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Why it is difficult for the Netherlands to acknowledge 1945 – Tirto

Why it is difficult for the Netherlands to acknowledge the Proclamation of 1945

Tirto, 17 August 2017, Text: Iswara N. Raditya, Translation: Madito Mahardika

It took a long time for the Dutch to acknowledge Indonesia’s independence. Why is that? – It was not Queen Beatrix who came to Indonesia to express regret and acknowledge [the Indonesian independence], let alone that she apologised. The same counts for then Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

The person who was ordered to represent the Dutch “acknowledgement” of Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945 was Dutch former Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Bot.

After 60 years had passed, the Dutch were finally willing to officially acknowledge the historical reality of the proclamation of independence, which was announcedby Sukarno-Hatta on behalf of the Indonesian people on 17 August 1945. Before that, the Kingdom of the Netherlands maintained their political view that Indonesia only became an independent state after the transfer of sovereignty on 27December 1949.

Minister Bot arrived in Jakarta on 16 August 2005. He attended the 60th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence at the State Palace (Pewarta Departemen Luar Negeri RI, 2006: 139). It was the first time in history that an official deputy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands attended the Indonesian commemoration of the independence proclamation.

Dutch Politeness

The day before they sent their foreign minister to Jakarta, the Kingdom of the Netherlands nationally commemorated the end of the war with Japan in Indonesia. Queen Beatrix was also present at the event which took place in The Hague. However, it was Bernard Bot who stepped onto the podium. She did not deliver any statement; she just put a wreath at the end of the event.

Bot admitted that his speech was quite emotional because he was born in Batavia (Jakarta), Indonesia on 21 November 1937.

Quoted from NRC Handelsblad in 15 August 2005 Bot said at the beginning of his speech: “…this commemoration evokes feelings and emotions in me, on this day both positive and negative memories of Indonesia come to mind, a place 5 time zones and 28,000 kilometres away, but emotionally still so close..”

The minister’s speech was quite long. He talked about the suffering caused by the Japanese occupation of the Indies (Indonesia). It seemed that Bot wanted to point out that Dutch and Indonesians were in the same boat; that they together equally suffered under the Japanese occupation.

Bot repeatedly stressed that history should not be forgotten, that it would be better to focus on the future.

“Historical knowledge is not an unnecessary luxury, but (it is) a requirement to have a clearer view of the future. And obviously, it also applies to the relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia.”

In his speech, Bot did not express any apology. Heonly stated  that the Dutch-Indonesian relationship was fine, he did not talk about the feelings of the Indonesian people during the Dutch colonisation, he just emphasised that the two countries should continue to work together in the future.

“There are many challenges that we must do together, such as fighting intolerance, extremism, and terrorism,” Bot said.

Bot also announced that he would fly to Jakarta soon to attend the 60th commemoration of Indonesia’s independence. Yet, again, there was no sign that he was going to express an apology during his visit to Indonesia, nor was the Netherlands willing to explicitly admit that 17 August 1945 was the day that Indonesia became independent.

Bot only said: “I will explain to the Indonesian people that we, in the Netherlands,begin to realise that the independence of the Republic of Indonesia already started ‘de facto’ on 17 August and that we – sixty years later – generously accept this fact in a political and moral sense.”


Raising the red and white flag

Insincere Apology

When giving a speech in Jakarta on 16 August 2005, Bernard Bot confirmed his statement. Quoted from his full speech available on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, Bot said:

“This is the first time since Indonesia declared its independence that a member of the Dutch government will attend the celebrations. Through my presence, the Dutch government expresses its political and moral acceptance of the Proklamasi, the date the Republic of Indonesia declared independence.”

Besides that, he merely focused on explaining what members of the Dutch government felt after Sukarno-Hatta declared Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945, including the bitter facts that followed.

“Only when someone is standing on the summit of the mountain, can he see what would have been the simplest and shortest way up. This applies equally to the people on the Dutch side who were involved in the decisions taken from 1945 onwards.”

