such terrible things,” says Oostindie. He thinks the issue has relevance to today: “You only have to think about the Dutch peace mission in Afghanistan”.

At the time, the Netherlands used the euphemism ‘police actions’ to describe the operations of its troops against Indonesian independence fighters. Oostindie explains that The Hague viewed Indonesia as Dutch territory and so could not talk of a war. Indonesia gained its independence in 1949 after more than three years of fighting. Over 5,000 Dutch soldiers and an estimated 150,000 Indonesians had lost their lives in the process.