The Dutch have belatedly acknowledged that abuses were committed during its colonial rule in Indonesia. Photo: Public Domain

JAKARTA – It has taken more than seven decades, but in an extraordinary gesture for a former colonial power the Netherlands has acknowledged the Dutch military engaged in systematic, excessive and unethical violence during Indonesia’s struggle for independence between 1945 and 1949.

Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte last week offered a full apology to Indonesia in addressing the results of a five-year study into the country’s post-World War II campaign to regain control of the former Dutch East Indies, which it first occupied in the early 1800s.

“We have to accept the shameful facts,” said Rutte, who may have discussed the study with President Joko Widodo during a visit to Jakarta in 2019. “I make my deep apologies to the people of Indonesia today on behalf of the Dutch government.”

Dutch and Indonesian academics and history experts involved in the research said politicians, other civil authorities and an approving society either condoned or turned a blind eye to the violence, which is thought to have cost 100,000 Indonesian lives.

“The prevailing culture was one of looking away, shirking and a misplaced colonial sense of superiority,” said Rutte, blaming the atrocities on the system rather than on individual soldiers. “That is a painful realization, even after so many years.”

In 1969, the Dutch government insisted its poorly-trained troops had, “on the whole,” behaved correctly during the four-year conflict. But in 2005, it reversed that position by conceding the Netherlands had been “on the wrong side of history.”

Historian Remy Limpach was quoted as saying the Dutch “reign of terror” stemmed from the powerlessness and frustration felt by conventional soldiers confronted with guerrilla tactics they could not handle using normal military means.

It was a forerunner to a similar type of warfare communist insurgents later employed against the British, French and American armies in Malaya and Indochina, and against the Thai, Philippine and Burmese governments.

During a visit to Indonesia in early 2020, King Willem-Alexander made a surprise apology for Dutch atrocities, which was followed by a subsequent offer from The Hague to pay $5,600 compensation to the children of executed Indonesians.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta, 2020. Photo: Handout

That was the same sum given in a 2013 settlement to widows of the 431 men massacred by Dutch conscripts in the West Java village of Rawagede in 1947, the worst single atrocity committed by colonial forces and condemned by the United Nations as “deliberate and merciless.”

The most sustained blood-letting, however, was carried out by a battalion of troops under the notorious Greek-Dutch captain Raymond “The Turk” Westerling, which killed more than 4,000 people over Christmas-New Year 1946 in what is now South Sulawesi.

Charges were never brought against Westerling and his men, or the military and political leaders who ordered the action at the same time Germany’s Nazi leaders were being tried at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity.

The Dutch Debt of Honor Committee (KUKB), which initiated the Rawagede lawsuit against the Dutch government, is now taking legal steps to compel The Hague to recognize August 17, 1945, as Indonesia’s day of independence, not 1949 when it formally handed over sovereignty.   

Enforcing a strict discriminatory social order, the Dutch East Indies was one of the most valuable colonies under European control, contributing to Holland’s global domination over much of the spice trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Japan’s World War II occupation changed all that and following Tokyo’s surrender in 1945, Indonesian nationalist leaders declared independence, engaging in a bloody struggle to prevent the Netherlands from reimposing colonial rule.

The Widodo government has yet to respond to the latest findings by the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD), the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH) and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITVL).

Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told Asia Times that Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi is expected to comment on the study and Rutte’s apology after meeting with Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra in Paris on February 22.

Indonesian historians say it is now time for Indonesia to throw more light on its own dark past, referring to assertions that vengeful freedom fighters killed an estimated 6,000 Eurasians, Moluccans and other minorities during the early phase of the independence conflict.

“We also need to revisit our history and bring all the skeletons out of the closet,” said Jakarta Post columnist Endy Bayuni in a commentary. “Besides the atrocities committed in the 1940s, there have been other violent episodes since independence we have yet to fully comprehend or even recognize.”

Portrayal of a Dutch colonial manor in Indonesia. Image: Public Domain

He pointed to the bloody 1960s crackdown on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) that claimed as many as 500,000 lives, and more recent human rights abuses in Aceh, Papua and East Timor, which gained its own independence from harsh Indonesian rule in 1999.

Analysts note that despite it being a source of national pride, Indonesian narratives of the independence struggle are surprisingly sparse, confined to autobiographies of the period, personal anecdotes and a smattering of historical novels.

Most serious accounts have been written by foreigners, but the Dutch study could encourage Indonesian researchers to take a deeper dive into the events that shaped the early days of the republic and which have implications for how the vast archipelago is governed today.

Michael Vatikiotis, an Indonesian specialist and senior advisor to the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, says the Netherlands’ efforts to address war crimes offers hope for victims of conflict and the broader concept of transnational justice.

When the investigation was launched in December 2016, it was one of the first times a colonial power had delved so openly into the misdeeds of its past, calling for the public in both countries to come forward with recollections, photographs and documents.

Much of the resistance up to then had come from Dutch veterans who invaded Indonesia after the Japanese defeat. But as they have died the official account of the war of resistance and the actions of the military have come under increased scrutiny. 

The Dutch willingness to confront their failings is not just confined to the past. In 2013, 2014 and again in 2019, Dutch courts found Dutch UN peace-keeping soldiers in Bosnia-Herzegovina had failed in their duty to protect more than 300 Bosnians murdered by Serb paramilitaries in the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre.