Wednesday, June 10, 2015

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


In the Netherlands, many interest groups still try to silence any criticism of the Indonesian regime. The new government was in a position to put human rights considerations above the lamentations of business and veterans, but we were still haunted by our colonial past. Were we in a position to raise critical issues of human rights, in spite of our own misdemeanors during the colonial past and during decolonization?

We came to the conclusion that we could and should do so, cautiously, and without haughtiness or prejudice, but also clearly and without misapprehension. As a matter of fact we received approbation and support from people in Indonesia when we pleaded the cause of the post-1965 political prisoners. The outcome is well-known: nearly all political prisoners were set free in 1976. This was due to pressure from three angles: the new American administration after then president Jimmy Carter took office, the International Labor Organization (ILO) castigating Indonesia for the establishment of a regime of forced labor, violating international law and, third, the Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI).

The IGGI was the only international aid consortium which was not chaired by an international organization, such as the World Bank, but by a partner country: the Netherlands. For decades the IGGI turned out to be the most successful aid consortium of all: since its beginning in 1967 and until the end in 1992, each year Indonesia was given more assistance than it requested. Amongst the donor countries political motives prevailed: Indonesia was seen as a bastion against the threat of communism in Asia. In particular Western countries, but also Japan, fearing after Vietnam that other countries would fall into the grip of world communism, saw Indonesia as the main bulwark against a process of countries being overturned like domino tiles.In 1977, 10 years after the establishment of the IGGI, I took the initiative to end the Netherlands chairmanship of the IGGI and to render this a regular consortium, chaired by the World Bank.

In my view there was no need any more to make an exception. Governments had established the IGGI as a means to deal with Indonesia’s emergency situation after 1965. In that respect the IGGI had been a success and economic policies in Indonesia, under the wise leadership of Cabinet minister Widjojo Nitisastro, had resulted in stability and economic growth. Indonesia had been brought back to normalcy. However, because of a cabinet crisis in the Netherlands in the same year, this initiative could not be followed up. The structure of the consortium was not changed. During the following 10 years the economic situation of Indonesia improved further, despite the international economic difficulties of that decade. The IGGI could remain a thriving consortium: the Cold War had not yet ended.

More than many other developing countries, Indonesia was able to carry out a policy of economic adjustment which did not make poor people the main victims of the crisis. Due to increasing foreign investment, trade and aid, Indonesia could rely on adequate foreign exchange earnings, and avoid a situation of high indebtedness, which would have required harsh domestic adjustment. Indonesia was able to proceed with rural policies aiming to reduce the number of people below the poverty line. There was still a small group of political prisoners in Indonesia. They had not been brought to court, but remained in captivity.

For decades the IGGI turned out to be the most successful aid consortium of all.In the 1980s Western countries had not pursued the pressure of the 1970s, probably due to the same reasons that they wished to keep the relations within the IGGI undisturbed. The end of the Cold War in 1989 was also the beginning of neoliberalism: privatization and market deregulation, further opening of markets for finance, investment and trade and less reliance on foreign aid. In 1989 I again became minister for international development cooperation in the Netherlands. Shortly after I took office we were informed that some political prisoners would be executed. Both in my capacity as Dutch minister and, again, as chairman of the IGGI, I was asked to raise the issue and press for release. We were successful, but it was clear that president Soeharto resented this strongly. When two years later the Indonesian Army massacred a group of students and civilians in East Timor, we raised our voice again. President Soeharto responded by deciding to cut all relations with the Netherlands in the field of development cooperation. In the Netherlands the initial outcry against the massacre in East Timor was soon overtaken by voices of unease regarding the consequences for Dutch exports and private investment. Those were the same voices that after 1965 had said that we should stay silent about the genocide: the voices of Dutch commerce, media — in particular the newspaper Telegraaf — and right wing and center political parties in the Dutch parliament, led by De Hoop Scheffer, who 10 years later became minister of foreign affairs and, thereafter, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO.

 Again geopolitics and commerce were given the upper hand. For 30 years in the Netherlands we have debated whether — and how — to respond to the genocide in Indonesia and the human rights violations in the aftermath of the killings. Should we stay silent, forgive and forget, because of geopolitical and Dutch commercial interests? Or should we raise our voice, change the character of our relations with the Indonesian regime and become involved in international activities in order to release political prisoners, fight impunity and promote human rights? For a few years we have been able to voice concerns and to mobilize international action. Looking back, I am pleased that we have been able to make a contribution. However, we must admit — and I regret to say this — that for many more years, business has dominated the scene.

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

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