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Doesn’t a poem have weight too? – De Groene Amsterdammer

Research: Indonesia 45-50, a struggle of different perspectives

Doesn’t a poem have weight too?

The final research on the Dutch military actions in Indonesia between 1945 and 1950 is criticized by various historians. Indonesian historical sources are getting too little attention. And who will write the popular synthesis?

De Groene Amsterdammer, April 17, 2019, By: Niels Mathijssen 

Wednesday evening, September 14th2017. At Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam the kickoff of the research on the Dutch military actions in Indonesia between 1945 and 1950 takes place. NIOD director Frank van Vree speaks first. He underlines that it took a long time for this research to come into being. This is an understatement. On that very moment, it was seventy years after the end of the war. It started in 1945, after freedom fighter and nationalist Sukarno proclaimed the Republic of Indonesia on August 17th. The Netherlands wanted its former colony back and pulled the new country into war and violence. At the end of 1949 the old colonizer accepted its loss. This gory conflict then was collectively repressed for over two decades.

In 1969, Dutch war veteran Joop Hueting bravely confronted this collective amnesia with an interview in the Vara television program Achter het nieuws, in which he told about war crimes which he both saw and committed himself. Hueting underlined that these were not isolated incidents. The public commotion that followed was so large that the Dutch government had no choice but to institute a research project. The outcomes became known as the Excessennota. The conclusion of this rush job, which was supervised by Cees Fasseur, then not yet a famous Dutch historian but a young jurist at the national government, was that the Dutch army in general terms acted correctly during this war. Although terrible excesses occurred, only a very small portion of the Dutch armed forces was responsible for this. That prime minister Piet de Jong rewrote the conclusion himself, was unknown at that time. This conclusion is still, until today, the official position of the Dutch government.

Today we know more. The court cases that Indonesian Jeffry Pondaag and lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld started against the Dutch state gave Indonesian victims a voice and a face. The Dutch government was forced in 2011 by a Dutch judge to take responsibility for its actions in Rawagede, the Indonesian village where Dutch soldiers massacred 431 Indonesian men and boys through extrajudicial executions. More court rulings followed. The research De Brandende Kampongs van Generaal Spoor by the Dutch-Swiss historian Rémy Limpach in 2016 clearly demonstrated that Dutch war crimes certainly had a structural character. Court cases and research made the Dutch government reluctantly realize that its official position on the war in Indonesia couldn’t be maintained any longer. But before a new position is to be taken, a new and thorough research should take place.

One year and a halfafter the meeting in Pakhuis de Zwijger the ongoing investigation is frequently under attack in national and international media. The set-up of the research is being criticized for its Dutch focus, which is becoming more and more constrictive. Moreover, ‘Positivist’ and ‘Post-colonial’ historians fundamentally differ in the use of sources and methods to be deployed, and the collaboration with Indonesian historians is more difficult than expected. Finally, questions are being raised as to the setup and authorship of the public thesis.

What the approach of the research should be is fiercely debated in The Hague. The administration wrote in 2016 in a letter to the House of Representatives that it is important that the issues raised by the Limpach study are researched more thoroughly. The emphasis of the research program is on war violence and its context—the administrative, political and judicial activity of the Dutch. Another demand is that the Bersiap period should be included, the months directly after the end of The Second World War in which a relatively large number of Dutch became victims of violence by Indonesians. Furthermore, the Dutch government wants to take the Dutch war veterans into account. The influence of their veteran organizations is waning, but some politicians nevertheless stand firmly for their interests. Also, various politicians stress that this is the last time research on the war in Indonesia is being funded by the Dutch government. This is a one-time opportunity. Therefore, the stakes are high.

In February 2017 it was announced that the administration would grant a special subsidy of 4.1 million Euros. The Institute of War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies (NIOD), the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), and The Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH) which is part of the Ministry of Defence, submitted a research proposal in 2012, but financing was turned down at that time. But things are different now. The new research proposal of the three institutes meets all requirements, the administration states. The board of the research program, consisting of the directors of the three institutes—Frank van Vree (NIOD), Gert Oostindie (KITLV), Ben Schoenmaker (NIMH)—and  media historian Mariëtte Wolf get to work on the shaping of the research program. None of them has a specialty in Indonesia or the war in question. What stands out is that valuable critique is not at all, or barely, listened to at the moment.

