The recent Dutch royal visit to Indonesia saw King Willem-Alexander make an unreserved apology for the violence committed during the four-year independence struggle after the Second World War.
King Willem-Alexander recognised Indonesian independence. The Dutch government refused to acknowledge the Indonesian declaration of independence on August 17, 1945, after Japan surrendered two days earlier.
The royal couple laid a wreath at Menteng Pulo Cemetery, where nearly 4,300 Dutch soldiers were laid after falling in the Second World War and the independence struggle.
The king expressed sorrow for the Dutch country’s “excessive violence” on Java and Sulawesi during Indonesia’s struggle for independence.
The monarch said there was “full awareness that the pain and sorrow of the affected families will be felt for generations”.
The Dutch ambassador to Indonesia first apologised for the 1945-49 violence in 2013 when he addressed the relatives of victims of Dutch counter-insurgency action in South Sulawesi in 1946-47.
The 2013 apology allowed the largest-ever Dutch trade mission to Indonesia to take place in November 2013, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Indonesia claims approximately 40,000 people were killed during the fighting, while Dutch historians tend to estimate that around 1,500 were killed.
A 1968 Dutch report acknowledged “violent excesses” in Indonesia but argued that colonial troops were involved in a “police action” against guerrilla tactics and terrorism.
In 2016, the Dutch parliament opened an inquiry into anti-independence action between 1945 and 1949 when the Netherlands tried to reclaim what had been the Dutch East Indies.
The Netherlands never prosecuted any troops for the killings despite a 1948 UN report condemning the violence as “deliberate and ruthless”.
Some Indonesians said it was a good opportunity to address the nation’s own post-independence sins.
“This is a good moment to reflect on Indonesia’s past,” said Marzuki Darusman, a former attorney general. The Jakarta government has raised the prospect of a truth commission. “There will, of course, be strong pushback from some groups of people,” added Darusman.
The Netherlands finally accepted Indonesia as an independent nation in December 1949.
The Dutch apology and Germany’s attempts to address its brutal occupation of Namibia set an awkward precedent for other colonial powers. The UK, France, Spain, Portugal and Japan have far longer lists of grievances to address.
Willem-Alexander presented a kris or traditional dagger belonging to Prince Diponegoro, an Indonesian warrior who led a rebellion against the Dutch in the early 19th century.
Menteng Pulo Cemetery. Picture credit: Wikimedia