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The Netherlands and the decolonisation of Indonesia –

The Netherlands and the decolonisation of Indonesia

In Defence of Marxism, June 8, 2020, text: Zowi Milanovi, translation: Nick Spook

The Dutch King has apologised for violence committed by the Netherlands during Indonesia’s independence struggle. The crocodile tears of hypocritical elites do not make up for 300 years of brutal subjugation. The only real justice and road forward can come from the expropriation of Dutch capital: the common enemy of the Dutch and Indonesian workers.

On 10 March, during a state visit to Indonesia, Dutch King Willem-Alexander declared that he wanted to apologise, on behalf of the Netherlands, for the violence committed by the Dutch side during the Indonesian struggle for independence.

Dutch politicians, from the left to the right, were full of praise for this decision. After all, anything suggesting that “the Netherlands was wrong” and that we need to collectively recognise this, in order to “move beyond the past”, they consider wonderful. The Netherlands is now a formally equal trading partner with Indonesia. The profits that Dutch capital realises today are more important than 75-year-old issues. Furthermore, many of the “Indies-draftees” have since passed away, which makes the king’s gesture less controversial.

The only party-political protest against this decision came from Thierry Baudet, the leader of the far-right conservative Forum voor Democratie, who stated “Again and again ‘sorry’, again and again capitulation. As a descendent of proud Indo-Dutch people I am ashamed of the Dutch government, which fails to appreciate our history and ignores the crimes committed against our demographic.” In other words, a repetition of the old, conservative slogan “Indies lost, disaster born”, in which he seemed to address the Indo-Dutch (Indische Nederlanders) demographic. They consist of both Dutch and mixed Indo-European former residents of the ‘East Indies’ colony and their descendants. Outside of party politics, sounds of protest came from Indo-Dutch organisations like the FIN (Federation of Indo-Dutch).

What really happened during the period of decolonization and the so-called ‘police actions’ (i.e. the war effort to maintain the colonies)? How should we analyse this as Marxists? To answer this question, we need to consider the entire process of the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia.

Centuries of exploitation and oppression

The connection between the Netherlands and Indonesia begins with the United East India Company (VOC) in 1602. Indonesia didn’t exist: there were many different peoples with different languages and cultures.

The Dutch bourgeoisie had conquered political power after it had finally acquired an independent Republic in 1588, following a long struggle against the Spanish Habsburg Empire. In order to continue the process of capital accumulation, share the risks and reduce the struggle between different merchants, the VOC was founded as the world’s first joint stock company and it was granted a trade monopoly on ‘the East’ by the government of the Republic.

The VOC was a monopoly company, but it acted like a state power. Trade was accompanied by warfare, diplomacy and the possession of forts and pieces of land. These were no frivolous activities. Governor-general J.P. Coen wanted to conquer the Banda islands in 1621 to control nutmeg, which was then very valuable. This led to the murder of the local population and their replacement by slaves. Another example: in order to maintain the monopoly on cloves, the VOC made sure that clove trees grew only on Ambon, from where the cloves were supplied only to the VOC. ‘Illegal’ clove trees on other islands were cut down, after which the population was punished by burning down villages. The VOC was also involved in the trade of slaves and opium.

Karl Marx had the following to say about the accumulation by the VOC:
“The history of the colonial administration of Holland – and Holland was the head capitalistic nation of the 17th century – ‘is one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness.’ Nothing is more characteristic than their system of stealing men, to get slaves for Java. The men stealers were trained for this purpose. The thief, the interpreter, and the seller, were the chief agents in this trade, native princes the chief sellers. The young people stolen, were thrown into the secret dungeons of Celebes, until they were ready for sending to the slave-ships. An official report says: ‘This one town of Macassar, e.g., is full of secret prisons, one more horrible than the other, crammed with unfortunates, victims of greed and tyranny fettered in chains, forcibly torn from their families.’ To secure Malacca, the Dutch corrupted the Portuguese governor. He let them into the town in 1641. They hurried at once to his house and assassinated him, to ‘abstain’ from the payment of £21,875, the price of his treason. Wherever they set foot, devastation and depopulation followed. Banjuwangi, a province of Java, in 1750 numbered over 80,000 inhabitants, in 1811 only 18,000. Sweet commerce!” (Capital, chapter 31)

In this way, the VOC managed to accumulate huge wealth, which ended up in the hands of the capitalists of the Dutch Republic. The merchant capital could be invested further into manufacture, agriculture and finance. Ultimately, it was mostly the latter, and loans to England led to the Netherlands being overtaken by England as a world power. The Netherlands went into a decline and became a rentier state.

