End of War Brings Future Without Empire

As Indonesia celebrates 50 years of freedom, its former colonial master confronts its past

INDONESIA reaches a landmark today - 50 years of independence. But on the other side of the world, its former colonial power, the Netherlands, is engaged in a massive soul-searching exercise.

The media are finally revealing atrocities committed in Indonesia by Dutch troops almost 50 years ago, shocking a country proud of its liberal human-rights tradition.

Jop Hueting was the first former soldier to speak out almost 25 years ago, though very few have wanted to listen. In a recent interview, he recalls the moment when he decided what he was doing in Indonesia was wrong. Coming back from a patrol one evening in 1947, he and his comrades came across a group of 30 or 40 people praying in a tiny village mosque. One Dutch soldier turned his machine gun on the group in the mosque and shot blindly at old men, women, and children.

"I think I was broken down," he says. "Perhaps that is why I didn't stop him, but later I used to say to my comrades that some things we did there just didn't make sense."

Mr. Hueting was among the first of 150,000 Dutch conscripts sent to Indonesia after World War II in an effort to regain what had been a Dutch colony for centuries.

With Japan's surrender in 1945, the Indonesian independence movement took off. Dutch who had lived there for years found themselves with, as they saw it, no option but to fight. In 1946, the Netherlands sent thousands of troops. A bitter guerrilla struggle followed, with the Netherlands ceding sovereignty in 1949.

Stories of atrocities abound. There's little doubt that such incidents happened. But the number of people involved, and whether they were systematic or the inevitable outcome of warfare, are issues under debate.

An ugly comparison

Last year, novelist Graa Boomsma was taken to court for comparing what Dutch soldiers did in Indonesia to what the Nazis did in Holland. Veterans' groups prosecuted him for libel, but he was acquitted earlier this year. His book, one of the few fictional accounts of the war, was a personal attempt to come to terms with his father's experiences there. But his prosecution, he says, is evidence of a much wider problem. "Holland likes to point a finger at other countries and say what you're doing is very wrong," he says. "But when it comes to our own history, it's a rather different matter."

Unlike Americans, who have explored their feelings about Vietnam through books and films, the Dutch have never looked hard at their experience in Indonesia. A year ago, the only film ever made about this period shows the violence perpetrated by both sides. But one controversial scene depicts the interrogation of an Indonesian prisoner. Although most of the violence is off-screen, it made its point.

"It challenged Holland's view of itself," says director Hans Hylkema. "It's difficult to realize that everyone can do those cruel things in a special situation."

In the classroom, colonial history is barely taught at all. Saskia Doorn has just begun practice teaching at Stanislas College in Delft. She says she knows "practically nothing" about the period. That is strange, she admits, for someone who will teach history to children in a year.

This may be less surprising when one considers how the period was documented. "The History of The Kingdom of The Netherlands in World War Two" - the country's official history - runs to 26 volumes. The author, Louis De Jong, said that the part dealing with the end of Dutch rule in Indonesia was the hardest thing he ever had to write. In the draft version of the book there is a chapter entitled "War Crimes," but by the time it was published in 1987, the section was called "Excesses."

One of the most notorious perpetrators of those excesses may have been special forces commander Capt. Raymond Westerling who, along with his men, is believed to be responsible for the death of as many as 4,000 people. In his memoirs, Captain Westerling describes shooting a man in the head who he suspected of working with Indonesian guerrillas - in front of a crowd.

"I could have had him arrested and convicted," he writes. "But in the end he would have been executed anyway.... This spectacular execution shocked the people who needed to be." Westerling was nominated for a bravery award and was never called to account for his actions.

But there are small signs of change - Ponke Princen, for example. As a young man in occupied Holland, he was imprisoned by the Nazis. Later conscripted to fight in Indonesia, he deserted and became commander of an Indonesian guerrilla group, fighting against his former comrades.

After years of refusing him entry, the Netherlands relented at Christmas. Despite threats of violence and an emergency parliamentary debate, the visit passed without incident.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to End of War Brings Future Without Empire
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today