Dutch study on the colonial war in Indonesia: “The students mark their own homework”

Jeffry Pondaag.
Jeffry Pondaag.

For more than ten years Jeffry Pondaag, chairman of the Komite Utang Kehormatan Belanda (Foundation Committee of Dutch Debts of Honour), has been successfully suing the Dutch State together with lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld and victims of the colonial war in Indonesia. Due to these lawsuits it has become increasingly difficult for the Dutch state to hush up the colonial violence committed during this war. 2016 marked the release of the groundbreaking research “De brandende kampongs van generaal Spoor” (“General Spoor’s burning villages”), written by researcher Rémy Limpach, which emphasized the structural nature of that violence. Cornered by the increasing pressure the Dutch government announced an additional study on the period. Reason for us to get in touch with Pondaag, who is a fierce critic of the white Dutch perspective of that research.

Translated by Ilija Andrić
The original text in Dutch
Ce texte en Français

The new “wide ranging” study is called “Decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia, 1945-1950”. The ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense and Public Health, Welfare and Sport have provided a subsidy of four million euros. The study will take four years and will start in September 2017. Three research institutes are involved: the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde – KITLV), the Dutch Institute for Military History (Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Historie – NIMH) and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (Instituut voor Oorlogs-, Holocaust- en Genocidestudies). They have set up a website.


Media coverage on the study emphasizes its “indepedent” nature, but Pondaag strongly rejects this notion: “The student is marking his own homework. That’s how I see this research. The government should take an example of the investigation which was carried out in 1948 and looked into the mass murder committed by Dutch soldiers in the village of Rawagede.” That investigation was carried out by the UN’s Committee of Good Offices, a committee created with the purpose of setting up negotiations between the Indonesians and the Dutch. The UN aimed for an independent status of this committee: they consciously chose not to have any Dutch or Indonesian members, but they did include a Belgian, Australian and an American. This report meant that the bloodbath was already made public during the colonial war. If it would have been up to the Netherlands, this mass murder would have been kept under the rug, as many others were. Pondaag: “Why is it impossible to have a study conducted by experts from countries other than the Netherlands? Why does this new and supposedly independent investigation have to take place following the framing and conditions as set by the government, the Dutch state, a state which as perpetrator of structural colonial violence should be the subject of critical research?”

On the second of December 2016 two ministers and a state secretary sent a letter to parliament on behalf of the government in which they reluctantly announced the new study. One of the ruling parties, the conservative VVD, made it possible for the Indonesian violence during the socalled Bersiap period to be included as a subject of the study. Without a doubt the neo-liberals are trying to find a scapegoat and also try to put into perspective the violence of the Dutch state, under the slogan that “it takes two to tango”. If the social democratic PvdA, the other ruling party at the time, would not have agreed to the tough conditions imposed by the VVD, a new study would have likely been impossible or at the very least much more difficult to pursue.

In February 2017 the three institutes released a concept of the study, which was almost identical to the letter sent by the government. The research institutes seem to sheepishly conform to the conditions set by the government. This striking example of the common practice “those who pay for the research determine the direction and content of the research” makes it hard to take serious any notion of the supposedly independent nature of the study. This is confirmed by the fact that one of the institutes, the NIMH, literally is part of the state apparatus, specifically the ministry of Defense. Completely in line with the government demands, the three institutes will “explicitly” look into “the chaotic period – the ‘Bersiap-period’ – which took place from the middle of august 1945 until the beginning of 1946, which are the years leading up to the large scale deployment of Dutch troops, and the influence of that period on the years that followed.”


On the one side the study concept of the institutes disregards the Indonesians who fought for independence. But in general the concept seems to disregard every concrete person who was victim of Dutch violence. They are swept under the rug using emotionless abstractions such as the “structural transgressive violence” of Dutch troops. On the other side the study concept explicitly mentions the “many thousands of (Indo-)Europeans, but also Chinese and Indonesians who were accused of ‘collaboration’ with the Dutch colonial regime” who fell victim to “massive and brutal violence, exercised by Indonesians, whether or not they were organized in armed factions. Investigation into the background and course of this violent period is important in itself, but it also serves to map out the psychological effects on Dutch troops and citizens and to question the importance of the Bersiap as an important factor in the warfare which followed.”

In other words: the institutes will look into the question of how it was possible that those proper and well educated Dutch soldiers suddenly started using such an enormous amount of violence. The researchers unthinkingly assume that the cause for this is the violence that some of the Indonesians used in the period of august 1945 until the beginning of 1946. Heedlessly they ignore the colonial terror regime which for 300 years has indulged itself in violence, arson, plunder, slavery, forced labor and pillage. It seems unnecessary for them to “map out” the “psychological effects” of centuries of colonial terror on the colonized. Also they don’t seem to have an interest in “questioning the importance of” the Dutch colonial system “as an important factor in the warfare which followed”. And the institutes also seem to find it redundant to mention that violence in the name of liberation from a colonial occupier and it’s collaborators cannot be equated to the oppressive violence of said colonial occupier, violence which was meant to continue the subjugation of the colony and it’s inhabitants. The government seems to hope that in four years the study will offer us evidence that the colonized Indonesians didn’t play nice either and that at the time “we” were forced to restore the supposed peace and order in the colony. And the institutes seem to want repeat that same old colonial story yet again.

