‘The colonial world map still exists’

15 Sep 2022

In his bestseller ‘Revolusi’, David Van Reybrouck meticulously describes the extent of the crimes that were committed by the Netherlands during the struggle for Indonesian independence. On the subject of former Radboud professor Louis Beel, the author merely states the following: 'He has seriously fallen off his pedestal.' This was just one of the comments made by Van Reybrouck during his interview with Vox, which he gave prior to the lecture that he will be giving in Nijmegen on Thursday.

‘We all had to line up and walk to Lombok. (…) The prisoners from Majene were brought by car and then executed one by one. There was no interrogation or anything like that. They were ‘fighters’. They were shot at point blank range. They weren’t blindfolded. Their dead bodies were stacked on top of one another like pillows.’

But the worst was yet to come. ‘At three o’clock in the afternoon a jeep full of angry Dutchmen arrived. (…) Kill all the people of Baruga! Gunshots were immediately fired from the jeep that contained the three Dutchmen, but all of the soldiers started shooting. The sound of the bullets was like machine gun fire.’ (Harun Masa in Revolusi, p. 377)

On 1 February 1947, Dutch troops killed more than 150 people in the village of Galung Lombok, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Harun Masa was ten years old at the time. He is one of the hundreds of typically elderly eyewitnesses who came from all parts of the archipelago to talk to David Van Reybrouck about the Indonesian struggle for independence. Van Reybrouck has meticulously reconstructed this turbulent period in his hefty book Revolusi (De Bezige Bij, 2020). On Thursday evening, the archaeologist, historian and author will be the guest speaker at Radboud Reflects.

While the Dutch are swamped with information about the Second World War at school and overwhelmed with information about the war in films, books and musicals such as Soldier of Orange, the decolonisation period that followed in the former Dutch East Indies tends to be somewhat ignored. Indonesia unexpectedly declared independence on 17 August 1945. The Netherlands endeavoured to put a stop to this by staging a military intervention, which was euphemistically called the ‘police actions’. This is more or less what Dutch children are taught at school.

David Van Reybrouck. Photograph: Frank Ruiter

It is only in the last few years that society as a whole has come to realise that the Netherlands committed international acts of war in the years between 1945 and 1949. The army inflicted torture and carried out summary executions on a large scale. Last February, the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) concluded in a research report that ‘the extreme violence that was inflicted by the Dutch armed forces was not only widespread, but had often been used deliberately. This form of violence was tolerated at all levels – political, military and judicial.’

Why has this insight only just come to light?

Van Reybrouck: ‘That’s down to several factors. For a long time there was a culture of silence. The veterans preferred not to talk about what had gone on, partly out of frustration because it had actually been a military success, but it was also a political loss (the Netherlands finally acknowledged Indonesian independence after being pressured by America and the United Nations, ed.). Veteran Joop Hueting was the first person to speak out on television about the abuse in the late 1960s, and a short time later parliament passed a law that meant that war crimes in the Dutch East Indies could no longer be prosecuted.’

‘The Belgian king has expressed his deepest regret. I’ve yet to see the Netherlands make the same kind of gesture’

‘The one factor that plays an equally important role is the educational reforms that were put into practice during the second half of the twentieth century. Because of these reforms, Dutch pupils were only taught history for three years. By contrast, Belgian pupils were taught history for six years. When a subject is barely discussed, there’s little chance that the information will be passed on. There’s good reason why, until recently, the Dutch were the Europeans who were most proud of their colonial past.’

Why do you think that a greater focus has now been placed on this past?

‘The information was often already available at the academic level, in PhD theses for example, but this same information had not yet reached the general public. All of this changed after the Rawagede widows trial in 2011, when the widows sued the Netherlands for the massacre that was committed by soldiers there on 9 December 1947. Films like De Oost [The East] (about the summary executions that were carried out by Captain Westerling on Sulawesi in 1946, ed.) have also made the abuse more visible.’

You talk about acts of war and abuse. Shouldn’t you view that period through the lenses of those times?

‘Those lenses also had a double focus! It’s manifestly untrue that the entire Netherlands wanted to preserve the colony. In fact, the country was deeply divided in the late 1940s. At the time, there were two major petitions; one was colonial while the other was anti-colonial. Both of these petitions collected around 300,000 signatures. Parliament was also completely divided. During this period, there was actually more debate about the colonial era than in the fifty years that followed. So, yes, that period should ideally be viewed through the lenses of those times, but preferably through lenses with a single focus.’

So what’s next?

