Tuesday, June 9, 2015

An inconvenient relationship between Indonesia, the Netherlands (Part 1 of 2)

In early April this year, the media in the Netherlands reported a mass act of revenge by the Dutch military on July 24, 1949, which killed 60 civilians in Prambon Wetan, a village in East Java.

This news came after widely published articles in recent years, about similar killings of villagers, clearly non-combatants, in Rawagede, a village 75 kilometers west of Jakarta.
One thing is certain: This will not stop. Yet more information about war crimes by Dutch military personnel sent to Indonesia more than 60 years ago will become known.

Many studies have been published about events during the decolonization of Indonesia, which took place by force of arms on both sides.

People were killed and women were raped, both Indonesians and the Dutch, but in order for the truth to be revealed, more research is necessary.

War crimes were committed. For a long time in the Netherlands we did not speak about the violence abroad, applied by Dutch government order.

But didn’t people know this, for instance already in the 1960s, when in Indonesia the mass killings took place after the failed attempted coup of 1965?

Of course we knew. Anyway, we should have known, and we could have known. In the Netherlands we had been aware of the so-called police action against Indonesian freedom fighters. We did not know details about Dutch atrocities of the forties, but we had heard about Westerling.

In the 1960s a Dutch scientist, Hueting, wrote a report about Dutch war crimes in Indonesia. It aroused much publicity and anxiety. It was discussed in parliament. But the official reaction was what happened were incidents, deplorable, but not structural.

I already mentioned a first possible reason behind the official Dutch position at the time. Maybe politicians and opinion leaders did not feel at ease about the Dutch war crimes of the 1940s. Anyway, we closed our eyes.

There was a second reason. In the 1960s, and also thereafter, authorities in the Netherlands were cautious not to blame the military veterans.

Veterans had organized themselves and were politically active. Successive governments were afraid that in the end not the veterans, but the state itself would be held morally responsible, politically accountable and vulnerable to legal claims. This has gone on until today.

For this reason many political leaders prefer to avoid criticism on human rights violations by regimes of other countries. At some point such criticism might backfire.

Knowledge about Dutch crimes in Indonesia, as colonizers during more than two centuries, was a third reason. In Holland, opinion leaders had drawn a veil over the colonial history.

Excuses had been plenty. Though colonial practice had been criticized by some opinion leaders, a few political opponents, writers and others, mainstream thinking in the Netherlands had been that “we had done something great overseas”.

During the 1960s people in power knew better, but they did not have an interest in dragging up the past. So, the natural inclination of officials, facing barbarities in the former colony, was to stay aloof.

A fourth reason was the hatred in the Netherlands against former president Sukarno. The Dutch did not respect Sukarno as the leader of a newly independent country, nor as a founding father of the post-colonial movement of non-aligned countries. In the eyes of the Dutch, Sukarno was an evil despot. He was the enemy.

President Sukarno was held personally responsible for the so-called “loss” of Indonesia, including — 10 years later — West Irian. The Dutch government had persisted in the separation of Western New Guinea from Indonesia, but suffered a second defeat.

Moreover, Sukarno had inflicted damage on Dutch commercial interests, when he summoned Dutch firms to leave Indonesia. After having been humiliated as rulers, we were — even worse — hit as merchants.

So when Sukarno was ousted, the dominant reaction in Holland was: “Good riddance; his chickens have come home to roost.”

Dutch foreign policy has always been strongly based on commercial considerations: exports and investments abroad. Since Indonesia had become an independent country, Dutch exports to Indonesia and Dutch investment in Indonesia had been marginalized.

Dutch commercial interests saw a new chance to recover terrain after the attempted coup in 1965, and after the mass killings. This was a fifth reason why Dutch authorities preferred good relations with the new regime in Indonesia.

The Netherlands even took the initiative to establish a new international aid consortium to assist the new Indonesia — the Intergovernmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI), of which we became the chair.

Most people agreed that Dutch development aid, which in itself was a new instrument of foreign policy, was given in particular to our former colony, Indonesia. Bygones were bygones, in all respects.

I had been a student and a researcher in the 1950s and 1960s. I did belong to a new generation of people criticizing establishment politics.

The mood was changing. The so-called New Left movement in the Netherlands was pleading for change: democratization, protection of human rights and freedoms, and a foreign policy not based on commercial interests but on solidarity with oppressed people abroad.

In 1973 this led to a new government, the Den Uyl government, which is still regarded having been the most leftist government in the Netherlands so far.

In that government I became minister for international development cooperation. My task was to change the Dutch development policies, while respecting obligations that previous governments had entered into. All at once I found myself in the position of chairman of the IGGI.

At that time there were still tens of thousands of political prisoners in Indonesia. Many of them jailed on Buru Island, without due process, in dire circumstances, under conditions of forced labor. We decided to use the IGGI not only to support economic stability and poverty reduction in Indonesia, but also to exert pressure on the Indonesian authorities to set the political prisoners free.

We used not only diplomatic pressure behind the screens, but also public pressure together with non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International.

This was not easy, because of the five reasons mentioned above.

The writer is former Dutch minister for international development cooperation. The article is based on his speech at a public seminar held by the International People’s Tribunal 1965 entitled “Indonesia’s 1965 Massacre: Unveiling the Truth, Demanding Justice”, in The Hague on April 10, 2015


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