The VOC controlled many forts in the East Indies, but mostly left power in the hands of local elites and only directly controlled a small part of the territory. This changed in the late 18th century, when the VOC went bankrupt and was nationalised in 1795. The Dutch state suddenly received possession of the colony and would try to expand it further in the following decades, until it encompassed present-day Indonesia.

The arrest of Prince Diponegoro as depicted by Nicolaas Pieneman (1830-1835)

The year 1830 was a turning point in this process. That year saw the secession of Belgium, the most industrialised southern part of the kingdom of the Netherlands. It was clear that the Northern-Dutch bourgeoisie wanted to compensate for this, so as to not fall behind. King Willem I had previously founded the Netherlands Trading Society (Nederlandse Handelsmaatschappij – one of the predecessors of ABN AMRO Bank) to promote trade and industrialisation. From this moment on, this company would devote itself fully to obtaining products from the East Indies through the infamous Cultivation System (Cultuurstelsel).

Under this system, farmers were obliged to use part of their land for the cultivation of coffee and sugar, thereby providing cash crops for export to the Netherlands, to be sold on the European markets. Furthermore, they had to perform all kinds of ‘corvée services’ and a large part of their wages ultimately flowed back to the colonial state in the form of taxes. This meant an enormous exploitation of the local farmers, with few investments, but requiring from them four times as much labour as before. In 1840-59 alone, 300 million guilders were made from this. The (former) Dutch textile industry (in the region of Twente) was founded on the basis of this capital and Indonesia was used as a sales market for this textile.

In 1870, this Cultivation System was abolished in order to open up the market for other capitalists, but the exploitation and oppression of the local population were maintained to the bitter end. Even though the native population became more involved from 1900 onward, and a part of them were schooled, they had limited political rights and were in fact not allowed to organise. Calls to strike were forbidden. In 1927, there was even a concentration camp set up in New-Guinea, the notorious Boven-Digoel, which was used to imprison exiled Indonesian nationalists and communists. In the 1930s, because of the global economic crisis, the wages and living standards of the local population were cut by as much as half to 75 percent. The wages of European labourers in the colony were cut less, or not at all; a clear example of divide-and-rule politics intended to exploit the indigenous workers and enrich the Dutch capitalists. Hundreds of millions of guilders were made from coffee, sugar, tobacco, rubber and oil. One family, which owes a large part of its wealth to the exploitation of the East Indies, is the Oranje-Nassau family, the royal family king Willem-Alexander is part of.


On August 17, 1945, Sukarno declared Indonesia an independent country

Thus, it came as no surprise that, after the end of the Japanese occupation (1942-45) on 17 August 1945, the Republik Indonesia declared itself independent from the Netherlands. Among the masses there was no support for a return to the situation that existed before the Japanese occupation. Besides, the occupation, despite the cruel and reactionary nature of Japanese imperialism, had clearly shown to the Indonesian masses that the Dutch were not the ‘natural’ rulers and that the Europeans most definitely could be defeated by Asians.

Dutch imperialism had different plans. Immediately after the capitulation of Nazi-Germany and the liberation of the Netherlands (5 May 1945), plans were made to re-conquer Indonesia from the Japanese. Several newspapers carried advertisements to recruit volunteers for this purpose. Indonesia had to be retaken, even though the appearance was held up that some kind of commonwealth would be founded, consisting of the Netherlands, Indonesia, Suriname and the Antilles.

