‘It wouldn’t replace my father’: Dutch apology over violence in Indonesia rekindles pain of revolutionary period
- On Feb 17, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte offered a full apology to Indonesia for “the systematic and widespread extreme violence” committed by the Dutch military during the Indonesian revolutionary period
- Around 100,000 Indonesians died between 1945 and 1949, including unarmed civilians who were killed in summary executions
- Indonesia has yet to accept the apology, saying that it is still studying the historical review
- Indonesian historians say that the Netherlands should clarify the context of the apology
- The apology has rekindled painful memories among the families of the victims
KARAWANG, Indonesia: Mdm Ami was only five years old at the time, but she remembered the day her father died on Dec 9, 1947.
That day, hundreds of heavily armed Dutch troops surrounded the tiny village of Rawagede, some 50km east of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, in search for an Indonesian freedom fighter by the name of Lukas Kustaryo.
The troops rounded up every male member of the village, some as young as 15, and brutally killed them for refusing to reveal the location of Kustaryo and his band of guerrilla fighters.
Mdm Ami, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said her family was too terrified to leave their wooden house as gunshots echoed throughout the village.
“There were dogs looking for those who hid in the woods. The dogs barked, followed by more gunshots. Some men were hiding in a river near my house. They too were gunned down.
“That river turned red with blood. There were houses being burned down. There were bodies everywhere,” the 80-year-old told CNA at her home.
Hours after the Dutch had left, news came that Mdm Ami’s father, Mr Samba, who was travelling to town to sell rice that day, was gunned down on his way home. His lifeless body was lying at the side of the unpaved village road.
Mdm Ami remembered seeing her older sister dragging their father’s body for kilometres to be buried in front of their house.
According to the Rawagede Foundation, which has studied the massacre, 431 men, all of whom were unarmed civilians, were killed in that village.
Some bodies were recovered days later drifting in the river. There were also those whose remains were never found.
“The whole village was deprived of men,” the foundation’s chairman Sukarman told CNA. “With little tools they had, the women buried their husbands and children hastily, fearing that the Dutch would come back. There were no burial shrouds. No funeral ceremonies. No rituals were performed and no prayers were offered.”
Mr Sukarman, 73, said his father was among the handful of men who survived the massacre, narrowly escaping death by fleeing into the woods under heavy fire from the Dutch.
“Everyone else in my generation had to grow up without a father. They had also lost their brothers, uncles and grandfathers,” Mr Sukarman, who also goes with one name, said.
On Feb 17, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte offered a full apology to Indonesia for “the systematic and widespread extreme violence” committed by the Dutch military between the year Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945 and the year the Dutch finally withdrew its troops and recognised Indonesia’s sovereignty in 1949.
The apology came after academics from the Netherlands and Indonesia spent four-and-a-half years studying the violence committed during the 1945-1949 period, which cost the lives of around 100,000 Indonesians.
The findings of the historical review, funded by the Dutch government, were presented on Feb 17 in Amsterdam.
"We have to accept the shameful facts," Mr Rutte said at a press conference after the findings were published.
“I make my deep apology to the people of Indonesia today on behalf of the Dutch government for the systematic and widespread extreme violence by the Dutch side in those years and the consistent looking away by previous Cabinets.”
His words, however, had brought little comfort to those who lost their loved ones decades ago.
NETHERLANDS SHOULD CLARIFY CONTEXT OF APOLOGY: HISTORIANS
In September 2013, then ambassador to Indonesia, Tjeerd de Zwaan, apologised for the massacres that took place between 1945 and 1949 during a ceremony at the Dutch Embassy in Jakarta. It was the first time that a Dutch official offered a general apology for the atrocities that occurred.
However, the ambassador described these massacres as "excesses", suggesting that the Netherlands saw the 1945-1949 events as part of its attempts to protect the colony against an uprising by the Indonesian people.
Another apology came in March 2020 during King Willem-Alexander’s visit to Indonesia. He also apologised for the excessive violence inflicted during the same period.
Indonesia has not formally accepted the Netherlands’ latest apology while the one conveyed by the monarch had been merely “welcomed” by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
“The government of Indonesia is closely following the outcome of the historical review… We are studying said document so we can fully grasp the statement conveyed by PM Rutte,” Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told a press briefing on Thursday (Feb 24), declining to elaborate further.
