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Apartheid system elephant in the room – De Andere Krant

The Dutch government-sponsored research project Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950 has caused a lot of commotion. Prime Minister Mark Rutte lied about the recognition of the Indonesian independence date of August 17, 1945, which the Netherlands still does not legally recognize. A group of Dutch-Indies people got removed from the Dutch House of Representatives after they reacted too emotionally on the government’s rejection to pay back colonial salaries. And Thierry Baudet, leader of the national conservative party Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy, FvD) started a crowdfunding campaign for those “who stood on the Dutch side”. Historian Marjolein van Pagee argues that they all miss one important link: the three-layer apartheid system that the Netherlands implemented in Indonesia from 1850 onwards.

Apartheid system is the elephant in the room of Dutch Indonesia-debate 

De Andere Krant, 24 juni 2023, by: Marjolein van Pagee

During the parliamentary debate on June 14th about the results of the research project Independence, decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950, Thierry Baudet maintained that colonialism was beautiful. According to him, Europeans were so generous to expose the colonized peoples – who genetically lacked the special European qualities – to the unique European superiority. In the video message announcing his crowdfunding campaign, he said that he stood up for those “who lived through the old world” and were on the Dutch side. He was mad at “the cartel” (the Dutch government) that has dropped Dutch-Indies people. He called himself pro-colonial and is proud of his Dutch-Indies roots.

But people who identify as “Indies”, are not Indonesians, even though the average Dutch person does not know the difference. Moreover, Baudet’s vision is not that far removed from the policy pursued by the Dutch government. The latter still cares more about those who were on the Dutch side than about Indonesians who suffered under the occupation. For the 277 million inhabitants of Indonesia, “Indië” (the Dutch East Indies) and “Indisch” (Dutch-Indies) are not terms to identify with. For them, the Dutch East Indies is only a historical reference to the Dutch occupation that existed before 1942. They identify with the Republik Indonesia, the country that declared its independence in 1945.

In the Netherlands, the so-called “Indisch community” estimates about two million people. When I explain Indonesians that descendants in the Netherlands base their identity on the name of the colony, they usually react with surprise. For them, “Indië” was not an ordinary country, but a system of oppression that you don’t identify with. 

In the Netherlands, “Indisch” is often explained as synonym for “Indo-European”: people of mixed descent. This is misleading. “Indos” are both found in the Netherlands and Indonesia. The difference is that not all of them got the special Dutch-Indies status with Dutch citizenship. Therefore, the Indisch identity is not so much about being “mixed”, but mainly about the racist policy that divided the group of Indo-Europeans and alienated them from their Indonesian roots.

Early seventeenth century, from the moment the first VOC ships arrived in the Indonesian archipelago, Dutch men entered into unequal relationships with local women. Usually these women were no more than concubines: housekeepers and sex slaves for their Dutch masters. Out of these colonial relationships children were born who throughout the centuries became an important middle group. From 1850 onwards, in order to keep control over all groups, the Netherlands introduced a three-layered apartheid system that has existed for almost a hundred years. In this system, Europeans and legally equalized Indo-Europeans formed the top layer. A little lower on the racist ladder were Chinese, Arabs and Indians (people from India) who were referred to as “foreign orientals” and formed the colonial middle class. The lowest category, derogatorily referred to as “inlanders” (natives), consisted of the original population. They were looked down upon. They were refused access to European restaurants and swimming pools on the basis of their “race”, for example by signs with texts as: “forbidden for dogs and natives”. They also had to sit in separate compartments in trains and trams. In most cases they received no education. In 1942, only six percent of them could read and write.

People of mixed Indo-European descent occurred in all three layers. To qualify for the highest attainable status of European, they depended on their father’s choice. If he legally recognized his brown offspring, they could claim his inheritance and literally more doors would open for them. If he did not recognize them, they automatically received the status of the mother, with less wealth and rights as a result.

For most Indisch people in the Netherlands, they − or their ancestors − through the patriarchal line enjoyed the special European status in the colony. It is the reason that they are here and not there. The unrecognized mixed-race “Indos” could not claim Dutch citizenship and therefore, willingly or not, merged into the Indonesian population. After independence, Indonesia abolished apartheid laws and everyone, regardless of origin, was an Indonesian from that moment on.

The apartheid system is the elephant in the room that is not being discussed. Yet it is this system of inequality that still strongly influences the composition of Dutch society. It is the reason that Indonesians as a group are hardly heard or seen in the Netherlands. Take for example the fact that only Indisch, Moluccan and Dutch veteran organizations were asked to take part in the Social Focus Group of the research project, whereas the Indonesian (KUKB, the Committee of Dutch Honorary Debts) was excluded. While it were precisely the lawsuits of KUKB, on behalf of Indonesian relatives, that led to the funding of the research.

From a political and historical point of view, it is no coincidence that an Indonesian organization as KUKB was not asked to advise the researchers. The exclusion of Indonesians shows that the apartheid system is still in operation. The researchers defended their choice by stating that it concerned a “Dutch Focus Group”. In fact, this meant that the opinion of critical Indonesians, in contrast to Dutch-Indies descendants, was not considered important, as they did not have a Dutch passport. Imagine a German research on the Holocaust that excludes a Jewish interest group, based on the excuse that only Germans are allowed to participate.

For the Netherlands, the feelings of the occupiers (veterans) and those who were on their side (Dutch-Indies people) are still more important than the feelings of those who suffered from the occupation. FvD-leader Baudet may be critical of the “cartel” because of the overdue salaries that some Dutch-Indisch widows still owe, but he cannot deny that Dutch-Indisch people are considered more important by the Dutch state than Indonesians who do not matter at all.

Baudet was one of the few politicians to speak out against the unjust QR-policy during the corona period. Yet in the way he glorifies colonialism, I see a double standard. He disapproves of one form of apartheid while praising the other. Does he realize that his Indonesian maternal ancestor from whom he descends, was treated as a third-class citizen in her own country? When asked, Baudet replied that he believes that Indonesians much appreciated the Dutch occupation. According to him, if the Dutch did commit crimes there, these were only individual cases that we should see “in the context of that time”.

To make a translation to the future, in the scenario that the Great Reset of the WEF succeeds: what would be on Baudet’s mind when his grandchildren years later say that “it was just normal in the context of that time. Grandpa Thierry owned nothing, but at least he was happy”?