But the Netherlands was weak, and initially supported sending British troops to Indonesia to take over control from the Japanese and fight against the Indonesian rebels. In the meantime, the Netherlands prepared troop shipments. However, in order to enable a large mobilisation based on conscription, the constitution had to be changed. In April 1946, this was done, with only the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN) voting against. In March, the first volunteer troops had already landed.

At the same time, under pressure from its British and American allies, the Netherlands negotiated with the Republik Indonesia, in order to come to a compromise, a ‘Dutch-Indonesian Union’. Under this arrangement there would be no real independence and Dutch companies and lands would be protected from confiscation, so as to continue the colonial exploitation in an altered form. The goal was to found a federative state made up mostly of moderate and pro-Dutch elements, who would hold power and keep the more radical elements in check.

While the negotiations were ongoing, Dutch soldiers were deployed against the Indonesian nationalists and also against the civilian population. The Swiss-Dutch researcher Rémy Limpach showed in his 2016 book, The burning kampongs [villages] of general Spoor, that extreme violence was applied structurally and that it did not consist merely of some excesses, as was always claimed previously.

According to a recent study by the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), over 97,000 Indonesian fighters and civilians died from the violence of Dutch troops during the struggle for independence.

Also, more than 5,000 Dutch soldiers died, many of whom were sons of workers and peasants, summoned through conscription, equipped with old British and Canadian uniforms and weapons and sent to the other side of the world as soon as the Netherlands itself was finally freed from the cruel occupation by Nazi-Germany.

Because the war cost a lot of money and the Dutch state had limited means at its disposal right after the Second World War, it was largely dependent on American Marshall Aid. The US, however, advocated a compromise with the Republik Indonesia, so the fear existed that this financial aid could be stopped. The ‘first police action’, Operation Product (July-August 1947), was an aggressive attempt to conquer areas of Java and Sumatra that contained valuable plantations, oil plants and ports. The idea was that these would generate revenues that would enable the continuation of the colonial war.

However, international pressure turned more and more against the Netherlands. The broader colonial revolution, the rise of the USSR and the increased power of the US over the European countries meant that the Netherlands could no longer play its former role. In 1948, the Indonesian government crushed a local uprising in Madiun, in which militias led by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) played a role. This was proof for the US that it needed to further support the Republik Indonesia against ‘communism’. The US advocated independence and began making economic investments in the Republik, as a way of getting Indonesia into the American camp in the emerging Cold War.

The isolated Netherlands, however, wanted to make one last desperate offensive in order to overthrow the Republik. On 19 December 1948, the ‘second police action’, Operation Crow (Kraai), took place. Dutch troops started an offensive and managed to conquer all the important cities on Java and Sumatra. The Republican capital Yogyakarta was conquered and the Republican government (including Sukarno) was imprisoned.

Nevertheless, this did not mean that the Dutch government had achieved its goals. From the countryside, the nationalists began a guerrilla struggle against the Dutch army. Besides, it was clear that the altered international relations would now play a decisive role. Up to this point, American imperialism had leaned on the Netherlands the one moment and on the Republik Indonesia the next, in order to come to a compromise. But Operation Crow was the end. The American government now threatened to end Marshall Aid to the Netherlands. The Dutch military expenditures already equaled almost half of the total Marshall Aid. This meant the end of the Dutch military actions. New negotiations commenced in 1949 and at the end of the year, sovereignty was transferred on 27 December.

To compensate their Dutch ally, the Americans pressured Indonesia to accept taking on the colonial debts of the East Indies starting from the Japanese occupation. This amounted to paying back the costs of the Dutch military struggle against Indonesia, valued at 4.3 billion guilders (€19 billion in today’s money). Between 1950 and 1956, Indonesia paid around 3.7 billion guilders (€16 billion in today’s money), which was a huge burden on the young Republik but gave a big stimulus to the Dutch post-war reconstruction. In comparison: the entire Marshall Aid was $1.1 billion, which is worth approximately €10 billion today.

The question of violence

The king has now apologised for the violence used during decolonisation. That violence, however, was only a means. What was the end? All the politics of reacquiring Indonesia after the Japanese occupation is being left out of consideration. If the Netherlands could have achieved this end without violence, would everything then have been fine? No, because that would have meant that the imperialist exploitation and oppression could have continued as a result of deceiving the Indonesians.

