75 years of Indonesian freedom: “The people deserve an apology from the Netherlands”
What does 75 years of independence mean for Indonesia? And why does the Netherlands not legally recognize 17 August 1945 as the official day on which Indonesia became independent?
Today, the Republic of Indonesia is celebrating its 75th anniversary as an independent state. For the Netherlands, however, the former colony is not 75 years but 71 years independent. The Dutch government did not accept Indonesia’s independence until 1949, after the so-called “police actions”.
‘I am finally a complete human being, that is what went through my mind the moment independence was proclaimed in Indonesia on August 17, 1945,’ says Indonesian Dutch Francisca Pattipilohy. She was nineteen years old when Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed the independence.
‘In the Dutch East Indies, we ‘natives’, as the Dutch occupiers called us, were not seen as fully-fledged people. I had received a European education and spoke Dutch, but on the tram, I had to sit in a separate wagon together with other natives,’ says Pattipilohy, who is now 94 years old. ‘Going to the swimming pool? We were not allowed, because the pool was only intended for the white Dutch. That is how bad racism was in the former colony.’
During the colonial occupation, her Moluccan father worked as an independent architect for various Dutch companies. ‘There were also Dutch architects, but the language barrier prevented them from communicating with the Indonesian employees, who had to do all the heavy [construction] work. That is why the Dutch government employed people like my father in the former colony. He had to act as a contact person between the Dutch administrators and the Indonesian people.’
Thanks to her father’s position, Pattipilohy had access to education. The vast majority of the Indonesian population did not have this opportunity, their right to education was denied by the colonial rulers.
‘Independence on August 17, 1945 was an incredible liberation for us. We actually didn’t quite realize what it meant at the time. This began later after the Dutch influences had been removed, and when we as Indonesia started to rebuild the country.’
‘I AM FINALLY A COMPLETE HUMAN BEING, THAT IS WHAT WENT THROUGH MY MIND THE MOMENT INDEPENDENCE WAS PROCLAIMED IN INDONESIA.’
Pattipilohy came to the Netherlands in 1947 to study Indies law at the University of Leiden, where she also met her husband. In 1951 they returned to Indonesia together to contribute to the rebuilding of the country. Until she was arrested in 1965 during the anti-communist purge of former president Suharto without concrete accusation. She was transferred by the Indonesian government to the women’s prison in Jakarta, where she was held for eight months. Against her will, she moved to the Netherlands in 1968 together with her parents and her children for security reasons. Her husband died in custody in 1975.
‘One of the greatest crimes of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia is the divide-and-rule policy they have carried out against more than 120 ethnic groups that exist in Indonesia,’ she says. She refers to the establishment of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL), which consisted of different ethnic groups, mainly Moluccans, Javanese and Sundanese.
‘This army was used, among other things, to protect the interests of Dutch colonialism or to conquer new areas. Think of the thirty-year Aceh war, where Indonesians had to murder their brothers because the Netherlands wanted to obtain the pepper monopoly in Aceh at all costs.’
Another example is the expedition to Bali, carried out in the early twentieth century to obtain the monopoly on opium, according to Pattipilohy. “The most important Indonesian royal families, children and even babies were murdered by the KNIL.”
The nationalistic feelings of the Indonesian population led by pemudas – youth – became stronger after the Japanese occupiers capitulated on August 15, 1945. Shortly after the declaration of independence, some of the nationalist youth used violence against Dutch and Indonesians who sympathized with the colonial regime. They wanted to prevent the return of the Dutch colonial occupiers to Indonesia.
This period is known as the ‘Bersiap’. According to the Dutch historical narrative, the Bersiap period was the trigger of what followed: the Indonesian War of Independence from 1945 to 1949, also known by the euphemistic term ‘police actions.
A one-sided narrative of history, says photographer and historian Marjolein van Pagee. ‘When people in the Netherlands talk about the period 1945-1949 in Indonesia, their storyline start with the Bersiap,’ she says. ‘According to many Dutch people it started with Indonesians who suddenly became wild and committed all kinds of revenge actions using a lot of violence. What happened long before the Bersiap – the Dutch occupation that lasted 350 years, the brutal actions of the KNIL, the exploitation, slavery and racism – is often ignored.’
In order to decolonize the narrative of the colonial history of the Netherlands, Van Pagee set up the online platform Histori Bersama. This website offers translations of both Indonesian and Dutch narratives of history, so that people from both countries have access to, and gaining insight about perspectives that would otherwise not be seen or heard due to the language barrier.
In doing so, Van Pagee works closely together with the Komite Utang Kehormatan Belanda (K.U.K.B., the Dutch Debt of Honor Committee). Led by chairman Jeffry Pondaag and assisted by human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, this foundation has been filing several lawsuits against the Dutch State. The aim is to claim responsibility for the victims and relatives of the violence that the Dutch army committed against the Indonesian population in 1945-1949.
In 2011, the foundation won its first lawsuit against the Dutch state for the massacre in the village of Rawagede. The Dutch army executed more than 400 Indonesian civilians there in 1947. After the lawsuit was won, K.U.K.B. continued its mission. For example, in 2015 the foundation won a lawsuit that held the Dutch State liable for the wrongful executions of about 3,500 Indonesian civilians on the island of South Sulawesi during the ‘police actions’.
As a result of the increasing public interest in what happened in Indonesia in 1945-1949, the Dutch government decided to spend 4.1 million euros on a large-scale investigation called: “Independence, decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia, 1945-1950”. The four-year research program, of which the results will be published in 2021, is carried out by the Royal Institute for the Linguistics, Geography and Ethnology (KITLV), the Netherlands Institute for Military History (NIMH) and the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD). The reason for this research program was the book De brandende kampongs van general Spoor, (The Burning Kampongs of General Spoor) published in 2016, by historian Rémy Limpach.
Historian Van Pagee is critical of this large-scale research program. ‘To this day, the Netherlands has not legally recognized August 17, 1945 as the moment that Indonesia became independent,’ she says. ‘The study refers to the period 1945-1949 as ‘Indonesia’, but the legal recognition remains unclear. You cannot talk about Indonesia in that period, if you do not explain that the Netherlands did not recognize the independence of 1945.’
‘THE REASON THAT THE DUTCH STATE IS FINANCING THE FOUR-YEAR RESEARCH PROGRAM IS TO FEIGN RESPONSIBILITY.’
By funding the research, the Dutch government indicated that it was willing to revise its earlier standpoint of 1969. At the time, the Dutch state took the position that there had been no ‘systematic atrocities’ and that ‘the armed forces as a whole behaved correctly in Indonesia’ between 1945-1949. These points of view were based on the archival research the Excessennota (Memorandum of Excesses), which the civil servant Cees Fasseur carried out in 1969 on behalf of the State.
‘The reason that the Dutch state is funding the four-year research program is rather to feign responsibility, with the aim to reduce the reputational damage caused by the unpleasant lawsuits of K.U.K.B.’, says Van Pagee. ‘It is also nonsense that the Dutch state needed Limpach’s book to realize that terrible things have happened,’ she continues. According to Van Pagee, the countless files that have been created to support the state’s rejection of the K.U.K.B.-claims have long opened their eyes.
The researchers and the Dutch government do not deny that the lawsuits played a role in the growing public interest for the Indonesian War of Independence. But they are not seen as the main reason for the four-year study and that is a problem, says Van Pagee.
Besides that, K.U.K.B., representing the interests of Indonesian victims and relatives, is not involved in the research and there is no other organization representing the Indonesian victims and relatives. Yet, Dutch Indies and veteran organizations, as well as the National Committee 4 & 5 May, were approached to take part in the social resonance group of the study. ‘They look over the shoulders of the researchers,’ says Van Pagee.
‘Without K.U.K.B., without the lawsuits, there would have been no research. Simply because a government needs a contemporary political incentive to spend so much money. They don’t do that out of the blue. The lawsuits are the incentive,’ she continues. ‘The researchers also pretend that they on their own became interested in the subject. But where were they all these years?’
For example, Van Pagee posted on her platform the open letter that Jeffry Pondaag wrote together with Francisca Pattipilohy, and which was send to the Dutch government in 2017. In the letter they express their objections regarding the research program. Among other things, they state that they object to the outline of the research, which is based on the assumption that Indonesia was the rightful property of the Netherlands. They also believe that Indonesian researchers deserve a more autonomous and prominent role in this research. The open letter has now been signed by more than 130 academic, journalists and other organizations.
One of the signatories is the Indonesian Hadi Purnama, chair of the Human Rights Center that is part of the Faculty of Law of Universitas Indonesia. He is currently doing his doctoral research at the Vrije Universiteit (VU, Free University) of Amsterdam on international trade law and human rights in Southeast Asia.
He contradicts that Indonesia would not be interested in colonial history. ‘Former minister Ben Bot said that Indonesia no longer wants to talk about the past, and that we are only focussing on the future. I want to ask him the question: Who have you talked to?’
According to Purnama, there is a difference between what the Indonesian government thinks and what the Indonesian people think. According to him, Indonesian officers would be more interested in maintaining trade relations with the Netherlands, but for the Indonesian people the pain of the past is still felt. ‘The [Indonesian] people deserve the apologies and accountability of the Netherlands. I am talking about the relatives and victims of years of oppression, exploitation and violence.’
The apologies that were expressed by King Willem-Alexander during his state visit to Indonesia in March of this year are limited to the period 1945-1949, he continues. However, the 350 years before remain unmentioned.
‘THE [INDONESIAN] PEOPLE DESERVE APOLOGIES AND THE ACCOUNTABILITY OF THE NETHERLANDS’
In addition, it is important that the Netherlands legally recognizes 17 August as the official Independence Day of Indonesia, says Purnama. ‘Imagine the Netherlands would recognize 1945 as the year Indonesia gained independence. Then, in the period 1945-1949, the Netherlands waged war against a sovereign state. This has criminal consequences. The transfer of sovereignty that the Netherlands signed in December 1949 to finally recognize Indonesia as an independent nation, is then jeopardized.’
Purnama advocates a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, along the lines of the commissions established by countries such as Argentina and Chile. These committees investigate past human rights violations and make this publicly known.
‘Truth and reconciliation, those should be the starting points for the four-year research program that the Dutch state funded: getting the truth out on the table, resulting into discussions with Indonesian representatives and taking accountability for the mistakes of the past. The results of the research program will open up old wounds that the Netherlands itself has not yet processed. I also wonder whether the Netherlands is ready to face its past.’