In a world where liberal notions of truth and justice seem to be in headlong retreat, one small European country’s efforts to address war crimes allegedly committed long ago offers a ray of hope for victims of conflict and the battered idea of transitional justice.
The Netherlands has taken the extraordinary step of launching a belated inquiry into the armed struggle that transformed the Dutch East Indies into the republic of Indonesia seventy years ago. Indonesia’s revolution was a short, scrappy affair. After declaring independence on the front lawn of a city bungalow in Jakarta on 17 August 1945, the new republic’s leadership bickered over the best way to defeat the Dutch, while its fledgling army, a rag tag mob of brigands and idealists, skirmished with colonial forces clinging to empire. Indonesian narratives of this brief era of struggle are surprisingly sparse—snatches of autobiography, a lot of fiery poetry, and a few novels. Serious historical accounts were mainly written by foreigners.
Much or all of this fractured history may now be revised with serious implications not just for what is considered the truth, but also for the consequence of some of the period’s worst violence. The Dutch government, in a controversial move both in Indonesia and the Netherlands, has launched an inquiry into the events of the period spanning 1945-50.
The decision taken by the government last December involves renowned academic institutes in the Netherlands and will draw on a wide range of sources, including a call for the public both in Indonesia and the Netherlands to come forward with recollections, photographs and documents. Seldom, if ever, has a former colonial power taken so open an approach to delving into the violent past.
The revelations will have repercussions not only in the Netherlands; the Indonesian side was also responsible for violence—much of it targeting Indonesians. A revolt by leftist leaders in 1948 against the fledgling republican government was brutally put down in Madiun, East Java. The Dutch inquiry will open old wounds and could bring forth demands for justice and compensation on both sides.
One reason it took so long for the inquiry to happen was the resistance of veterans from the Dutch forces that invaded Indonesia after the Japanese defeat in 1945. For years afterwards, the Dutch government insisted there was nothing to be ashamed of. But after more than seventy years, and with very few of the veterans still around, that position is changing. ‘The question therefore arises’, notes the academic coalition running the inquiry, ‘as to whether the stance taken by the government in 1969, namely “that the armed forces as a whole acted correctly in Indonesia” can still be defended’.
And not just the Dutch military forces. The inquiry will focus initially on the murky period immediately after the Japanese surrender in August 1945 and before the main military force sent by the Dutch to retake Indonesia arrived in early 1946. Known in Indonesian as bersiap, (the preparation), it was time of repercussions on all sides after four hard years of Japanese occupation. It was in this period of a few months, the inquiry team notes, that: ‘many thousands of Europeans, Indo-Europeans, as well as Chinese and Indonesians accused of collaborating with the Dutch colonial rule, became the victims of widespread and brutal violence, perpetrated by organised and unorganised Indonesian militant groups’.
This will be acutely sensitive in Indonesia, where victimhood lies deeply buried because of the absence of legal protection, either for the victims or their persecutors. Transitional justice efforts have mostly fallen on stony ground in the post-1998 reform era. Questions surrounding culpability for the deaths of around half a million Indonesians in a witch hunt against members of the Indonesian Communist Party after 1965 have dogged democratically elected governments over the past decade.
Despite promises of an investigation and apology, nothing has been done. Last year a group of Indonesian activists convened a ‘People’s Tribunal’ in The Hague where a panel of independent judges ruled that the killings amounted to genocide and that some Western governments were implicated as well. Former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman believes that the Dutch inquiry could be cathartic. ‘Such a format of getting to the truth of what happened after 1945 could be a way of resolving nearer past issues such as what happened in 1965’, he said.
The Dutch government by contrast has shown a remarkable willingness to subject its security forces to scrutiny and prosecution. In 2014, a Dutch court ruled that Dutch soldiers who were members of a UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina were culpable for the deaths of 300 Bosniaks who in July 1995 had sought shelter from Serbian forces in Srebrenica but were surrendered by the Dutch into Serbian hands then killed, along with almost 5,000 others, mostly women and children.
The Dutch inquiry into the Indonesian revolution perhaps has a wider significance, for it comes at a time of concern about the erosion of international norms and values in a world of fading idealism, rising populist nationalism, and decaying global cooperation. It is quite possible that an inquiry led by liberal academics half a world away from where their countrymen used violent means in the defence of empire could mean a whole lot more than spending three million Euros of Dutch public money on the closure of an ugly chapter of history: it could help keep alive the promise of justice for millions of other victims of war crimes around the world.
Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. His new book Blood & Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in June 2017.