The so-called ‘police actions’ to restore Dutch authority in Indonesia with two military expeditions were evidently criminal, imperialist acts of desperation, intended to force the genie back into the bottle and secure profits for Dutch business and the plantation owners. They cannot be considered separately from the 350 years of domination and exploitation of the population of modern Indonesia. The Indonesians fought a justified struggle against this oppression: that is the most important point.

Of course violence was used by the rebellious Indonesian side. Indo-Dutch organisations and reactionary nationalists love to point to this fact, in order to state that the king’s apologies were ‘one-sided’. However, it makes no sense at all to equate the violence of both sides. Contrary to what some moral crusaders claim, the end most definitely does determine whether or not the means (violence) is justified. The violence of Indonesian youth who defended their young, independent Republic against an attempt by the old coloniser to re-subjugate them, is different from the violence of the old coloniser to regain control over the plantations and subjugate the local population.

On the Indo-Dutch side (both Dutch and Indo-European mixed inhabitants), based on various estimates, 5,000-30,000 civilians died. Here there were also excesses against innocents and these are to be lamented, but they do not fundamentally change anything about the nature of the Dutch military actions. These were planned long before Sukarno declared independence. Right after the capitulation of the Germans, the first advertisements already appeared in newspapers for recruiting volunteers for military expeditions to Indonesia. The excesses were later overshadowed completely by the structural violence of Dutch imperialism.

If the Dutch state was really concerned about the welfare of the Indo-Dutch, it would not have sent military expeditions, but would have recognised independence immediately. Precisely because the Indonesians knew that the Dutch would attempt to take back power after the Japanese capitulation, which was confirmed when British and Dutch troops appeared, the tinderbox was lit. On the contrary, the Netherlands tried to delay and frustrate the process of independence as much as possible, through a combination of diplomacy and military show of force, until this finally became impossible due to Indonesian resistance and American political-economic pressure.

It was no question of the Dutch and Indo-European peoples against the Indonesian people, driven by national or racial contradictions. It was a struggle of liberation by Indonesians against Dutch imperialism. There were also Indo-Europeans who fought for Indonesian independence, like Ernest Douwes Dekker, grandnephew of the famous writer Multatuli. There was also a long tradition of resistance and solidarity with the Indonesian struggle in the Netherlands itself.

A history of solidarity in the Netherlands

The oppression and exploitation of ‘the Indies’ also led to resistance in the Netherlands. Eduard Douwes Dekker, better known by his pseudonym Multatuli, wrote the legendary book Max Havelaar in 1859, as a condemnation of the treatment of the population on the coffee plantations on Java during the Cultivation System.

More structural solidarity came from the labour movement. While the right wing of the social-democrats always followed the rhetoric of the ruling class where it concerned the colonial question, the left wing declared itself in favor of independence. Henk Sneevliet, the founder of the Indies Social Democratic Association (ISDV) in 1914, tried to forge a relationship between European and indigenous Indonesian labourers. From this, the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) ultimately emerged.

The Communist Party of Holland did the same, with the slogan “Indonesia separate from Holland, now!” At first, it was the only party that came out for independence. Later, they were supported in this by Henk Sneevliet, who, having returned to the Netherlands, eventually became the leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (RSAP).

Henk Sneevliet was sentenced to five months in prison because of his manifesto in support of the mutiny on the Zeven Provinciën (Seven Provinces) in 1933. On this warship in Indonesia, a mutiny took place on 4 February 1933, in solidarity with a movement of navy men on Surabaya against salary cuts, for which several of them were arrested. Indonesian and Dutch sailors took over the ship and wanted to sail from North-East Sumatra to Surabaya to free their captive comrades. The Dutch state, however, had a different ‘solution’ and, on 10 February, dropped an airplane bomb onto this ship, which killed 23 of those on board.