According to Pondaag the dominant colonial perspective paints the Indonesian independence fighters during the Bersiap period as extremists and terrorists. “The word Bersiap means something along the lines of ‘present!’, ‘ready for the struggle!’. You can see it as a battle cry for an independent Indonesia. Those who collaborated with the Dutch colonizer could count on counterviolence. That’s evident. In the eyes of the Indonesian freedom fighters those collaborators were traitors. But the collaborators call the Bersiap period a crime. I think if anything was a crime, it was the centuries long colonial oppression and exploitation on which the conversation should focus.”

The wrong side of history

In 2005 the minister of Foreign Affairs, Ben Bot, held a speech in which he stated that the Netherlands ended up “on the wrong side of history” during the colonial war against Indonesia. According to him the war was wrongful and logic would dictate that all Dutch soldiers were objectively part of a wrongful war, regardless of their personal subjective intentions. Bot’s words came 60 years too late. And his approach fell on deaf ears in government circles. In the previously mentioned letter of the second of December 2016 it is casually stated that “the cabinet confirms the admiration for all former soldiers who were sent on a mission to the zone of conflict by the Dutch government and wishes to underline an important conclusion of dr. Limpach’s study, which was that the majority of Dutch soldiers were not involved in extreme acts of violence.”

One could say that those who came to stand on the wrong side of history because of a colonial war they engaged in, should not years afterwards voice their “admiration” for all those former soldiers who fought on the side of the colonizer. They who wish to sincerely process and address a wrongful colonial war which they themselves started should cease patting the heads of former soldiers from a white colonial perspective and finally pay some attention to the Indonesian victims that their war has caused. Also if one acknowledges that the war was a wrongful one, it is therefore wrong to commemorate the Dutch soldiers who died in that war in the same way as the Dutch soldiers who died during the Second World War in the fight against Nazi-Germany. Pondaag: “Did you know that the National Monument on the Dam in Amsterdam commemorates the Dutch soldiers who tried to suppress the Indonesian fight for independence? As if that colonial war could be put on the same level as the struggle against the fascist German occupier. That shows how the spirit of Dutch colonialism is still alive.” To prevent notions of regret by the Dutch state becoming empty words, there should be a large scale national awareness campaign that completely breaks down the ruling perspective on the colonial war and replaces it with an anti-colonial perspective. Also the government should on it’s own accord provide generous compensation to the Indonesian victims of the war. Better late than never. Pondaag: “In the meanwhile there are about 1.300 Dutch former soldiers who at the time committed war crimes, who still walk free. While conscientious objectors who refused to fight the war were sentenced to prison on sentences ranging from 4 up to 7 years.”

Delay tactic

The government consciously choses the side of the former soldiers, the “Indies veterans”, who for years have influenced the debate through a powerful lobby, and in doing so has let down the Indonesian victims. Those victims have for the last ten years been involved in court cases against the Dutch state, together with Pondaag and lawyer Zegveld. Zegveld complains about “the endless hassle” of the various concerned ministries, who during the court cases knowingly exercise a delay tactic and have acted themselves in an extremely unwilling manner. She is especially critical of the ministry of Defense, as a recent interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC has shown: “The ministry of Defense is the most difficult one. On and on again they try to appear as if they foster the interest of the personnel who served at the time. That is why according to them it would not be possible to make a grand gesture towards the victims. In reality this means that they make this issue a problem of the people who served. Even though they served under orders of the ministry of Defense. This is about a state that has pursued a wrongful policy which they then let completely derail. But they do not wish to admit this. This is very well though out. In reality the ministry is playing out the soldiers against the victims. I find this reprehensible.”

The December second letter superfluously shows how one sided the government represents the interests of the former soldiers, for whom they show concern and sympathy. This shows a stark contrast to the way the state deals with the elderly Indonesian victims who have to take part in nerve wrecking and time consuming legal procedures to compel the government to recognize them and compensate them. “The Indies veterans have reached old age”, according to the letter. “The cabinet acknowledges that the negative attention towards the conduct of the Dutch forces in the Dutch East Indies have an undeniable impact on their well being. Partly because of that, the cabinet has informed a number of individual veterans and veterans organizations about the study of dr. Limpach prior to its publication with the Inspector General of the Armed Forces (Inspecteur Generaal der Krijgsmacht – IGK) serving as an intermediary. During a meeting with the IGK on September 28, 2016, attention was paid to the cabinets reaction on this research. Also it was made clear this issue arouses deep emotions that simmer beneath the surface.” Further down the feelings of the former soldiers are mentioned yet again. “The cabinet acknowledges that further research might cause pain to the group of Indies veterans, but finds it important that the following study pays attention to exactly the difficult context within which Dutch soldiers had to operate, the violence on the Indonesian side, the deployment in which violence did not play or hardly played a role and the responsibility of the political, administrative and military leadership.”