“Only in hindsight does it become clear that the separation between Indonesia and the Netherlands was marked by more violence and lasted longer than was necessary.” Bot said.

Again, the acknowledgement by the Kingdom of the Netherlands of the Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945 was only implicitly mentioned by Bot. Instead, he borrowed the statement of Ali Boediardjo, who represented Indonesia in reconciliation efforts with the Netherlands in 1990.

“We have one basic principle in common, that is humanism, which means that one can understand his fellow-man and can forgive the evil he has done.” Bot said, paraphrasing Boediardjo’s words.

Do the Dutch feel sorry?

Bot did admit it. But he was not clear and explicit about the fact that the Dutch had caused, including losses and suffering that the Indonesian people had to endure over the years.

Bot only expressed regret regarding the Agresi Militer I which was launched after Indonesia declared its independence. Even then, he still denied the reality and emphasised that the Dutch also suffered losses. Bot was completely reluctant to mention the events that occurred, both before and after, which also hurt Indonesia.

“In retrospect, it is clear that the large-scale deployment of military forces in 1947 put the Netherlands on the wrong side of history. Nearly 6,000 Dutch soldiers died in the fighting, many were suffered from physical disabilities or became victims of psychological trauma,” Bot said.

“The fact that military action was taken and that many people on both sides lost their lives or were wounded is a harsh and bitter reality especially for you, the people of the Republic of Indonesia. A large number of your people are estimated to have died as a result of the action taken by the Netherlands.”

“On behalf of the Dutch government, I wish to express my profound regret for all that suffering.Said Bot without any apology and only concluding his remarks by saying, “Let’s face the future together with full confidence.”

Difficulty with Acknowledging and Apologising

Bernard Bot’s statement of what happened between the Netherlands and Indonesia in the past was perhaps quite satisfying for the Indonesian government. At that time, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirajuda, did not want to be too persistent in pushing the Dutch to apologise and acknowledge that Indonesia had been independent since 17 August 1945.

“We received a statement of regret from the Dutch government. We have heard from the Foreign Minister Bot. This is a sensitive statement. In the Netherlands, this issue has been debated by some groups. We must respect the Dutch gesture,” said Wirajuda (Detik, 16 August 2005).

Instead of apologising, the Dutch took a long time to even acknowledge Indonesian independence: it took them 60 years,and Bot conveyed his statement in a complicated and indirect manner. Why is that?

As stated by Wirajuda, what Bot said earlier has sparked a heated debate over whether the Dutch should apologise and acknowledge Indonesia’s independence or not. The Dutch self-esteem, especially that of the veterans, seems to stand in the way of even admitting that they had caused great suffering to the people of Indonesia.

Rosihan Anwar, who was the only Indonesian journalist that attended and reported about the Roundtable Conference in The Hague at the end of 1949, also believed that Bot’s performance was a representation of the Dutch’s acknowledgement and apology to the Indonesian people.

“Bot who was born in Jakarta entered an internment camp during the Japanese occupation, he dared to come to Jakarta against the opinion of the Dutch veterans who fought the war in Indonesia. He stated that the Dutch approach during the Police Actions (agresi militer) put the Netherlands on the wrong side of history,” said Rosihan Anwar in his book titled Napak Tilas ke Belanda: 60 Tahun Perjalanan Wartawan KMB 1949 (2010:18).

Divided Opinions on War Crimes

The Netherlands let go of Indonesia after the sovereignty transfer at the end of 1949. That was due to international pressure which subsequently led to the formation of the United States of Indonesia. This turned Indonesia from an originally sovereign independent country to a federation state. At that time, The Netherlands considered that under international law, they were still the master and ruler of Indonesia (Rosihan Anwar, 2010: 18).

After the United States of Indonesia was disbanded on 17 August 1950, and Indonesia had finally started to exercise its role as a new sovereign state,  there was a heated debate in the Netherlands that continued for decades regarding demands for acknowledgement and apologies.

The person triggering these fiery debates was Joop Hueting, a former soldier who had been relentlessly trying to uncover war crimes committed by the Dutch army, based on his own experiences as a soldier in the Dutch East Indies. However, the public hardly listened to his stories.