In 1938, under pressure from Moscow, the Stalinist CPN changed its position. In order to conform to Stalin’s foreign policy, the Communist Parties had to advocate for a Popular Front with the ‘democratic bourgeoisie’ and democratic countries against the fascist countries. To cater to the ‘democratic bourgeoisie’, they no longer argued for the colonies’ independence, but rather for a ‘commonwealth’.

The only tendencies that remained really consistent in their support for Indonesian independence were the RSAP and the later Dutch section of the Fourth International, the Revolutionary Communist Party.

When, after the Second World War, the Dutch government commenced the ‘police actions’, this was certainly not accepted by everyone in the Netherlands. The Netherlands had just been liberated from the German occupation and the economy had collapsed. People were not keen on sending troops to the other side of the world to oppress another people at this time.

What is usually forgotten is that the Dutch working class initially resisted the military missions to Indonesia. On Tuesday 24 September 1946, there was a 24-hour wildcat strike against sending the troops. Strikes took place in Amsterdam, the Zaan region, Velsen, Delft, Enschede and Groningen. On the previous Saturday, there had already been a demonstration in Amsterdam, during which the military police shot a demonstrating worker. Due to a lack of consistent leadership (and obstruction from the Stalinist-dominated Unity Trade Central) the movement was not developed further, but it showed that the Dutch working class resisted the colonial politics of the bosses. Another example is that, despite the downfall of this movement, for the first transport of troops to Indonesia, 15 percent of conscripts did not show up, with a figure of 22 percent for the second transport.

There was also solidarity outside of the Netherlands. Australian dock workers played an important role, where the dock workers’ union organised a complete boycott of the transport of Dutch arms and troops.

Contrary to the propaganda of the nationalists (and their mirror image, the ideas of the postmodern ‘de-colonial’ thinkers), the working class fundamentally had nothing to gain from colonialism, but rather shared a common enemy with the colonial population: Dutch capital.

This is a piece of history that is often forgotten. Those who defended colonialism and the military actions at the time (like the right-wing parties and the social-democratic PvdA) always talk about ‘the spirit of the times’ and that people back then ‘did not know any better’ and thus ignore that there was also resistance from the Dutch working class against colonialism and the military actions.

The courageous workers who demonstrated and went on strike then, and those who refused service, were long made out to be ‘traitors’. Going into hiding could land you two years in jail. Only in 1979 did the Military Police cease its search for draft dodgers. Communist resistance hero Piet van Staaveren (Pitojo Koesoemo) defected to the Indonesian side and was later sentenced to six years in jail for this. On purpose, to humiliate him further, he was jailed among members of the NSB [National Socialist Movement, Dutch fascists and Nazi-collaborators]. The latter, by the way, were often pardoned after a couple of years. All this shows: apologies and restoration of honour for the courageous conscientious objectors, deserters and strikers would be more than appropriate.

The question of the South Moluccans and Papuans

One of the ways by which the Dutch ruling class could dominate Indonesia for centuries was by leaning on the leaders of the different islands and peoples. During the Indonesian war of liberation it used the same tactics, by suggesting that a commonwealth would be established, containing various autonomous areas, instead of handing over power to the newly united Republik Indonesia.

This policy continued after 1949 by using the Moluccan and Papuan questions. Like so often in history, here too we see how national minorities are used like pawns by big imperialist powers. They are used for imperialist aims until they are no longer useful – then they are betrayed.

The South Moluccans fought as elite soldiers in the colonial army, the KNIL, and they were promised an autonomous/independent republic by the Netherlands. The Republik Indonesia saw this as an attempt by the Netherlands to establish a puppet state, which in fact was the case.

The Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS) was declared on Ambon in April 1950, but was militarily defeated in November of the same year. The RMS continued the struggle in guerrilla form on the island Seram, until its troops were defeated in 1963, at which point President Chris Soumokil was taken prisoner. He was executed in 1966 under Suharto.

In the meantime, in 1951, the Moluccan KNIL-soldiers and their families had moved to the Netherlands (a total of around 12,000 people). They were ‘temporarily’ housed in barracks (including former Nazi concentration camps), isolated from Dutch society, until they would be sent back to the RMS, which was to be internationally recognised in the future.

