The Distortion of History and Resentment Towards Sukarno
After more than 70 years of Indonesia independence, there are some Dutch who still wholeheartedly resent Sukarno. Why?
During the preparation for the exhibition held at the Rijksmuseum last March, I met a man who introduced himself as the child of a Dutch war veteran. The first thing that he said to me was a statement full of rage and disappointment towards the depiction of the Dutch presence in Indonesia during 1945-1949.
“I want a balanced exhibition, one that does not only display the atrocity of the Dutch army,” he told me.
I was muted listening to his enquiry for a few minutes, then he said, “Sukarno is a terrorist! He sent his men to kill people in the village who were accused of being Dutch collaborators.”
As an Indonesian who grew up with the story of Sukarno’s heroism, I am flabbergasted with his accusation. “What do you mean by the term terrorist?” I said, to retort his statement. Then I wonder to myself, where did he get all the information about the war in Indonesia during 1945-1949?
His name is Gerard van Santen, born in Ambon, Maluku 62 years ago. He began to share his story. “I read all of that from my father’s letters when he served as a military volunteer for war in Indonesia,” he said. Now I can understand where he came from.
His confession gave way to one particular affair in Indonesia that I recall. One day, there were a group of students in Rangkasbitung, Lebak who took to the streets on 10 November 2017 to protest against the use of Multatuli as the name of a museum. They demanded that the museum revoked its decision as it is deemed to be discourteous. They were in the opinion that Multatuli was a Dutch coloniser that did not need to be commemorated.
The distortion, or perspective alteration, is key to comprehend this issue. Gerard’s source of information on Sukarno can be traced back to his father’s letters, whereas students who protested in Lebak are never required to read the Max Havelaar novel by Multatuli. Therefore, the comprehension of Sukarno and Multatuli on both sides was biased.
Historian Anne-Lot Hoek discussed the topic of historical distortion and its relation to past comprehension in an article published by NRC on 16 August edition: Gemiste Koloniale Geschiedenis, Gemiste Kans (Missed Colonial History, Missed Opportunity). The article signifies the focal narrative (of the Dutch) that has overlooked the emergence of the independence movement during the Indonesian revolution between 1945-1950. However, Hoek stated that this was not the case during the two days between the Japanese capitulation on 15 August 1945 and the proclamation of independence on 17 August 1945. The Indonesian independence movement was in fact established several decades earlier with Sukarno as one of its leaders. Therefore, it is indeed easy to accuse Sukarno as a Japanese puppet.
Consequently, this distortion has, in my opinion, played part in the decision not to use the name of Sukarno as a street name in IJburg, Amsterdam. Some Dutch, especially of those who were from the same era as him, would never be able to respect Sukarno because they blame him for the Dutch and Indo misfortune during the 3.5 years of Japanese occupation in Indonesia and the war of independence thereafter. Captain Westerling even gave a small bounty for Sukarno’s head: no more than 5 cents!
Perhaps many have forgotten: Sukarno was not Philipe Pétain, the leader of the Nazi collaborator government in Vichy, France nor Anton Mussert, the leader of the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB) who were proven guilty through the war-crime trial. Sukarno had never been tried before a court and was never a subject of any conviction.
Resentment towards Sukarno could be attributed to the need of presenting a common enemy figure into the narrative. A sort of enemy personification that gives way to justify the atrocity of the Dutch government who deployed two military actions to Indonesia in 1945-1949 era.
In that period, there were many Dutch youths, such as Gerard van Santen’s father, who were provoked to go to war and being convinced to so-called liberated the Dutch East Indies from the Japanese fascism. When they arrived, they did not fight Japanese troops but rather the Indonesian people who were ignited by the spirit of nationalism and freedom through Sukarno’s explosive speeches.
The Netherlands government turned a blind eye to the political situation and development in Indonesia after Japan surrendered to the allies. The triumph over Japan in the Second World War was swiftly concluded as being equally the same as the defeat of the Nazis in Europe. For leaders of the Indonesian national liberation movement such as Sukarno, The surrender of Japan was a golden opportunity to establish a new independent state, free from the occupation of any nation, including the Netherlands.
Whereas the Netherlands Government hoped to restore its power as it was before the Japanese occupied the Indies in March 1942. We all know that ultimately, it was a naive, futile attempt to colonise Indonesia again. It began from the proclamation of Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945, to the transfer of sovereignty, on 27 December 1949.
In the end, The Dutch left Indonesia with the burden of history and Sukarno is the scapegoat to that matter. Therefore, the Netherlands government failure to recolonise the Dutch East Indies back into a Dutch colony will always have an answer. But in that regard, there is an impression emerged that the denial of Sukarno has symbolised that some of the Dutch could not move on from the imagination of their past. And that is very regrettable.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, the imagination about the enemy always refers to those who are of white, such as Multatuli. This was due to racism bias in the colonialism history and nowadays we can see its impact on the situation where anti-foreign sentiment (xenophobia) has become a very popular means to mobilise mass public movement in a political struggle both at the regional and national levels in Indonesia.
The sentiment of the Dutch towards Sukarno can also be traced from the lyrics that was often sung by the children in the Netherlands at that time: “Wat doen we met Soekarno als hij komt… Wat doen we met Soekarno als hij komt… we maken er kachelhoutjes van! En wat doen we met Soekarno als het kan, en wat doen we met Soekarno als het kan, we hakken hem in mootjes, we hakken hem in mootjes, we hakken hem in mootjes in de pan…”
“What do we do with Soekarno when he comes … What do we do with Soekarno when he comes … we make firewood out of him! And what do we do with Sukarno if we can, and what do we do with Sukarno if we can, we chop him into pieces, we chop him into pieces, we chop him into pieces in the pan…”
On the contrary, Sukarno had never harboured any ill intention towards the Dutch people. At least that gesture can be seen from a letter which dated on 31 December 1948, he wrote to Major Geelkerken, a Dutch soldier who watched over him for 12 days whilst he was exiled in Berastagi, Tanah Karo, North Sumatra during the Second Dutch Military Aggression.
“Your colleague from Medan asked me: “Do you hate the Dutch?” “No,” Sukarno said sincerely. “I don’t hate the Dutch. What I hate is the relationship between the colonialism and imperialism. So why should I hate the Dutch when 95% of the Dutch are also victims of colonialism, just like the people of Indonesia who are currently struggling for independence.”
Nowadays, 70 years later, it is therefore irrelevant for the Dutch people to continue to blame Sukarno and the time has been calling to stop all the resentments towards him.
This article was first published by the NRC Handelsblad newspaper in the Netherlands on Friday, 30 August 2019 edition.