The Moluccan dream – still alive at 60

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After 60 years, many Moluccans living in the Netherlands still hope their islands – now part of Indonesia – will be independent one day.
How long can you go on believing in a dream? The Moluccans in the Netherlands have been clinging to the dream of an independent homeland for 60 years, although many might deny that. Younger Moluccans, born and raised here in the Netherlands, seem to have other things on their mind.
The Moluccan community in the Netherlands hails from an archipelago that is now part of Indonesia, but just over 60 years ago still formed part of Holland’s colonial empire, the Dutch East Indies.
Once a year, the Moluccans hold a ritual flag-raising ceremony, commemorating the declaration of independence from Indonesia by their islands, the South Moluccas (known within Indonesia as the Province of Maluku), on 25 April 1950 – 60 years ago this month.
This independence - officially recognised by one country only - was to be short-lived. Just four months later, Indonesian troops put a violent end to the largely Christian Republic of South Molucca (RMS). A flow of refugees to the Netherlands resulted.
The Moluccan community in the Netherlands numbers some 50,000 people and is ‘led’ by a government in exile. The aspiration for an independent homeland is still passed on from father to son, mother to daughter. Any expression of doubt about the ideal of the RMS is almost regarded as an act of treason by the older generation. Nonetheless, many young people have dropped the whole notion, says Chris Soukotta (37).

“There are more and more young people who don’t care much about it. It seems to me that they’ve become Westernised. The ‘French Fries’ generation - that’s what we call them”.

The feeling that they were betrayed by the Dutch unites the Moluccan community almost as much as the struggle for an independent country. After Indonesia won its independence in 1949, many Moluccan soldiers who had fought on the side of the Dutch were sent to the Netherlands for demobilisation, with the promise that they would return very shortly.

The Dutch authorities housed them and their families in camps. They believed their stay in the Netherlands would indeed be short, and that they would soon be able to go back home. But Indonesia’s rule took a firm hold, and the Dutch failed to do anything to bring about Moluccan independence or the safe return of its former soldiers. Most South Moluccans were Christian, part of the Dutch-speaking colonial elite who had fought on the losing side. Their islands were subsequently absorbed – although not totally - into a predominantly Muslim Indonesia and the world they had known started to disappear.

The powerlessness of the Moluccan community led to a radicalisation of their young people in the 1970s. The result was a number of terrorist incidents, including the occupation of and taking of hostages at the Indonesian embassy in The Hague.

The independence cause made international headlines again when, in December 1975, a group of determined Dutch Moluccan youths seized a train, taking 50 passengers hostage, two of whom were shot and killed in front of television cameras. The Netherlands was thrown into a state of shock by the hijacking. Another train hijack took place in 1977, along with the seizure of toddlers and teachers at a primary school, again causing a wave of disbelief in the country.

Since then there have been no more terrorist incidents. As John Wattilete, the newly-appointed president-in-exile of the RMS, points out, violence doesn’t advance your cause at all.

“We’re living in different times now. We believe that to achieve our aim – the establishment of an independent state – we don’t need to use violence. It’s better to choose the path of dialogue, lobbying, and all that. That way we’ll actually achieve more”.

Mr Wattilete, a busy lawyer here in the Netherlands, has a more pragmatic approach than his predecessors. While he advocates an independent RMS as his ideal, he hints at a more realistic solution – some degree of autonomy from Indonesia. And he has demonstrated a willingness to talk to the old adversary, unlike the old diehards within the Moluccan community who cling to the image of Indonesia as the bitter enemy.

Josina Soumokil, the widow of one of the men who read out the RMS’ declaration of independence 60 years ago, is part of the old guard. Her husband, Chris Soumokil, died at the hands of Indonesian military forces in 1966. Chris had urged his wife to continue the struggle in the Netherlands.

“The way I see it, if the RMS is only a dream, why is the Indonesian government frightened of us? A dream is what you have in the evening, at night, while you’re asleep in your bed. When you wake up in the morning, it’s gone, forgotten. But if you look at what happened on the island of Ambon - why does the army arrest peaceful people who raise the RMS flag? Why are they thrown into prison if the RMS is only a dream in the eyes of the Indonesian government?”

It’s not yet known how the Moluccans plan to commemorate this special 60th anniversary of the short-lived independence of their republic.