However, the Dutch ruling class was not really in a position internationally to do very much for the Moluccan question and mostly offered false hope. Nevertheless, clandestine actions from the Dutch side did occur, mostly by reactionary military elements who had fought against the Republik Indonesia. Raymond Westerling, captain of the Special Forces Corps, known for the use of systematic terror on Sulawesi and a failed coup on Java in 1950, was involved in a network of far-right elements who provided support. Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (the famous ‘Soldier of Orange’), who was involved in a coup attempt in the Netherlands itself in 1947, became involved in 1951 in an attempt by admiral Helfrich to supply weapons to the Moluccans. These were adventurist actions by reactionaries who could not stomach that ‘the Indies were lost’ and who could ultimately achieve nothing.

The restoration of relations with Indonesia under Suharto in 1970 meant that the Dutch ruling class had in fact ceased its attempts to use the RMS as its tool in the former colony. It was clear that there was nothing ‘temporary’ about the Moluccans’ accommodation in the Netherlands. This caused a wave of radicalisation among Moluccan youth, who, in the 1970s, resorted to a series of individual terrorist acts (hijackings and hostage-taking) in order to force the Dutch state to change its course, which failed. The Dutch state responded with harsh repression against the Moluccan youth, followed by concessions to remedy the social disadvantages of the Moluccans in the Netherlands.

The new generation of Moluccans has been virtually assimilated into Dutch society. The question of the RMS, however, has not been finalised. There is a strong feeling, which is quite justified, that the Dutch state must apologise for how it treated the Moluccans. However, the current Dutch state, which is controlled by Dutch capitalism, can never play a progressive role. The only real allies of the South Moluccan workers and youth, in the Netherlands and in Indonesia, are the organised working class. By means of struggle they can provide equal opportunities, put an end to social disadvantages (in the Netherlands) and secure the right to self-determination for all oppressed nationalities (in Indonesia).

The Papuans, too, were simply used. They would not even really get self-government from the Netherlands, but West Papua would become a new homeland for Indo-Dutch who would rule over the Papuans. The Netherlands continued to hold onto West Papua and this almost led to war with Indonesia in 1962.

In the end it was the decline of Dutch imperialism in the context of the Cold War that changed the situation. American imperialism exerted pressure on the Netherlands to transfer West Papua to Indonesia, so as to bring the Sukarno regime, which leaned on both the US and the USSR, closer to the American camp. This humiliation for the Netherlands made it so that its role as an independent imperialist power was definitively at an end and that the ruling class subordinated itself to the US even more.

A referendum on Papua, promised by the UN, was carried out in a deformed way in 1969 by the Suharto regime. This was the so-called ‘Act of Free Choice’. Instead of a real popular vote, the Indonesian army selected 1,026 tribal elders, who chose incorporation into Indonesia. This was the beginning of the plundering and exploitation of West Papua by large mining companies like Freeport-McMoRan.

It is, however, an illusion to think that things would have been better if the Netherlands had not been pressured by the US. The only ally of the Papuans is the international labour movement, including the one in Indonesia. In 2019 the question of West Papua again emerged, with mass protests against the discrimination of Papuans in Indonesia. The most advanced elements (including the Indonesian Marxists) struggle against discrimination and for a referendum on self-determination.

Dutch imperialism tried to use the question of the Papuans and Moluccans until it could reach an agreement with Suharto. Instead of trusting Dutch imperialism, only the united class struggle in Indonesia can offer a real solution to the national question.

The Dutch ruling class after 1965

After the defeat of 1962, the Dutch ruling class felt completely betrayed by its allies. The old colonial empire had collapsed and it was necessary to plot a new course. From this time, the Netherlands would become ever more subordinated to American imperialism in matters of foreign policy and, like the UK, it would become one of the most ‘Atlanticistic’ countries. To ensure there would be no complete subjugation to all of the US dictates, the ruling class chose for close cooperation within the European Community on economic matters.

The year 1965 was a turning point in Indonesia. A coup by general Suharto occurred, which ended the revolutionary situation. President Sukarno was placed under house arrest and the army, assisted by criminal gangs and Islamic fundamentalists, began a campaign of mass repression and murder against (alleged) members of the PKI. This was a cruel capitalist counter-revolution, supported by the CIA.

