‘The investigation on the colonial war in the Dutch East Indies is doomed to fail’
HPdetijd, September 18, 2017, By: Marjolein van Pagee
Last Thursday in Amsterdam the kick-off took place of the new investigation on the colonial war that the Netherlands fought against Indonesia between 1945 and 1949. The four-years study will cost the Dutch taxpayer more than 4 million euros. Unfortunately, this plan is doomed to fail. This sounds pessimistic, but when the plans are drastically changed it can still become a successful research, according to Marjolein van Pagee. She explains her criticism in five points.
1. Too much attention for war crimes?
The research wants to know on what scale and how systematically Dutch soldiers committed war crimes. This focus is misleading because not only the most brutal acts of violence need attention. By only focusing on the most excessive violence this investigation will not teach us something new; the real problem is that the Netherlands is unwilling to know. Despite the numerous publications about Dutch war crimes, still the rhetorical question is being asked whether the Dutch has committed war crimes. While in fact this is already proven by Rémy Limpach (author of ‘De Brandende kampongs van General Spoor’) and his predecessors.
Why is it so difficult to swallow that the Dutch, just like all other human beings on earth, are capable of committing war crimes? When young guys are send into a war with a gun in their hands – indoctrinated with the propaganda that criminal gangs are terrorizing local people, it should not surprise that terrible things happen. Especially when you place that against the background of an extremely racist system.
Nevertheless, every time publications on Dutch war crimes appear it seems to come as a total shock, hence the need to thoroughly investigate this once and for all. Perhaps the refusal to accept this painful truth is related to the colonial system in the Dutch East Indies, which led Dutch people for centuries believe that they were really better than their colonial subjects. Again, with astonishment – and who knows job interest – researchers are now going to investigate the most extreme violence in the next four years and place that against the background of the political decision-making. In doing so an important question is ignored: Was the system in which these crimes took place not also racist and humiliating when there was no violence?
2. Is a colony legitimate?
It already goes wrong when the Indonesian independence war is presented as a regular conflict using the rhetoric of ‘it takes two to tango,’ which suggests that both sides are equally guilty. As if this war was about two legal states sharing the same responsibility. The assumption that Indonesia is guilty for what happened during the Bersiap reveals that this is indeed the current line of thinking. Yet totally ignoring the fact that a colonial regime is never based on legitimacy.
That the Dutch had been active in this region for centuries does not make the claim valid. Research to the scale on which Dutch soldiers committed war crimes does not touch upon the question whether the colony as such had a legal basis. Was the Dutch claim on the region not a human rights violation to begin with, even when (let’s say) Dutch soldiers handed out bread and medication between 1945 and 1949?
Focussing on the most extreme violence during a limited timeframe is meaningless as long as the colony is seen as a democratically chosen government, against which the Indonesians opposed.
3. Are we not asking the wrong questions about the Bersiap?
The research is also going to pay attention to the Bersiap. In the Netherlands the term refers to the outburst of Indonesian anti-colonial violence, a period that lasted from October 1945 to the beginning of 1946. Investigating the anti-colonial violence is indeed important since there is still confusion. However, the research question now being asked is the problem in reverse. In his letter NIOD-director Frank van Vree informed the Dutch government that the main question about the Bersiap concerns the psychological effect of this violence on the behaviour of Dutch soldiers.
The problem in reverse
It means that the Bersiap is used to explain how it was possible that Dutch boys committed crimes. As if those ‘honest [Dutch] boys’ would not have crossed the lines of humanity when the Indonesians would not have been so violent. That is reversing the problem. First, most of the Dutch [conscript] soldiers had never been in Indonesia before; they had not experienced the Bersiap-period. Secondly, it is impossible to see the Indonesian anti-colonial violence as starting point, regardless of its brutality.
Instead of ‘politionele acties’ the Dutch researchers now talk (politically correct) about a ‘colonial war’ but clearly not understanding where ‘colonial’ stands for. In this frame Indonesia is accused of equal responsibility for a violent escalation they had not started. As if the Indonesian hatred exploded out of nothing. Apparently, it is also very difficult to process [for the Dutch] that Indonesians did not appreciate the colonial regime.
No matter how you look at it, it is simply unacceptable to disconnect the Bersiap from the previous colonial repression and the Dutch disrespect when Sukarno in 1945 proclaimed the independence. Were those people who were murdered during the Bersiap in fact not victims of Dutch colonialism as well? One of the questions the researchers should ask instead is how the Dutch anti-Indonesian propaganda indoctrinated the Dutch minds and how this still affects the current perception in the Netherlands.
4. Biased research?
Another thing is that this is the opposite of neutral and independent research since one of the three institutions that is going to conduct the research, the Dutch Institute for Military History (NIMH), is part of the Dutch Ministry of Defence. This institution assists the Dutch State in refuting legal claims of Indonesian war victims. Which were launched with the help of Jeffry Pondaag and his K.U.K.B. Foundation.
It is the same government who replies to the elderly victims: sorry, there is not enough evidence; we don’t believe what you say. The point is that NIMH employees have a double role when their expertise is also used to counter claims of Indonesian war victims. Rémy Limpach nevertheless believes that the neutrality of his institute is not at stake, as the Dutch government did not prevent the publication of his controversial book – containing sensitive information.