The Board of the research program gladly emphasises during meetings and in interviews that the research is independent. It is true that the historians have scientific freedom. They can choose their methods and write and conclude what they want. But the set up that was outlined by the Dutch administration and board of the research program is a restriction. What if halfway through the research new insights show that it is better to take on a different approach? Will the board of the research program let go of the pre-arranged framework? This seems very unlikely and is potentially problematic. This is apparent from the dynamic in which historians and the program board have found themselves.

From the moment the government subsidy was granted, there was talk of ‘connecting different perspectives’. In a letter from February 2017, Frank van Vree stated that in dialogue with Indonesian historians there will be room for Indonesian perspectives. Historian Onno Sinke, who is part of the Bersiap sub study group, wrote in an opinion article in NRC Handelsblad that the collaboration with Indonesian historians is one of the priorities.

At the kick off in De Zwijger, KITLV program coordinator Ireen Hoogeboom says that there is collaboration with Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. Two historians, the very experienced Bambang Purwanto and Abdul Wahid, were at that very moment selecting Indonesian researchers from various regions, Hoogeboom explained. It is intended that these Indonesian researchers will work intensively with their Dutch colleagues. “They will research a region as a duo. An important added value of such a collaboration is that Indonesian and Dutch sources can be laid side by side,’ Hoogeboom states. ‘This has an impact on the perspectives that arise and who can be connected between themselves.’ It’s an ambitious goal but Hoogeboom doesn’t expect problems in this regard.

But anyone who takes a closer look at the research program, can see that this cooperation only refers to two out of the nine sub studies in total – Bersiap and Regional Studies. That last group includes researchers who each have been assigned to a geographical part of Indonesia, subsequently to look at what happened during the war on a local level, who the actors were and why they did what they did. For example, historian and journalist Anne-Lot Hoek focuses on Bali, NIOD Researcher Martijn Eickhoff on Central Java. In other sub studies – Political and Administrative Processes, Asymmetric Warfare, to name a few – the collaboration is of no or only little importance. But for outsiders this is not always clear.

Another development is that from the very beginning the research has been under fire from a small but striking group of critics. One of them is Jeffry Pondaag. This group, which consists of activists and researchers, amongst others, can’t be ignored. This is because they are persistent and also because their arguments are valid. Among other things, they see the research design as limited, because only the five years of war are taken into account. This suggests that Dutch and Indonesian violence were equal. They fear that three and a half centuries of Dutch suppression, exploitation, and violence are kept out of sight.  If this factor isn’t made explicit in the research, then the research program is falsifying history, they find. Furthermore, these critics want Indonesian historians to have a more prominent position in the research program and they take exception to the choice of KITLV director Gert Oostindie writing the public synthesis. In particular, because in their eyes he is no expert on Indonesia, they consider him not suitable.

The board of the research program seems to be surprised by these critics. They expected comments from veterans, but to these post-colonial reproaches they seem to have no immediate fitting response. At the end of January 2019 there was an uneasy meeting between the program board and representatives of the group of critics at the NIOD institute in Amsterdam, but no new insights or adjustments to the program were made. But it does make clear that these critics will keep building up the pressure with their post-colonial critique.

The research group is also far from homogeneous. Within the research program there is talk of positivist and post-colonial historians. The first focus mainly on Dutch archives, while the latter view these same archives as problematic. They focus specifically on other sources. This division is not absolute and some historians involved are part of both these streams, but there is clearly a difference in scientific opinion between the historians involved. Some of the more post-colonial historians stand more closely to the group of critics then their positivist colleagues do.

“What you should do as a historian in any case is that you should undermine your own assumptions. It’s as if you run interference in your own research. You should look for different voices, different perspectives, different sources, data that are hard to find in Dutch archives,” notes professor of colonial and post-colonial literature and history of the University of Amsterdam Remco Raben as an example. He researches the political and administrative processes in the war within the program.

Raben finds the research ‘intrinsically problematic’. Among other things this has to do with representation. Most research in the Netherlands has been based on the overwhelming amount of administrative sources, which were prepared by the Dutch colonizer. They are steeped in a racist view of the white elite of the complex colonial society. They represented the oppressor, not the oppressed. ‘Those Dutch administrative and military sources are numerous’; Raben outlines the problem, ‘while there are far less writings available by Indonesian groups in that society, which furthermore are less accessible.’

