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Not Understanding the Indonesian Wish to be Independent – Tirto

Dutch Arrogance & Ignorance in Not Understanding the Indonesian Wish to be Independent

Tirto, August 17, 2017, Written by: Ivan Aulia Ahsan, Edited by: Fahri Salam, translated by: Madito Mahardika

The last two decades of Dutch colonial rule were characterised by anxieties over an economic crisis, national movements, and the future of the Dutch East Indies.

“The East Indies is the cork on which the Netherlands floats.” – J.C. Baud, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies (1834-1836).

J. C. Baud’s statement echoed throughout the century after he came to power. He made this statement at a time when the forced cultivation system was just implemented. Through this system, the Netherlands could pay off the costs of the Java War. The statement showed the Dutch economic dependence on their former colony which they dubbed “De Gordel van Smaragd” (the belt of emerald).

When the ethical policy and economic liberalism were implemented, the Dutch dependence did not change. In fact, The Netherlands became even more dependent on the Indies. In the early 20th century, the Netherlands, a small kingdom surrounded by major European empires, seemed to find pride in pretending to be the owner of an archipelago with a size comparable to the distance Moscow-London.

The Short Period of Prosperity and the Economic Depression

Life during colonial times. Source photo: Gahetna

In the early 20th century the welfare [of the Indonesian peoples] increased in the Indies. This was due to the implementation of the ethical policy that paved the way for indigenous Indonesians to obtain proper education. The combination of better welfare and the implementation of the ethical policy improved the standard of living, without any precedent in the history of Dutch colonialism in the Indies.

In terms of economic statistics, in the early 20th century, the Indies recorded a drastic surge in government revenues compared to previous periods. As shown in the History of Economic Statistics of Indonesia edited by Pieter Creutzberg and J.T.M. van Laanen (1987), from an average of 125 million guilders per year in the last decade of the 19th century, the figure surged to 700 million in the 1920s, nearly six times in thirty years alone. This achievement made many other colonial countries extremely envious.

During that period, on average, about 10 per cent of the net income of the Indies went to the Kingdom of the Netherlands or contributed 8 per cent to their total Net Domestic Product. This data was obtained through calculations carried out by Angus Maddison in the Economic History of Indonesia (1988). The surge in income was obtained mainly from the increase in crop yield export commodities from plantations outside Java. With such huge income, the Dutch directly benefited from the increased prosperity of the Indies. Exports surged; the Netherlands prospered.

However, the period of prosperity was short-lived. At the end of the 1920s, the trend of surging incomes of the Indies suddenly declined due to the economic crisis of 1929 – or better known as the ‘Malaise crisis’ – which overwhelmed the Indies in achieving their previous income until the time when the Dutch left Indonesia. Data from Creutzberg and Van Laanen shows a sharp decline: the net income of the Dutch East Indies during the crisis was cut by almost half from an average of 700 million in the 1920s to around 400 million.

The Dutch East Indies also suffered a massive blow because its mainstay exports, namely oil and agricultural products, were prevented from entering Europe and North America due to protective policies that resulted in significant price declines. Before the crisis, 52 per cent of the Dutch East Indies exports, consisting of oil and agriculture, were exported to these areas and then declined to only a third in the mid-1930s.

The crisis was then also followed by a long economic depression as the government persisted in disapproving the devaluation of the Guilders even though other countries had already done so and abandoned the gold standard.

The impact of the Malaise crisis on weakening the business sectors was tremendous. A countless number of entrepreneurs went out of business, and farmers went bankrupt. One of the most striking consequences was the increasing apathy and distrust of the local [Indonesian] people to the [colonial] government.

With its significant economic contribution, the Netherlands dependence on the Indies in times of crisis reached its highest point. The Dutch continued to increasingly exploit the Indies because domestic sources of income were deemed insufficient to cope with the economic crisis. The financial profits from other colonies were considered small compared to the profit from the Indies.

The Dutch then decided to intensify the agricultural production on plantations in areas outside Java. Because, at that time, apart from the economic crisis, Java already experienced a period of agricultural saturation due to the centuries-long exploitation.

Furthermore, outside Java, according to Anne Booth in Economic Change in Modern Indonesia, “The production and export of commercial crops by small farmers were growing rapidly.” Imported consumer goods were also an incentive for farmers to be more productive in their line of work to produce agricultural commodities for export (p. 393). Although the colonial profits decreased due to the crisis, the Netherlands managed to save their economy through the exportation of crops from outside Java.

Therefore, in case the Netherlands would have suddenly lost the Indies colony, it would be a bitter experience for the Dutch during that period. Until then, they were spoiled for three centuries by all the commodities they took from the Indies. That means, for seven generations, the people of the Netherlands enjoyed direct benefit and prosperity from the land they occupied. Imagine: seven generations. That is why they did not want to anticipate  what would happen if the Indies would become independent.

And at such a critical moment, the Dutch showed an arrogant attitude towards the Indonesians and became increasingly confident that they would continue to rule in the Indies until the end of time.

Governor-General de Jonge delivered a statement in 1935, which later became very famous: “we will be here for another 300 years, with sticks and arms if necessary.” This can be seen as a representation of the general opinion of the Dutch people at that time.

But in reality, all of this was just an illusion that the Dutch created to cover their fears on the danger ahead: the loss of the Indies. There was a notion that they were not ready. There was a possessive feeling they couldn’t express. Their fear grew even stronger when the existence of the colony was disrupted by the pressure from the Indonesian nationalist movement.

Increased Anxieties About the Indonesian Nationalist Movement

Although the last two decades of Dutch rule were marked by the decline of the Indonesian nationalist movement as a result of the governor general’s repression and conservative policies, the spirit of decolonisation among the Indonesian people never really disappeared. This period is referred to by late historian Merle C. Ricklefs in his book, A History of Modern Indonesia since 1200-2008, as “the most oppressive and conservative period” in Dutch history in Indonesia in the 20th century (p. 388).

The Dutch did manage to “tame” the leaders of the national movement by throwing them in prison or exiling them outside Java. However, what the Dutch truly ignored was those thirty years of repressing the Indonesian national movement only led activists to lose their confidence in the colonial government. So, the only way to victory for them was to oppose the Dutch.

Despite the repression that they experienced, the leaders of the Indonesian national movement continued their struggle more carefully, but always with respect to the main political goal, which was an independent Indonesia.

It was not like the colonial government did not notice this phenomenon at all, but their decisions showed that they did not have a good working method to deal with it. Indeed, arresting activists brought a halt to complex problems, but it worked only temporarily.

The voice of resistance from the official channel, namely the Volksraad, grew louder and later inspired firm solidarity amongst Indonesian activists, both cooperative and non-cooperative. This was a rare sight in three decades of the national movement. Later, when the Dutch tried to come back in 1945, it was this solidarity that made Indonesians united in their fight against the Netherlands.

The Dutch, in this regard, were also ignorant in acknowledging the minimum demands from activists on “Indonesia in parliament” in 1940. These demands mainly came from the Indonesian Political Association (GAPI) and several members of the Volksraad such as M.H. Thamrin and Sutarjo.

The colonial government firmly rejected their demands and stated that, during the period when the Netherlands was occupied by Germany, the Dutch parliament was not functioning properly and had no authority to determine the fate of Indonesia. Also, the Dutch government wanted to give the people the impression that they would not “sell” the Indies during the difficult time of war.

“For the Dutch government, the Kingdom of the Netherlands in all its parts must be maintained until the end of the war,” said historian Ong Hok Ham in The Collapse of the Dutch East Indies (p. 134).

The failure of the colonial government to grasp the true dynamics of the national movement was one of the most subtle manifestations of the Dutch fears.

The concessions offered to Indonesia at the “last minute” of Dutch rule was considered useless because the leadership of the Indonesian national movement had lost all their confidence. They viewed the concessions merely as a joke. In this regard, it was clear that the most prominent feature of the Dutch attitude during their final days was hesitance, if not stupidity.

In the Netherlands itself, people viewed the national movement cynically. Conservatives regarded them as shameless because they “have become fully human” thanks to the compassion of the Dutch, a view rooted in colonial racism since the 17th century, which regarded natives as half-human.

The tale of Minke in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Island tetralogy is a good illustration, ‘Minke’, which is associated with ‘monkey’, is the nickname given to him by Magda Peters, Minke’s school teacher. The nickname is demeaning to him as an indigenous Indonesian and illustrates how the Dutch viewed natives.

Cynicism and racism were also expressing another fear: the Dutch people were trapped in the luxury of their “comfort zone” as colonists who considered themselves fully compassionate human beings. Everything that the Indonesian activists stood for, disturbed their comfort.

Failure after failure in responding to the growing aspirations made the Netherlands increasingly focused on maintaining their power. In combination with World War II and the Dutch neglect to anticipate the Japanese aggressiveness, the Dutch East Indies finally collapsed in 1942.

Thus, the fears that had bothered the Dutch people for so long finally reached a climax when they had to say goodbye to the Indies.

In the last broadcast of NIROM radio, on the evening right after the Dutch surrendered to Japan, the broadcaster delivered his greetings full of bitterness: “Vaarwel, tot betere tijden”—Goodbye, see in better times.

The Indies was the main source of the Dutch government’s prosperity