Bersiap: a debate that asks for more facts and more voices
NRC, 28 January 2022, by: Hanneke Chin-A-Fo
* (This is a quick Google translation, in case you wish to work on a proper translation, please contact us at email@example.com)
In recent weeks more than 6,000 words were devoted to that one word in the NRC columns, and it is still not enough. Bersiap. Bersiap? Bersiap? Bersiap? Many Dutch people had never heard of it, which makes the issue all the more painful for others.
In the meantime, no reader could escape it, and that is somewhere – in addition to all the relived suffering and anger – perhaps also good news: the debate that had been waiting for decades to be held thoroughly has finally erupted in full force, based on one opinion article. Except that the debate immediately escalated, resulting in two reports to the police.
Reason for De Journalistieke Keuken to reflect on the way newspaper [NRC] has dealt with the discussion so far and whether journalistic additions are possible that could give everything a more fruitful turn.
It started on Monday 10 January, when the editors published an article with the headline “Rijksmuseum bans the historical term ‘Bersiap’”. It was a news item accompanying an opinion article also published that day by Indonesian historian Bonnie Triyana, guest curator of the exhibition “Revolusi! Indonesia independent”, which can be seen in the Rijksmuseum from 11 February.
Triyana states in it that the museum has decided to no longer use the word Bersiap (literally: stand by!) to indicate the very violent period after the Japanese capitulation in Indonesia. According to him, that term has “a strongly racist connotation” if it is used in general for the violence that took place during the revolution with which Indonesia broke away from the Netherlands. Indonesians are portrayed as “primitive, uncivilized perpetrators” while the injustices of colonialism that led to the violence are ignored.
Bang! That was the sound of the opinion editors’ exploding inbox. Chef Peter Vermaas says he has never received so many responses to one article before. The newspaper printed a selection that Saturday. The tenor: is the Rijksmuseum now going to disregard the suffering of Indo Dutch, Ambonese, Moluccans, ethnic Chinese and other victims out of ‘wokeness’? The Federation of Dutch Indies people announced to file a police report against Triyana for this ‘Bersiap denial’.
In an interview in the same newspaper, Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits vigorously defended himself against the resulting image. The term will not be deleted, but only used in context, he says. The museum is not “in the progressive corner”. Triyana’s opinion piece only expressed a personal opinion, the director said. The Committee of Dutch Honorary Debts, [KUKB] which stands up for victims of Dutch colonialism, promptly filed a police report against the museum for discrimination and group insult. So everyone is upset.
“In de plomp laten zakken” [Dutch saying for: throwing someone under the bus]
“First and foremost: this is a historical discussion that should not be done via police reports,” says historian Anne-Lot Hoek, who wrote a book about the independence struggle in Bali. She was amazed about the interview with Dibbits. “It was a form of damage control, but he should have been more empathetic. Now he completely threw his guest curator under the bus in the newspaper. As a reader, you are left with the question of how the discussion within the Rijksmuseum about this term really went.”
Henk Schulte Nordholt, emeritus professor by special appointment of Indonesian history, also has this question. “It would be interesting to reconstruct these dynamics,” he thinks. “What is happening within the museum, how does it position itself in this historical debate?” The newspaper could also have interviewed Triyana again to give him the opportunity to explain his position on racism, he thinks. Triyana did not comply with a request for an interview.
Hoek and Schulte Nordholt think the newspaper added fuel to the fire by writing in headlines: “Delete the term ‘Bersiap'” (opinion article) and “ban the historical term Bersiap” (news item). After all, Triyana has not argued that it no longer uses the term in any context and the museum has not completely banned the term. Schulte Nordholt: “It will then become unbearable on social media in no time.”
‘Not one conclusive term’
Two people of the third-generation Indo-Dutch, musician and writer Robin Block (41) and antiquarian Miko Flohr (44), wrote articles in which they try to understand both sides. “There is not one conclusive term that can describe this turbulent period for any party,” says Block in a column in the magazine Moesson.
The overheated debate is “a blessing in disguise,” he adds by telephone. “It is now becoming clear to everyone that there are multiple perspectives. This exhibition is an excellent opportunity to make connections. Then it is inconvenient if the director says in the newspaper: ‘We don’t have to feel guilty or be ashamed’. It is not up to him to determine whether a visitor feels that.”
What could help, Block thinks, is if the newspaper allows all four curators – two Indonesians and two Dutchmen – to speak. “If they think differently about it, and it seems that way, you show that those differences are allowed to be there. In reality, the situation is very complex: victimization and perpetration sometimes even intertwine within families.”
This discussion had to take place at some point, according to Flohr, who in a blog describes the term Bersiap as “problematic”, but would also find it “unusually clumsy and insensitive” if it was simply declared “wrong”. “A large group of the first and second generation has been thinking about this period for a long time, but always in a certain isolation,” he says via Zoom. “Now all of a sudden, with the upcoming exhibition on the subject that has occupied them for so long, other voices are emerging.”
Flohr is therefore curious about other speakers from Indonesia. “How widely is Triyana’s opinion held there?” And some groups have not yet been heard at all, he notes: Moluccans and Chinese Dutch with roots in Indonesia. “They also live in the Netherlands because of what happened in Indonesia at that time.”
Until September, nine editors take turns in this section to take a critical look at our journalism. They deal with questions from readers and meet people in society who are involved with NRC journalism. Arjen Fortuin will become the new Ombudsman on 1 September. Questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.