So sources of the colonial administrative elite are not only very strongly coloured, but also extremely overrepresented. How to write a multi-perspective history which does justice to all those different perspectives with this level of inequality of sources? ‘One should look for different voices, different perspectives, different sources, data that is hard to find in Dutch archives,’ Raben states. ‘One can only find these in Indonesia.’ He’s not referring to Indonesian government archives in Jakarta, although it is impossible to ignore them. ‘I’m talking about other sources, which represent experiences of the Indonesian population or administrators.’

The advantage of mobilizing counter voices is twofold. First, it enriches one’s view by looking at Dutch strategy from the other side. ‘Even if one looks through a Dutch lens to the war in Indonesia, these Indonesian sources are of critical importance. Because how else can one find out what the effects were of the Dutch violence? Thus it is important the Indonesian voice gets accommodated. But diversity of perspective also works in a total different, more abstract way. What also weighs in is that the perspective of the Indonesian historiography fundamentally differs from Dutch historiography. If one views Dutch or Indonesian sources from an Indonesian historiographical perspective, one gets potentially a total different approach, with different questions and an emphasis on different subjects. A totally different history is produced than we are used to.

Before historian and journalist Anne-Lot Hoek got involved in the program, she had done PhD research on the war on Bali as an independent researcher, for which she travelled multiple times to the island and interviewed some 150 Balinese and Dutch persons. ‘Talking to people is in my opinion of crucial importance for historical research.’ She also makes use of poems and memoires which she collects on the spot. There are almost no administrative sources on the island. A lot of historians view poems as just memory, but Hoek disagrees: ‘Some texts are written by people who experienced the war first hand. These most definitely contain factual knowledge of the war.’ This kind of data isn’t collected in one central place, like most historians in the Netherlands are used to. ‘You have to go to those small villages, you have to  meet the people.’ For Hoek it is clear: if one wants to understand the war in Indonesia, one must go there. ‘If you look from an Indonesian perspective you automatically will start asking different questions.’

Military historian Rémy Limpach, who works at the NIMH, emphasizes that one has to be critical of administrative sources and has to realize that these were produced with a clear goal and certain mind-set, but nevertheless produced during the actual historical events. ‘Because of this they are less subject to limitations of memory or in regard to taking the liberty of literary freedom.’ Limpach finds that sources like epic poetry have limited value in terms of expressiveness. ‘Because how can a historian check the acts of violence that are described? For me, that is the difficulty with these sources.’ Within the research program the historian will be taking care of the sub study on the functioning of the Dutch intelligence forces. ‘In that I do take personal documents like diaries, letters of soldiers, memoires and interviews into account. I also look at newspapers, film images and documentaries, for example. I see this data as complimentary to administrative sources.’

In this way Limpach’s focus is primarily on Dutch archives. There, Indonesian sources can also be found, he underlines. ‘Translations of monitored communications, documents that were taken in custody, but also Indonesian pamphlets and other propaganda materials, republican money, insignia, equipment items and also letters to Indonesian village heads which are addressed to colonial authorities.’ Nevertheless, in his research, Limpach takes on a pure Dutch historiographical perspective. This doesn’t produce a multi-perspective history with a versatility in perspectives like Remco Raben meant. In the whole research program, that isn’t achieved a lot anyway. Raben acknowledges the difficulty of this. ‘I’m afraid that I myself also fall short in this regard. It is a struggle. Moreover, one’s complete terminology is on shaky foundation if one looks into that other side. Almost all terms get called in to question.’

One year and a half ago after the start of the research program the collaboration with Indonesian researchers seemed much unrulier in practice than the program board had understood earlier. In the meantime, the Indonesians have taken on an autonomous position within the research. This means that they operate independently, independently from the Dutch researchers. They have chosen their own approach and formulated research questions of their own. This primarily has to do with the political sensitivities in Indonesia, Van Vree states: ‘These were much larger than we thought. In the course of the first year we came to know this.’ Van Vree doesn’t want to say anything else about the situation in Indonesia, nor do other Dutch historians. Probably they don’t want to create more difficulties for their Indonesian colleagues. ‘The Indonesian historians must speak for themselves’, is what is said repeatedly.