‘Education, education, education. Schools need to pay more attention to the colonial past. As do museums. The Rijksmuseum’s last renovation in 2014 resulted in no more than one area being labelled ‘The Netherlands Overseas’, even though the Netherlands was active on the three southern continents for three centuries. That’s quite unusual. Luckily, museums now seem to be making up for lost ground, just like the media.’

In Congo, you described the decolonisation of Belgium’s former colony. Is it possible to learn lessons from our Belgian neighbours?

‘Both of our countries are searching for a meaningful way to deal with their burdened past; Belgium seems to be a bit further along in that respect. Nowadays, the Netherlands is aware of what went on in the period between 1945 and 1949: both the Dutch king and the prime minister have now apologised for the decolonisation struggle. But the 350 years that preceded this period has barely been examined. The crimes that were committed by the Dutch East India Company under the command of Coen in the seventeenth century may have been generally acknowledged, but beyond this there are other atrocities. What about the genocide of the Chinese in Java in the eighteenth century? Or the great colonial wars of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) in the nineteenth century? Or the merciless repression of political dissidents in the 1920s and 1930s? The Belgian king has expressed his deepest regret for the entire colonial period in the Congo. I’ve yet to see the Netherlands make the same kind of gesture.’

‘Beel was guilty of foul play at all times and deliberately thwarted diplomacy during the second police action’

Former prime minister and Radboud professor Louis Beel (1902-1977) comes off rather badly in Revolusi. A portrait of him hangs at Radboud University, where a prominent meeting room also bears his name. In his column, Professor Klaas Landsman claimed that the portrait needed to be removed and the meeting room needed to be renamed.

‘In my opinion, Beel has seriously fallen off his pedestal, not to mention that he was a major evil mastermind in the decolonisation struggle. He played a very nasty role, as prime minister during the first police actions and then as High Representative of the Crown in Jakarta during the second police action. Beel was guilty of foul play at all times and deliberately thwarted diplomacy during the second police action, in order to pave the way for military intervention.’

Should all forms of tribute to him be removed from campus? Such an action would align with the Nijmegen action groups who regularly advocate for the decolonisation of the university.

‘I believe that the Executive Board should appoint a committee of four researchers who are able to draw on their historical and cultural expertise. They could then make a recommendation based on what they have read in Beel’s biography, the NIOD’s research, and possibly my book and other authors’ books. We also need to listen to the opinions from the university community who are involved in this issue, such as the action groups. In any case, we shouldn’t spend the next ten years arguing about it; an issue like this should be resolved within three months – the last thing we need is another controversial Zwarte Piet discussion.’

‘But having said that, I have to admit that I sometimes get tired of discussions about street signs and statues. These only involve symbolic injustice, while the real focus should be on structural injustice and how colonialism continues to exist independently from such obvious things like racism.’

In a recent pamphlet, you stated that the colonial world map still exists. Can you explain what you meant by this?

‘Take the COVID-19 vaccines, which were mainly distributed to western countries. Or the issue of climate change. The former colonising countries emit the greatest amount of CO2, while their former colonies are much more severely affected by climate change. At this point in time, 33 million people have been affected by the recent floods in Pakistan. The Pakistani government has claimed that they’re paying the price for the West’s pollution, and this complaint is completely justified.’

‘Unfortunately, we can’t change the past, but we can work towards a better world’

‘In this regard, the Netherlands and Belgium share the blame. We’ve not only been polluting the planet for the last two centuries because of our industrial past, but we also owe much of our prosperity to our colonies. These factors should instill a deep sense of humility. Discussions about the Third World often focus on the financial debts that were written off by the West and the IMF when these countries were rebuilt after decolonisation. It would be interesting to compare this with our carbon debt. And think about who actually owes who.’

What needs to happen now?

‘The current generation in the West must accept that they have a responsibility towards the future. No matter how badly the people before us behaved, we unfortunately cannot change the past, but we can work towards a better world. I think that any mayor who manages to achieve a CO2-neutral municipality by 2030 will have made more progress against colonial injustice and discrimination than a mayor whose municipality is adorned with politically correct street signs but is still completely powered by fossil fuels.’

‘The government also needs to do more. The countries who attended the Paris climate summit pledged to provide 100 billion euro a year to countries that have been affected by global warming through no fault of their own, much like Pakistan’s current situation. But as yet, nobody has honoured this agreement. The Netherlands and Belgium should be the first to do just that.’

David Van Reybrouck will be talking to students in the Lecture Hall Complex on 15 September; this discussion will be led by ethicist Marcel Becker. This event, which has been organised by Radboud Relfects and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office, will start at 8.00 pm. The price of admission for staff members is €5.00; students will be admitted free of charge. If you would like to participate, please register here.

Translated by Radboud in’to Languages

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