In 1969, Hueting finally had the opportunity to convey what had been haunting his mind. VARA, a television station in the Netherlands, gave Hueting a chance to speak through a program which was named “Achter het Nieuws” (Frans Glissenaar, Indie Verloren, Rampspoed Geboren, 2003: 86). In that program, the former soldier told the story of the atrocities the Dutch army committed in colonial Indonesia.

Inevitably, Hueting’s stories had stirred a debate in the Netherlands. Pros and cons began to emerge regarding the alleged war atrocities that were very likely to be committed by the Dutch army in the Indies. Some called for the Dutch government to formally apologise to Indonesia, but many also disagreed, especially the veterans.

As a result, heated discussions between the two opposing groups began to appear, as well as debates in the Tweede Kamer (Dutch House of Representatives), until research was conducted – albeit in a rush – by a committee of government officials. Those who were against apologies believed that the Dutch army had never crossed borders whilst operating in Indonesia.

One of the leaders of this group was the then Dutch Prime Minister Piet de Jong (in office 1967-1971). De Jong, a Dutch navy graduate, emphasised that although there may have been some regrettable incidents in the past, the Dutch army had generally acted according to the existing laws of that time.

“The government regrets that there had been excesses, but the government maintains its view that the Dutch army as a whole had behaved correctly in Indonesia. The data collected confirms that at that time, there were no acts of atrocities,”said de Jong in his letter to the Tweede Kamer dated 29 January 1969 (Gert Oostindie, Soldaat in Indonesië, 1945-1950, 2016: 21).

From that moment on, the term “excesses” used by De Jong dominated the official statement of the Dutch government. It took a long time for the term “excesses” was replaced by a more honest term: war crimes.

Up until now, the Dutch are more likely to acknowledge the so-called “excesses” for certain cases, such as in Rawagede, and not “war crimes” which were systematically committed and widespread throughout Indonesia.

Reconciliation with the Evil side

The debate on whether or not to carry out an in-depth and thorough investigation of alleged war atrocities in Indonesia, and whether the Dutch government should apologise to the people and the Indonesian government, is still ongoing without any certain outcome, whilst each group firmly defends their point of view.

When Queen Beatrix wanted to attend the 50th commemoration of Indonesian independence on 17 August 1995, the tensions re-emerged. The queen already departed on her way to Jakarta, but due to massive protests, especially from veterans and supported by the Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok (1994-2002), forced the queen to stop in Singapore. Eventually, Queen Beatrix arrived in Indonesia a few days after the 17 August commemoration.

Even though the Queen still visited Indonesia, there was no statement or whatsoever, neither an acknowledgement of Indonesia’s independence, nor an apology. Queen Beatrix diverted her goal by simply visiting Indonesia to avoid a bigger and more problematic debate in the Netherlands.

However, apart from the acknowledgement or apology of the Netherlands which are still being debated, it is clear that Indonesia had been independent since 17 August 1945. This was confirmed by the results of the Roundtable Conference on 2 November 1949 and the sovereignty transfer that immediately followed at the end of that year.

The Proclamator Mohammad Hatta, who represented Indonesia at the Roundtable Conference, was satisfied with the decision made in The Hague, he stated loudly and proudly during the ceremony of sovereignty transfer which Rosihan Anwar heard in person:

“The Indonesian people are already relieved by the disappearance of colonialism in Indonesia and with the new legal system based on Pancasila.”

Since then, this issue should have been considered resolved even without a firm acknowledgement and comprehensive apology, including the presence of Bernard Bot at the State Palace of the Republic of Indonesia, 60 years after Indonesia’s independence.

And, as Ali Boediardjo said, which quoted by Bot, the relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia should be interpreted using the humanitarian principles: “… that one can understand each other and forgive the evil (side).”

But can this be done if one of the parties, for example, the Netherlands, does not fully and honestly admit their mistakes?

Reporter & Author: Iswara N. Raditya
Editor: Fahri Salam