What is clear, is that there also is a substantive reason for the decision made by the Indonesians. The Dutch research program is focused on violence committed between 1945 and 1950. But Indonesian historians are not primarily interested in this aspect and this was already clear in 2016. In Indonesia official history tells that the Dutch were cruel soldiers who did terrible things. This narrative forms the version of the past that is being carried out by the Indonesian government. Historian Bambang Purwanto of the Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta wants to undermine and fragment this single-minded Indonesian narrative. His colleague Adbul Wahid confirmed this again in a radio reportage from the radio program Reporter in 2017. Because of this, they didn’t want to participate in the Dutch research program as it will only confirm the official Indonesian cliché story of the war and emphasize it all the more. Purwanto and Wahid are stuck between the research agenda of the Dutch and the one of the nationalist Indonesian government. Conforming themselves to either one is no option; hence the decision to operate autonomously.

Dutch researchers don’t have access to Indonesian archives – hassle with visas, Van Vree confirms, who hopes this situation changes. Interviewing Indonesian witnesses is also difficult, KITLV director Gert Oostindie explains. ‘Because this project is subsidised by the Dutch government, it is being followed closely in Indonesia. Our researchers can’t just go there, interviewing Indonesians. From a political perspective, the research program is much more sensitive there than in the Netherlands. That is why Dutch researchers can’t operate under the radar. This limits our freedom of movement.’ There were interviews done. ‘But it’s all a lot less than we expected at first.

Especially with some researchers who are involved in the sub studies Bersiap and Regional studies frustration rises in regard to the inaccessibility of Indonesian sources materials and the role Indonesian historians had during the set-up of the research program. Also the uncertainty concerning this whole situation isn’t productive. Nevertheless, they are doing what they can, in the circumstances. Esther Captain, coordinator of the Bersiap Program, says that while the Indonesian researchers operate autonomously and the cooperation is not as intense as was intended as first, there is a lot of contact and deliberation. This happens in small groups  of Dutch and Indonesian historians that focus on the same region. Once a year a workshop is organized at the Universitas Gadjah Mada in which Dutch and Indonesian historians participate. At the workshop that took place last year historical terms that were being used were discussed. Is decolonization appropriate or is the term re-colonization better? Is Bersiap violence of Indonesians against Dutch or should it also be seen as berdaulat: inter-Indonesian violence with respect to independence? Captain states that the Dutch historians mostly listen to their Indonesian colleagues during those moments.

After that workshop the title of the sub study changed. At first it only said Bersiap, but was converted to ‘Violence, bersiap, berdaulat: 1945 – 1946 transition‘. This new title is not only semantics. It shows in Captain’s opinion how tremendously complex this period is. An insight that was once more underlined by her Indonesian colleagues. Very valuable, in the words of the historian. Also, for NIOD researcher Martijn Eickhoff his deliberation and exchange with Indonesian colleagues in all stages of the research is crucial. That also goes for developing a self-critical view to Dutch colonial sources materials. ‘If that can’t be done, stories remain one-sided in an unacceptable way.’

But putting Dutch and Indonesian archival materials side by side will be difficult, he expects. ‘I think that this is almost undoable on the level of military confrontations and maybe it is not needed either.’ Eickhoff himself wants to look into the situation in Central Java. ‘I’m going to write a number of micro histories and at the moment I’m selecting the case studies I’m going to work on. In that respect I’ll also focus on Indonesian publications. I was in Semarang and there I’ll do on-site investigation, I’ll focus on the demarcation line, amongst other things. Eickhoff underlines the importance of this. ‘I want to talk to Indonesian witnesses and researchers, so I really can cross to the other side. That isn’t simple, also because of the current circumstances, but I think it will work out.’ Writing a micro history gives way to diversity of perspectives, says the NIOD historian. ‘In that process one tries to view certain events from various sides, without getting caught up in an a priori colonial good or bad. The focus primarily is on what people did and why they did so. Especially then the moral dimension, the meaning of Indonesian nationalism and the functioning of colonial traditions more clearly come forward. It then becomes clear why Dutch violence so often is pictured and understood as reactive.’

A solution would be to focus less on violence in the sub studies. That would make the collaboration with the Indonesian colleagues come more naturally and with that, the linking of different perspectives. That’s the crux: is it possible for the program board to go along with this, given the framework the Dutch administration has set?