For the Dutch ruling class, this meant a new beginning, an opportunity to win back something of what it had lost. Relations were restored in 1968, with help from the US. In 1970, the murderous Suharto made a state visit to the Netherlands, followed by a Dutch royal visit to Indonesia in 1971. Suharto made an agreement to repay the remaining 600 million guilders in debt to the Netherlands from 1973 to 2003. According to Dutch minister Luns, this deal bespoke ‘noble Dutch generosity’, because the Netherlands did not ask for compensation for the 4.5 billion guilders worth of nationalised properties in Indonesia. It is a sick joke to speak of ‘noble generosity’ after 350 years of colonial domination… This was the beginning of new relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia, with new opportunities for Dutch capital.

The rapprochement with Suharto shows that the Dutch ruling class only uses the question of ‘human rights’ when it is opportune. Let us, for example, compare the attitude towards Suharto with that towards another former Dutch colony, Suriname. The military government of Desi Bouterse committed the ‘December murders’ in 1982 – the killing of 15 opponents of the military regime. These executions have been condemned far more by Dutch politicians and the ruling class than the murder of more than 1 million people by Suharto. The difference is that Suharto was someone who improved relations with the West, while Bouterse was an element who wanted to pursue a domestic and foreign political course that was more independent from the Netherlands and the US than that of his predecessor, Henck Arron.

The same is the case with the national questions of the Moluccans and Papua. Economic interests played the main role and the Moluccans and Papua were merely used in a cynical way, to attempt to divide Indonesia and make sure that Dutch capital could gain access to these smaller states. When it became clear that this was a dead end, the Dutch ruling class swapped this tactic for the recognition of and cooperation with Suharto.

Today, Dutch capital again plays a serious role in Indonesia. In 2016, the Netherlands was one of the five biggest investors in the country, according to the Indonesian institute BKPM. De Nederlandsche Bank (the Dutch central bank) reports that, in 2016, a little under €2 billion was invested there. In 2017, Indonesia exported around €3.5 billion in goods to the Netherlands (more than to Vietnam and Australia), which makes the Netherlands the biggest European importer of Indonesian goods, according to the International Trade Centre. The port of Rotterdam is the entryway for Indonesian goods to Europe. Indonesia offers Dutch capital access to the ASEAN markets.

For both the Dutch and the Indonesian capitalists it is important that the ‘sensitive questions’ of the past are smoothed out, so that investment and trade can continue. That is why the Dutch king, as a figure who supposedly stands ‘above the parties’, has now decided to offer apologies for ‘the excessive violence’.


The Dutch ruling class has historically changed its strategy several times in relation to Indonesia. The apologies for the violence during decolonisation simply mark the end of a certain period, with eyes on the continuation of the relationship between Dutch and Indonesian capital.

Dutch imperialism will never again have the monopoly on Indonesia. With other great powers like the US, China and Japan operating in the region, this is an absurd idea. The Netherlands does play a role as an important link between Indonesia and the European market.

The problems of the Moluccans and the Papuans will never be solved by the Dutch ruling class, which cynically used these groups as pawns.

The Indonesian working class is more powerful than ever. A successful socialist revolution in Indonesia, based on the unity of the workers of all ethnic groups, can end the authoritarian capitalist republic and establish a workers’ democracy, with the right to self-determination for minorities like the South Moluccans and Papua.

In the Netherlands, we need to look past the hypocritical ‘apologies’. Instead of lamenting that ‘excessive violence’ was used, we need to hold to account those who are responsible for over 300 years of brutal subjugation and exploitation of Indonesia, for sending young Dutch workers’ sons to their deaths overseas, and for dealing cynically with the Moluccans and Papuans: the Dutch capitalist class. Only by expropriating the Dutch capitalists, whose riches are built on the centuries-long exploitation of both the Indonesian and the Dutch working populations, can we use the socially created wealth to build a better world for everyone and definitively put an end to the cruel prehistory of humankind.