Historian Bonnie Triyana said Indonesia should not rush to accept the apology.
“The Netherlands do not recognise Aug 17, 1945 to be our Independence Day. Instead, they recognise our Independence Day as Dec 27, 1949 (the day the Dutch withdrew its troops), a position that they have not formally changed since,” Mr Triyana, the chief editor of Indonesian history website Historia, told CNA.
The debate over when Indonesia gained independence has significant political implications, he said.
“Are they apologising for committing violence against Indonesian citizens for defending their independence? Or are they apologising for committing violence against the subjects of their colonial rule?” he said.
Former Indonesian foreign affairs minister Hassan Wirajuda said the Dutch should first explain the meaning of its prime minister’s remarks.
“They should be clear in their apology. This apology is done in parts and pieces and does not cover the entire calamity caused by the Dutch occupation and colonisation, which happened for 350 years in our motherland,” he said during an academic seminar on Tuesday.
Another historian, Mr J.J. Rizal, also said the Dutch should apologise for three centuries of occupation in Indonesia.
“We know that the Netherlands got to be a modern, wealthy country the way it was and is today because of the colonisation of Indonesia and forced labour of Indonesian people,” Mr Rizal told CNA.
Mr Sukarman, the chairman of Rawagede Foundation, agreed that the Netherlands should clarify the context of its apology, saying that it would make a world of difference to the victims of the 1947 massacre.
“On one hand, it’s an admission that the Dutch had committed acts of violence to the people of Indonesia. But we have to wonder: are they apologising as a coloniser trying to suppress a rebellion? Or an invader of a country which had recently proclaimed its independence?” he said.
“If they don’t recognise 1945 to be the year Indonesia gained its independence, then they see the victims of Rawagede as nothing more than rebels and scoundrels. That is why it is very hard for me to accept this apology unless the Dutch explain what they are apologising as.”
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY OR FEEL”
Much has changed in Rawagede since the massacre.
The remains of those who died that day were exhumed and laid to rest at a hero’s cemetery in the 1950s. In 1995, a monument in the shape of a budding flower was erected to commemorate those who died in the massacre.
But the scars shared by those who survived the ordeal remained, even years after a district court in the Hague ruled that the Dutch had committed excessive violence to the people of Rawagede in September 2011.
The court however only ordered the Dutch government to pay a total of €180,000 (US$202,000) to nine people, namely seven widows, one daughter and a survivor who acted as plaintiffs in the case.
As a form of solidarity, the nine agreed to split the compensation money to families of all 431 victims of the massacre.
“In the end, each family only received 5.2 million rupiah (US$361.50). That won’t even cover the plane tickets of those who flew to the Netherlands to attend the court hearings,” Mr Sukarman said.
The family members were also distraught by the fact that the court ruling labelled the victims of the massacre as colonial subjects of the Dutch East Indies government.
In 2013, the Dutch government was also told by the same court to provide compensation to victims of another massacre in South Sulawesi, which saw the killing of thousands of civilians over the course of three months from late 1946 to early 1947.
Twelve people, comprising eight widows and four children of those executed, were awarded a compensation of between €123 and €10,000. Some of the plaintiffs refused to accept the compensation, saying that the amount offered was too small compared to the grief their families had to endure for decades.
Mr Rutte said last week that the Dutch offer to settle compensation claims remains open.
But Mr Triyana, the historian, said the Dutch should first acknowledge 1945 to be the year Indonesia gained its Independence.
“The Dutch should realise that their colonial rule over Indonesia ended in 1942 when they surrendered to the Japanese. What happened between 1945 and 1949 was a military aggression against a sovereign nation and we should be compensated as victims of such aggression,” he said.
Rawagede resident Mino, who was just three months old when the massacre happened, said she does not know what to make of Mr Rutte’s apology.
All she knows is that the massacre had cost the life of her father, Mr Gedut, her family’s breadwinner.
“If my father had been alive maybe my family wouldn’t suffer as much. He wasn’t a wealthy man but we had enough to eat. Ever since he was killed, life was hard for my family, especially my mother who had to work at a rice mill while taking care of me who was still a baby at the time,” the 75-year-old told CNA.
“I don’t hate them. I don’t have grudges or anything. I have already forgiven them. But I don’t know what to say or feel (about the apology). Offers of money and apology wouldn’t replace my father and the years of grief and hardship we had endured.”