Fuss over publicity at long last ensured that the research program came under a lot of pressure. Director Gert Oostindie of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies made some remarkable statements in an interview in the Historisch Nieuwsblad in December 2018.  For instance, he stated that the inclusion of the Bersiap in the research program was not   a demand of the government. In reality the contrary is true. Oostindie now says that he was wrong. ‘It is a demand of the government and I should have said that openly and clearly’, he indicates when asked. In that interview he also stated that to take aboard different perspectives doesn’t mean these automatically should be accepted and that Indonesian historical sources hold totally different information than in Dutch sources. But whether this has any meaning, is doubtful for Oostindie. Furthermore, he attacked postcolonial studies, the scientific movement that focuses on the continuing working of the colonial past on society nowadays.

The interview caused great resentment within the research program, especially with postcolonial historians. This was because of the statement made by Oostindie, but mostly because he spoke in the interview on behalf of the research program and he strongly took on a Dutch perspective. Subsequently it was agreed that researchers were allowed to distance themselves publicly from Oostindie if they felt like doing so. But this interview doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident; Oostindie previously made statements that many frowned upon. At the kick off at De Zwijger he stated for example that ‘in Indonesia’ there was never any urge to change ‘the fixed narrative of the war and revolution—quite the opposite.’ When realizing that the Indonesian historian Bambang Purwanto for years has tried to do exactly that with his research in Indonesia, this remark not only is out of place but also arrogant.

The problems the research program faces now come together in one issue: the question of who will write the public synthesis. Because this thesis is a fundamental part of the research summary, it very likely will determine the Dutch view upon the conflict in Indonesia for the upcoming decade.

The choice of Oostindie as writer of the public thesis was already criticized by the group of external critics. Because of this public statement this choice now is also challenged by historians who are part of the research program.  Because how seriously does he take diversity of perspectives, which is so important to a number of historians? Is it in good hands with Oostindie? The KITLV director himself doesn’t want to talk too much about this subject. It is under discussion with the research group and he doesn’t think it is wise to comment on an ongoing debate. But he does point out that a great number of researchers will co-read his texts. ‘Let me be clear about the rest: this is not about me and it should not be about me. Different perspectives are important for sure, but to me this is also a dilemma: how to make way for this diversity of perspectives and also tell a clear story? One wants to have a clear line.’ But exactly by creating such a clear line, you come up unmistakably with the voice of the writer of the text.

Anne-Lot Hoek doesn’t settle for this arrangement. ‘If one involves Indonesian researchers in one’s research program, and this is the most important opportunity of this project, then they should take part in the writing of the final product. Include an Indonesian researcher, for example Bambang Purwanto, and also an international historian to join.’ Esther Captain agrees with Hoek. She says asking Purwanto is one of the possible solutions. She is also open for authors who are completely independent from the research program or for asking an Indonesia expert. The more diversity of perspectives, the better, the historian states. Remco Raben also agrees with this. Oostindie indicates that asking Bambang Purwanto as co-writer isn’t a logical choice. ‘Exactly because he has indicated he’s choosing his own subjects, which are aimed at the social history of Indonesia and not on Dutch actions.’ This is a remarkable statement: because doesn’t this exactly concern the so much emphasized diversity of perspectives?

Frank van Vree doesn’t want to talk too much about the issue of the public synthesis. ‘For now we assume that Gert Oostindie is the author – or: an author. But we are in the middle of the discussion. We strive for, this I can say, a public synthesis to which all researchers can relate to, that the visions, points of view and the work of the various historians resound in an optimum way. We will come up with a form through which this will be guaranteed.’

The promise of Van Vree is hopeful but not practical. This uncertainty is problematic, because the public thesis is a crucial part of the research program. It comes down to making an essential choice. If the program board gives priority to a diversity of perspectives, the current construction can’t stay. If the current setup doesn’t change, the goal of writing a multi-perspective history is hard to achieve.

The dilemma that Gert Oostindie calls up with his comments touches a raw nerve. How far does the program board really want to go to guarantee a diversity of perspectives? Are they prepared to appoint multiple authors for writing the public thesis? Do they dare to loosen the focus on violence, so the cooperation with Indonesian historians will come more naturally? With this they would kill more birds with one stone: they will meet the demands of the critics and the worries of the postcolonial historians. How this struggle of different historical streams will end is unknown. Research and public thesis will be published in 2021.