Colonialism is often considered a legacy that still bothers us but will eventually disappear. Yet, apart from racist, colonial thoughts that are still reproduced in our minds, this is also about current power relations and ongoing profit-seeking. Take Europe’s lawsuit against Indonesia’s nickel export ban. The former colonizers sued Indonesia because they think they are the only ones entitled to exploit Indonesia’s resources, as they did for centuries. Despite signs of weakening, the Western empire has never really collapsed. After World War II, old-style colonialism only transformed into new style neo-colonialism.
As a Dutch historian, I am very much against the upcoming state visit of our King Willem-Alexander to Indonesia. The Dutch royal family earned millions, if not billions, from oppressing Indonesians for centuries without ever taking responsibility. This includes the abusive Cultivation System that, among others, financed the Netherlands’ railway system. In the early 1800s one of Willem-Alexander’s forefathers, King Willem I, decided he was the legitimate owner of regions where the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was active before, some decades after the world’s first multinational became bankrupt in 1799. At that time the Dutch claimed Java and other parts of the archipelago. Soon, the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) helped to expand the occupation. Many companies were also linked to the royal family including the predecessor of the oil firm Shell, the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company.
A Dutch TV report last December illustrated this colonial legacy, highlighting the enormous inheritance of Willem-Alexander’s grandmother Queen Juliana.The report didn’t explore how she became so wealthy; only focusing on the profitable deal the royal family managed to negotiate with tax authorities after her passing in 2004. They were allowed to pay just part of the inheritance tax with art pieces valued at 8.8 million euro. Imagine the total sum of her inheritance.
Now, as if all of that is already forgiven and forgotten, the King and Queen Máxima will meet President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on March 10 to 13 with over 130 business representatives. The number suggests huge interests are at stake. Dutch Ambassador to Indonesia Lambert Grijns urged us to focus on the future and the economic side of our bilateral relations: “The historical relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia is very, very good.” He also added that Dutch people were so welcome in Indonesia: “There is so much good will!”
Although I can understand the Dutch interest in the country that they previously occupied, I wonder: what makes the Netherlands an interesting business partner for Indonesia? Especially as my fellow citizens continue to humiliate Indonesia? Until today the Netherlands refuses to respect the 1945 Constitution, as my government still legally clings to 1949 as the year that Indonesia became independent. Arguably, the Dutch Embassy in Jakarta is illegal as it violates Indonesia’s constitutional principles.
This issue has never been resolved. Not in 2005 when Dutch foreign minister Ben Bot attended the 60-year anniversary of Indonesia’s independence. Out of fear of legal claims he couldn’t apologize for all the human rights violations by the Netherlands, only mentioning “regret’” (not apologies) for the violent ending of colonial rule in 1945-1949. He said something about de facto acceptance of the 1945 independence – yet the Dutch law that refers to 1949 as Indonesia’s independence year has never been revised.
In 1995 Willem-Alexanders’ mother, then Queen Beatrix, also paid a state visit to Indonesia. She deliberately arrived four days after Aug. 17 because Dutch veterans had problems with the independence celebration. Respecting war veterans seemed more important than respecting an entire nation.
Sure, Willem-Alexander may not be directly responsible for his ancestors’ actions. However, his position makes him responsible for dealing with this history properly. This should include showing awareness of the blood money that made his family extremely rich. Unfortunately, instead of trying to make up for his ancestors’ mistakes, he chooses to arrive in March to avoid any uncomfortable discussion on the legal recognition of 1945.
More than once the King has received letters from Indonesian relatives of victims of Dutch war crime victims,to which he has never replied. Last Jan. 31, representatives of an Indonesian group of war victims, namely Abd. Halik, Cardi, Nini Turaiza and Sitti Saerah, sent Willem-Alexander another letter in which they stated that he is not welcome as long as he and his country does not legally recognize 1945. They demand full apologies for everything the Dutch did. They had lost their elders during the independence war, mostly in South Sulawesi, Sumatra and Java.
Instead of meeting their demands, the royal couple announced their plan to visit Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in Jakarta to lay a wreath on the first day of their trip. The website of the Dutch royal family states they will: “[…] honor the war dead, especially those who fell during the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949).” Meanwhile they persist in effectively silencing people that demand attention for their relatives’ brutal murders.
Recently the Dutch foreign ministry invited six Indonesian journalists to the Netherlands ahead of the state visit. The attempt to influence Indonesian media coverage is because of many things they do not want you to know – including the Dutch refusal to legally recognize 1945. Willem-Alexander not only hasn’t answered the aforementioned letters, but the Dutch state still actively opposes justice for victims in court. Through the efforts of Jeffry Pondaag, an Indonesian in the Netherlands, Indonesian widows and children have been able to sue the Dutch state. The organization which he leads, the Committee of Dutch Honor Debts (KUKB), has won a number of court cases; many are ongoing.
Such legal proceedings threaten the Dutch image of a just and free, democratic nation; the International Criminal Court is based in The Hague. The country of justice convicted for brutal war crimes? This cannot be. Therefore, also due to Pondaag’s determination, Dutch leaders felt something should be done as the court cases made it increasingly difficult to ignore their bloody history.
To help counter the negative impact of the court cases the government is feigning responsibility; in 2017 they funded a large-scale investigation into the events of 1945-1949, to be concluded next year. However, immediately after the project was launched, Pondaag and another outspoken critic, Francisca Pattipilohy, 94, sent an open letter listing all the problems of this controversial study. For instance, instead of investigating Dutch colonialism, researchers talk about violence “on both sides” as if the Dutch were not occupiers but equal partners. Further, the research is not independent, with one of the institutions being directly under the Dutch defense ministry, which assists the state in opposing Indonesians’ lawsuits. The participating researchers therefore stand on the side of Netherlands’ government, which was not only the perpetrator of violence, but is still doing everything to prevent justice for the victims.
Therefore, however kind the Dutch King Willem-Alexander may appear, I consider him a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Instead of replying, or even planning to meet Abd. Halik, Cardi, Nini Turaiza and Sitti Saerah, he plans a reception for the Dutch community in Indonesia. The conditions to attend this meeting? A Dutch nationality and passport. This reminds us of the racist sign at many restaurants and swimming pools during colonial times, which allegedly read: “Forbidden for dogs and natives.”
Of course, we all wish to really forgive and forget. Unfortunately, continued colonial attitudes and policies show that the Netherlands is far from ready to move on. That The Hague is internationally seen as the city of peace and justice, is a slap in the face of all those who know the true face of the Netherlands.
Marjolein van Pagee is historian, photographer and founder of Histori Bersama, an online platform of translations that focuses on the Netherlands’ colonial history in Indonesia