The concept of ‘extreme violence’ is colonial
Trouw, June 16, 2023, By: Marjolein van Pagee
Last Wednesday [June 14, 2023], the Dutch House of Representatives discussed the results of the research program Independence, decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950. Critics were annoyed by the concealing language. Legal experts convincingly argued that the rejection of the term ‘war crimes’ has no legal basis whatsoever.
Oddly enough, everybody stays silent about the valid criticism of former Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda. He was one of the first senior Indonesians to give his opinion in February 2022 on what Dutch historians, with the help of several Indonesians, had been researching for four years.
Wirajuda did not accept Rutte’s apologies, because they were only partial, in this case for ‘extreme violence’, and not for all the violence that the Dutch had used during the war of independence, let alone that they were meant for the 350 years of Dutch occupation of Indonesia.
In line with the Dutch government, the research team also preferred ‘extreme violence’ to ‘war crimes’, because they wanted to stay away from “complicated historical-legal debates”. In the summary book Beyond the Pale (2022), the definition of extreme violence is: “moments in which violence crosses certain legal, normative or political boundaries”. But was violence within these limits legitimate? And what are these boundaries?
The government’s choice of ‘extreme violence’ shows the very colonial view that there are degrees of violence and that only the most extreme cases deserve disapproval. But from a decolonial perspective, the colonist is always wrong. It is not that the colonial occupation of Indonesia would have been acceptable if we behaved a little less violent and were not involved in torture and summary executions.
The researchers themselves admit that the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable violence is not easy to determine. Despite this, they do not explain what normal violence is according to them. They merely state that the line between normal and extreme violence is blurred and that they focused on the worst cases. But why not investigating all the violence with which the occupation was maintained?
Presumably the researchers have not defined normal violence, because otherwise it would become clear how colonial their whole starting point is. Imagine if it were written in black and white that shooting at armed Indonesians who fought for their freedom was completely fine. Then the researchers would come out as defenders of the occupation.
Indonesia as property
Zooming in on extreme violence gives the impression that if the reoccupation had not been so extreme, and we had adhered to the laws of war, there was nothing wrong. In fact, this touches on the core question that Indonesian Jeffry Pondaag always asks: “What right did the Netherlands have to regard Indonesia as its own property?” The use of the term ‘extreme violence’ thus ignores the much more important question of whether a colonial occupation can be called legitimate at all.
Even though the researchers now carefully distinguish between ‘extreme violence’ and the legal term ‘war crimes’, both concepts are based on the idea of acceptable and unacceptable violence. After all, war crimes are also seen as ‘extreme’. Not all Dutch actions are regarded as such. For example, in his book Soldaat in Indonesië (Soldier in Indonesia, 2015), project leader and former KITLV director Gert Oostindie spoke non-stop about ‘war crimes’ as a word to describe extreme violence. But even then he thought in terms of acceptable and unacceptable violence.
The choice to omit the word seems to come from Defense employee Rémy Limpach, on whose knowledge the investigation relies heavily. In his book De brandende kampongs van Generaal Spoor (The Burning Villages of Generaal Spoor, 2016) he writes that the word ‘war crimes’ has a polarizing effect and is also a legal term that does not suit historians because they should not act as judges. According to him, due to the lack of confessions and hard evidence it is impossible to determine whether a crime is actually a war crime in the legal sense of the word.
With this he is in fact saying that he considers the (re)occupation in itself legitimate and that not all forms of violence deserve condemnation. One can guess what the Indonesian former minister Wirajuda would think of this.