Yet it is not the freedom of press that is at stake in the Netherlands. Researchers and journalists are not restricted but the question is: Do we trust those in power not a little bit too much? Individual researchers might be free to publish whatever they want, but what about those who are pulling the strings? How are they going to frame the results? Remember that during, and right after the war, several reports had been published also containing sensitive information. After publication they were forgotten about again.
Of course, it is difficult to say to what extent the three directors are adjusting the research plan to the wishes of Dutch politics, yet at least it is worrisome that nobody protests when one of the directors, who is not an expert on Indonesian history, is going to write the summary book on his own. How can such a complex topic be trusted to the vision and word choice of one man? To prevent that politically sensitive issues will be condoned again, it would be better if each researcher submits one chapter.
Absence Jeffry Pondaag
With some pride the cooperation with Indonesian historians was announced, however during the kick-off Indonesians were painfully missing in the panel. In fact, the Dutch-based Indonesian Jeffry Pondaag, who had a leading role in asking attention for this matter, was not invited. Although the different presenters admitted that the court cases (that Pondaag initiated) had been an important trigger that got the ball rolling, he was not invited and not given a minute to speak. When optimistically announcing the collaboration with Indonesians, is the research team aware of how fundamentally different the Dutch way of thinking is?
If they are not open to the opinion of one single Indonesian who actually fights against the one-sided view on colonial history in the Netherlands, what do they expect from the collaboration with Indonesian researchers? Of course, activists and academicians are not the same; yet academicians mingling with politicians carry a much greater risk.
It is alarming when an Indonesian who is merely driven by idealism is completely side-lined, while his motivation is rather innocent in comparison to political interests. Where are the watchdogs in Dutch society who, instead of chitchatting and copy-pasting the research plans, criticize those in power?
The bias of the Dutch mind-set
In order to break down deeply rooted assumptions the researchers should discuss their own bias first. The image of Indonesian freedom fighters as bloodthirsty terrorists who all committed horrendous killings is rarely questioned. Including the question how the rhetoric of that period still influences Dutch thinking until today.
The terminology is now discussed in a political correct way, but not unravelling the ideas behind it. While in fact the predominantly white researchers are already biased because of their place in Dutch society. Of course, everyone is subjective, yet it becomes troublesome when researchers are completely blind for their own bias.
5. The wrong moral interpretation
Dutch researcher Esther Captain (who is going to investigate the Bersiap) did emphasize that a moral interpretation of the history is an important task of a historian. Yet, those who lead the investigation keep repeating that it should not be about good or bad. That became most apparent in the report by Dutch national television NOS last week.
When author Alfred Birney criticized the “neo-colonial patronizing attitude”, KITLV director Oostindie responded: “As if we are moralizing here, that’s exactly not what the research wants to do; we do not want to say that we were good or bad.” But the question is: why not?
History writing is not just doing mathematics. Does a historian, whether or not unconsciously, not always judge about the events he describes? That this is the case becomes visible in the outline of the investigation, as it is implied that Indonesia is equally guilty [for the Bersiap.] This is actually the same as assumption that Dutch historians are neutral. There is no historian who only presents facts without judging and explaining them, whether that is in a positive or in a negative way.
The frame and word choice reveal how the writer personally interpret the events and for this reason it is necessary to take the subjectivity of the author into account. It also means that the Dutch research team has the complex task to help the ignorant Dutchman with understanding this history from a moral point of view. Even though there will be multiple opinions and judgements, causing disagreements among historians.
The resistance of Dutch historians against moralism is not something new. In 1996 historian Drooglever said about Dutch colonial history: “There was and is a strong moral approach, right or wrong,” and according to him this was not suitable in an analysis of the colonial war. At the same time he believed that in relation to WWII such a good-versus bad frame was not problematic because during that conflict it was clear who was right or wrong. As this was unclear in the case of colonialism [according to him] he concluded that “excited disputes about previous intentions” were useless. But then he violated his own rule by uttering a shameful [positive] moral judgment saying that he totally understood that the Netherlands had launched the first military action. He argued that the first action was the reason that Dutch companies could continue making profit in Indonesia until 1957. Nevertheless he found the second action less successful because of the bad publicity and the [Dutch] losses. But for Indonesia he thought that the second action had been positive as the Indonesian Army became better organized as it also contributed to strengthen the Indonesian national unity.
Falsification of Dutch National History
Enough about Drooglever’s falsification of the Dutch national historiography. Clearly, with his totally insane reasoning he showed that he did not know where he was talking about. Would he suppress his moral outrage when someone explains the positive side of the Holocaust by arguing that this contributed to the unity of the Jews who survived? When it was still okay for a Dutch historian to condone colonial crimes fifty years after the war this mentality had not suddenly disappeared.
Keep in mind that historian Lou de Jong in 1988 even explained the Bersiap by the nature of Indonesians. No one corrected him when he wrote that the Bersiap was so violent because the Javanese were known for their “smouldering aggressiveness” that could pop up unexpectedly.
Conclusion: let’s have more ‘exited disputes’ to get this colonial nonsense out of our heads. Only then there will be progress.
[Originally published in Dutch. Translated by Marjolein van Pagee. Please send us an e-mail if you think you can improve the translation: firstname.lastname@example.org]