According to Pondaag Indies veterans should for once in their lives listen to a completely different perspective. “It’s not just that those veterans get to finally hear that according to scientific research a lot more violence was committed by Dutch soldiers than previously was assumed. Of importance is that they recognize how the Netherlands was illegally conducting itself in Asia by appropriating huge territories and subjecting many people to a colonial system. What gave the Netherlands the right to view that territory as Dutch possession in the first place?”

Splitting hairs

The way the government says it shows sympathy with the veterans is in stark contrast with the indifference shown towards the colonized who faced Dutch violence against themselves or against their family and friends. Why does the government not pay attention to their “pain”, to their “deep feelings” which “simmer beneath the surface”? Why is no attention paid to “the difficult context” in which they had to “operate” while they were fighting for their independence? Pondaag points out an important fact: “Officially the Netherlands still states that Indonesia became an independent country by the end of 1949. That means that according to the Dutch state until December, 27, 1949 all Indonesians had the Dutch nationality. According to this point of view the Dutch soldiers were fighting against other Dutchmen during the colonial war, which would mean that a civil war was going on. If you reason along these lines, it becomes more remarkable and painful that the approximately six thousand Dutch soldiers who died during that war are commemorated, but the hundreds of thousands other Dutchmen, meaning: the Indonesians, are not. But if the state would revise this point of view and henceforth would in all regards acknowledge that Indonesia became independent as of August, 17, 1945, the date on which the Indonesians declared independence of their country, that would mean they would still remain on the wrong side with this war. Because in that case the Netherlands would have attacked an independent country and try to conquer and occupy it in the years after that event. And that in itself is of course a grave war crime.”

Bot’s speech in 2005 led to an unprecedented hair splitting in the political landscape in The Hague (the Dutch political capital). The minister’s words, though a nice gesture, were stated in such an insincere way and only meant that the Netherlands recognized the date of August, 17, 1945 as the “de facto”, factual, date of independence and not “de jure”, as in legally binding. From a formal legal point of view the Dutch state still only recognizes the independence of Indonesia as being achieved by the end of 1949.

Paying out of ones own pocket

The three institutes pay no attention in their study concept to the court cases that Pondaag and Zegveld have been conducting for the last ten years. For these court cases both Pondaag and Zegveld have conducted a lot of research in Indonesia. They tracked down the victims, talked to them, collected witness testimonies and together with the victims have sued the Dutch state. In this manner they have collected a wealth of information. But the institutes do not find this worthy of mentioning in the study concept. It is telling that Pondaag was not asked to take part in the sounding board group that is supposed to accompany the three institutes during the study. A diverse group of organizations is represented in this platform, among which are the Indies platform, the foundation for the commemoration of August 15, the national committee fourth and fifth of May, the Veterans Platform, the Veterans Institute, the foundation for the National Indies monument 1945-1962 and the Arq foundation. The composition of the sounding board group shows that the interests of mainly the Indies veterans are represented. Now that the Committee of Dutch Debts of Honour, Pondaags organisation, is not taking part in the sounding board, it seems that the interests of the Indonesian victims of Dutch violence are being fully neglected.

“In response to our court cases the Dutch state has set up a meager temporary arrangement where Indonesian victims of Dutch violence can file a request for compensation. This request has to be accompanied by a huge amount of evidence, something which is very painful for the victims. I perceive the arrangement as paying out of ones own pocket. Indonesia has paid 4,5 billion Dutch guilders to receive recognition from the Netherlands before it became an independent country. At first the Netherlands even demanded 6,2 billion guilders. Especially at the time this was a huge amount of money. So after the Netherlands had robbed Indonesia blind, the formerly colonized had to pay extra to the colonizers so their independence would be recognized. That is why I say that the Netherlands is a shameless country.”

Only by the beginning of 2017 it became known to the public that in a 1953 ruling a Hague court held the Dutch state responsible for the death of the murdered Indonesian civil servant Masdoelhak Nasoetion. His widow went to court in 1950 and three years later the judge ruled that the state had to pay a compensation of 149.000 guilders. Until 2017 it was assumed that the state was first held accountable in 2011 for war crimes by Dutch soldier during the colonial war. Zegveld thinks it’s “unbelievable” that the state has kept silence about the Nasoetion case. “It adds context to everything we do today.” Pondaag: “The scholars of the research institutes have had their eyes closed for years. It took a cement factory worker like myself to shake things up and get to the surface that which was swept under the rug for years on end. Our aim is to start more court cases so that we can keep the pressure up.”

Harry Westerink