Research project on Indonesian War 1945-1949: Ignorance and lost opportunity
The Jakarta Post, March 19, 2019, by: Juhaeri Muchtar
Fia Hamid-Walker’s opinion “Decolonization’s and White Supremacy in Disguise” (The Jakarta Post, Feb. 20, 2019) reminds us how colonialist mentality remains alive and well. In her piece, Hamid-Walker describes, in a meeting to discuss Dutch government’s research project on “Independence, decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia, 1945-1950”, how she was silenced for speaking and her presence was erased, in stark contrast to how others – white activists – were treated.
This is very consistent with how I perceive the project as no more than a half-hearted effort of the Dutch government, supported by a number of Dutch researchers, with their colonialist arrogance to portray their dark colonial history with a more positive narrative and to somehow de-criminalize their occupation of Indonesia.
I attended a meeting (sponsored by Indonesian Student Association in The Netherlands) with some of the researchers of that project, in person, in Amsterdam in April 2018. My opinion is, among others, based on that discussion.
Let’s start with the objective of the project, “to answer questions regarding the nature, scale and causes of structural violence in Indonesia, considered in a broader political, social and international context”; “attention will be paid to the chaotic period spanning August 1945 to early 1949”. There were many factors that caused the violence and chaos, but the only one relevant to the Dutch people was (and still is) the fact that they annexed Indonesia after its independence.
Before performing this project, the Dutch government should first and foremost evaluate the socio-economic and political factors that lead to the Dutch decision to re-occupy the country. Why did the Dutch come back after their defeat by the Japanese imperial army and after Indonesia gained its independence?
To ignore that very question is not only offensive but also unhelpful to improve our lack of understanding of the history; it would create more suspicion and even weaken the narrative of progress in Indonesia-Netherlands relations that we all want to foster.
The source of the budget is the Dutch government, the very government who refuses to formally recognize Indonesian’s independence of Aug. 17, 1945 to avoid the legal implication of their Indonesian occupation; had they recognized that date, their occupation in the period of 1945-1949 would have been illegitimate with myriad negative legal implications against them.
This is the very government whom Indonesia paid 4.5 billion guilders (approximately US$10 billion nowadays) to leave the independent nation that they had long occupied in peace. This reminds me of tobacco companies which funded research projects to show the positive impact of tobacco on health in the US 60 years ago. How could the public value the results with any sense of credibility?
So, who should fund the project to uncover Dutch colonial history? It is time for the good people of the Netherlands, via their no-tprofit organizations, to initiate more independent research projects. The good news is that there have been a few research projects funded by citizens but a more structural change, a change in the mindset and approach to addressing the issue, from non-governmental organization is needed.
Any research projects would produce results with a certain degree of believability only with involvement of all necessary stakeholders, in this case the government, academics (researchers or experts) and the public. I am not going to challenge the academic integrity of the researchers, but their careers depend on the projects and it will be difficult to completely ignore public perception of their compromise, consciously or not, to funder’s agenda.
To make real progress in the improvement of the knowledge on the still-largely-unknown Dutch colonial history in Indonesia, especially in the 1945-1949 period, and to make a real and tangible impact in both Dutch and Indonesian societies, what is needed is involvement from the public, including non-governmental organization; their voice needs to be heard as well to lend more credibility to the project. This concern was raised in that meeting in Amsterdam and in other occasions but it has been ignored.
Some of Indonesian academics were invited and are participating in the project. While I am not going to criticize their involvement, but with all due respect as an academic myself, I would challenge them to approach this project not only using rigorous scientific principles but also to consider a larger social and political context in their approach to performing the study, and to be more inclusive by including Indonesian public as co-investigators from Indonesian side as well.
As academics, we often are caught up in the mindset and framework of “Ivory Tower” mentality and underestimate, sometime ignore, the importance of public input. Indonesian society is also a critical stakeholder in this undertaking and needs to be included.
The timing is also suspicious, both the time period being evaluated (why not pre-World War II first, for example) and the timing of the project itself, almost 70 years after the Dutch left the country for good. Why so late? This is largely due to the colonial arrogance of the Dutch government and the ignorance of its society. Other colonizing countries were far more active in their self-evaluation and they did their studies much earlier; perhaps this is their reluctant attempt to do something to catch up with other colonial powers in their social and moral standing with regard to their stained colonial past.
Dutch colonial history is absent from the Dutch educational curriculum and consequently not too many people, especially among the younger generations, know what the colonial Dutch did in Indonesia. The public needs to know this and this project could have been used to improve the understanding constructive to both nations, to right the wrong.
Given its current approach, however, at least to me as an Indonesia, it has become another example of Dutch government’s ignorance and arrogance and, in the end, a lost opportunity for a truly collaborative and objective research project.
The writer is adjunct assistant professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA.