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Sorry for the inconvenience – De Andere Krant

Sorry for the inconvenience, but about the 4.5 billion we don’t talk

Lately the Dutch government made several apologies for colonial violence and slavery. Historian Marjolein van Pagee finds it not very convincing. The biggest fear of the Dutch government is that they will have to pay back the 4.5 billion guilders (now 25 billion euros) to Indonesia. Millions of research money have been spent to get away with billions.

De Andere Krant, July 22, 2023, By: Marjolein van Pagee

On the first of July, king Willem-Alexander apologized to the Surinamese and Caribbean community for the transatlantic slavery. Prime Minister Mark Rutte had done the same in December. Prior, in 2020, the king already apologized to Indonesia for the use of “excessive violence”. After the results of the government-funded research Independence, decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950 were presented, Rutte did the same.

The Dutch research project on ‘extreme violence’ that preceded the apology was not cheap: 4.1 million euros. From 2018 onwards, various cities had also spent hundreds of thousands of euros of public money on various investigations, all of which drew the predictable conclusion: “how cruel the Dutch have behaved in the past”. Now followed by: “Sorry for the inconvenience”.

What all those studies and apologies do not explain is the reason behind the wrongdoing: why did the Dutch overseas use so much violence? Men like my grandfather – who was sent to Indonesia as a conscript in 1947 did not just shoot at innocent Indonesians without reason, did they? The answer is that colonialism was driven by greed, economic gain, the appropriation of lands, things and bodies that did not belong to us. The only way to keep access to all of that, was the use of force. The atrocities were a result, not the cause.

What happens now is that the violent consequences are studied, for which apologies are made, while the real cause is being ignored. Certainly, the government does not want to talk about possible legal or financial consequences.

Colonialism is about money, lots and lots of money. And the power that comes with it. The colonial occupation of Indonesia was called “the cork” on which the Netherlands floated. The VOC is still known as the largest company that ever existed in the history of capitalism. A complete railway network was built in the Netherlands from the profits of the brutal Cultivation System that was introduced on Java in the 19th century. The first military action in 1947 was called “Operation Product” and was aimed at regaining control of factories and plantations. Of course, they had to be operated again as quickly as possible to prevent economic disaster. That is why my grandfather had to shoot at Indonesians.

Although that disaster never came, fears of financial decline are still felt in The Hague. In February 2022, Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesia’s former foreign minister, was one of the first prominent Indonesians to respond to the results of the Dutch government-sponsored research project on violence. He wondered why the investigators had focused exclusively on ‘extreme violence’ while important legal and financial matters were ignored. As an example, he mentioned the 4.5 billion guilders, 25 billion euros in today’s money, that Indonesia had to pay in 1949 for its independence.

During the round table conference of 1949, where the conditions for the transfer of sovereignty were discussed, the Dutch negotiators demanded that if Indonesia wanted to be independent, it would have to take over all debts of the colony. This was an amount of 6.5 billion guilders. Eventually, after the Indonesians fiercely objected, 2 billion was deducted as being the cost of the war that was waged against the Republic. An amount of 4.5 billion remained.

About this agreement, which had the characteristics of extortion, The Dutch government likes to give the impression that only 650 million of the 4.5 billion was actually paid as a compensation for the nationalization of Dutch companies in 1958. In the Dutch version of the story, the first president Sukarno is the bad guy. Lies were made up, suggesting that he had never paid a penny and that he was also very unreasonable to throw the Dutch out of the country in 1958. Sukarno’s performance was framed so maliciously that it almost sounds logical that in 1966 a second arrangement of 650 million guilders was made with his successor, the pro-Western Suharto, of which the last amount was transferred from Indonesia to the account of the Dutch Central Bank in 2003. The Dutch government still maintains that only this amount has actually been paid.

This is not right. In the book Het Nederlandse belang bij Indië (The Interest of the Netherlands in the Dutch East Indies, 1983) by Meindert Fennema and Han Baudet, one can read that between 1949 and 1956 Indonesia had paid a large part of the first imposed agreement. A footnote refers to a government memorandum from 1956, that was secret then but which is now accessible at the Dutch National Archives in The Hague.

Whatever lies the Dutch government told the public afterwards, the memorandum is the undeniable proof that in 1956 Indonesia had already paid almost four billion. Even worse. With concern, the Dutch authors of the memorandum noted that the Indonesians had discovered that the Dutch calculations from 1949 were not accurate at all. The reduction in estimated war costs should not have been 2 but 3.5 billion guilders. Since almost four billion had already been transferred by that point, this meant that Indonesia was paying for the war that the Netherland had waged against them. A situation that had been a ‘no go’ during the negotiations. The memorandum outlines the most obvious scenario: Indonesia would probably get the money back by nationalizing Dutch companies.

This is exactly what happened, but not how it is told and remembered. The prevailing idea is that businessmen were simply kicked out of the country in 1958 by an unreasonable, cruel Sukarno. In 1966, after the CIA-backed coup that eliminated Sukarno, the Dutch then complained to the pro-Western Suharto about the loss of ‘their’ companies. The latter agreed to transfer another 650 million guilders to the Netherlands in installments. Added to the first amount, Indonesia has indeed paid a total of 4.5 billion guilders.

Now the Dutch government made several apologies, I think of a meeting that took place in 2019 between the participating researchers of the government-sponsored study on violence and a number of critics, of which I was one. At this meeting, demanded by the critics, we confronted the researchers with the financial basis of colonialism and asked them whether they knew if the 4.5 billion guilders had been paid or not. Reluctantly, they acknowledged that they had no idea. They were then presented with the 1956 memorandum as hard evidence.

Even though the researchers from that moment on, knew that Indonesia paid, they did nothing with this knowledge. In the summary book Beyond the Pale, which contains the research results, the 4.5 billion is referred to only once as ‘division of property’, something very normal, not an extortion.

At first sight the apologies may seem as if the Netherlands is sincerely facing its own misbehavior. I believe that the millions of research money were intended to give that impression. The Dutch government was willing to spend a few million to get away with billions. The ‘apologies for the inconvenience’ are therefore more of a publicity stunt in order not to pay. In any case, the Indonesian former minister did not fall for this trap, he considered Rutte’s apologies meaningless, Wirajuda: “Let the Netherlands draw up the bill first.”

See also:

Hassan Wirajuda about the Dutch Research Project

Memorandum 4.5 billion guilders

The Indonesian Injection – De Groene Amsterdammer