The Dutch King's crucial apology to Indonesia: here's the backstory

The King's important speech
Holland and Indonesia: a long relationship
1945: at war
The Dutch East India Company
The Dutch Indies
The Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro to General De Kock, by Nicolaas Pieneman
The Dutch cultivation system in the Indies
National Museum in Jakarta
World War II in Indonesia
Japanese occupation
The Dutch KNIL army
Sukarno
Indonesian National Revolution: warfare
The Dutch wanted to keep Indonesia
1949: Indonesian sovereignty
Istana Merdeka
Hollandia, Papua New Guinea, 1962
National Monument for independence
Indonesian Independence Day
Dutch PM Rutte and Indonesian President Widodo
The King's important speech

In March 2020, the King of The Netherlands made an important speech in Bogor, Indonesia. "It is a good thing that we continue to face up to our past," he said. "The past cannot be erased, and will have to be acknowledged by each generation in turn."

 

Holland and Indonesia: a long relationship

Indonesia and The Netherlands have a close relationship. Queen Máxima has visited the country several times as a special UN ambassador. In March 2020, she brings King Willem Alexander along for their first official state visit.

1945: at war

However, some 75 years ago, Indonesia and The Netherlands were at war. In a conflict that Dutch media euphemistically called "police actions" in "their colony," Indonesians fought to defend their declared independence from Dutch colonial rule. This is the story of Indonesia and The Netherlands’ complex relationship.

 

(Photo: Wikimedia, Nationaal Archief)

The Dutch East India Company

In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company, a trading enterprise looking for spices and other valuables, occupied parts of what now is called Indonesia. They founded the town of Batavia on the spot where now lies Jakarta.

 

(Photo: A senior merchant in the Dutch Indies, by Albert Cuyp. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands)

The Dutch Indies

Around 1800, the illustrious company went bankrupt and the Dutch government nationalised its territories in Indonesia – or, as they called it, the Dutch Indies. The Indonesian name of this colony was Hindia Belanda.

 

(Image: House on the Rijswijk, Batavia (Jalan Veteran) by Ernest Alfred Hardouin)

The Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro to General De Kock, by Nicolaas Pieneman

To maintain access to all the cash crops and spices the colonizers wanted to produce, they had to expand further into the heartlands of the Indonesian islands. They fought colonial wars to subjugate native peoples and kingdoms.

The Dutch cultivation system in the Indies

In 1830, the Dutch imposed a cultivation system in the colony, especially on Java. They held a monopoly on all agricultural production for export and declared that 20% of Indonesian land must be used for it. The local farmers became either deeply endebted to Dutch administrators, or they were forced to work two months per year on a government plantation.

National Museum in Jakarta

The Dutch left many traces of their colonisation, such as buildings in the typical Dutch Indies' style of architecture. A striking example is the edifice of the National Museum in Jakarta.

 

(Photo by CEPhoto, Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia)

World War II in Indonesia

World War II changed everything. The Japanese empire occupied the Dutch Indies and destroyed the entire infrastructure on which Dutch colonialism had relied. The Netherlands, meanwhile, could do nothing in defense of its Indonesian territories because they were occupied by Nazi Germany.

Japanese occupation

Even though the Japanese were harsh rulers who had only a few years on the islands before they surrendered in 1945, they inspired in the Indonesian peoples the desire for independence from Europe.

 

(Photo: Wikimedia, Nationaal Archief)

The Dutch KNIL army

In 1945, with the Japanese defeated, the Dutch army came back to Indonesia, expecting to continue business as usual. They recruited among Indonesian resistance fighters to join the Dutch colonial army.

 

(Photo: Wikimedia, Nationaal Archief)

Sukarno

However, a group of local intellectuals had other plans for Indonesia. Among them was the architectural engineer Sukarno (left on this photo from the Dutch Tropenmuseum). He gained a great following and Indonesians began to resist the Dutch colonizer by both diplomatic and military means. 

Indonesian National Revolution: warfare

On August 17, 1945, after the Japanese surrendered, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared the independence of Indonesia. The Netherlands were not willing to give up their colony, however. They tried to install a military government in the territories and catalyzed the Indonesian National Revolution into an armed conflict. It lasted from 1945 to 1949.

The Dutch wanted to keep Indonesia

"The [Dutch] flag goes down in the Indies. Do you want that?" this poster questioned rhetorically. While The Netherlands continued to send troops to 'its' Indies, the United Nations put pressure on the country to reconsider its fight and grant independence to Indonesia.

 

(Photo: Nationaal Comité Handhaving Rijkseenheid, 1947. IISG)

1949: Indonesian sovereignty

In 1949, they finally did and Sukarno could peacefully build on a national government. At the end of the year, the Dutch officially passed sovereignty of Indonesia to his administration.

 

(Photo: United Nations)

Istana Merdeka

On that day, the palace we see here on the photo, in Jakarta, was renamed ‘Istana Merdeka.' It's Indonesian for 'Independence Palace.'

 

(Photo: PCOO, Philippines)

Hollandia, Papua New Guinea, 1962

Only in Papua West Guinea the Dutch continued to exert control. They suppressed independence pursuits with the ‘police actions’ the international community deplored. It was not until 1962 that the Indonesian flag was raised in Hollandia, Papua West Guinea, alongside the UN flag. “An impressive ceremony,” the UN reporter said. 

 

(Photo: United Nations)

National Monument for independence

On Merdeka Square in Jakarta, the National Monument commemorates the country's independence struggle. Indonesians call it 'Monumen Nasional,' or 'Monas' in short. 

 

(Photo: Wikimedia, Ramayoni)

Indonesian Independence Day

Each year, on August 17, Indonesia remembers the day it made its Declaration (or 'Proklamasi') of Independence in 1945.

"We were on the wrong side of history"

Slowly, Dutch officials have begun to rethink their version of the conflict between Indonesia and The Netherlands. They long refused to even acknowledge the independent status of Indonesia. In 2005, Foreign Minister Ben Bot haltingly declared in a speech: "We were on the wrong side of history." This was a big step, the Algemeen Dagblad says, but official excuses were never really made.

"A painful separation"

Now the Dutch King acknowledges in the presence of President Widodo that "in the years immediately after the (1945) Proklamasi, a painful separation followed that cost many lives."

"Excessive violence on the part of the Dutch"

"I would like to express my regret and apologise for excessive violence on the part of the Dutch in those years," he continues. "I do so in the full realisation that the pain and sorrow of the families affected continue to be felt today."

Dutch PM Rutte and Indonesian President Widodo

In spite of their history, the Dutch and Indonesians have good relations. Prime Minister Mark Rutte planted a ulin tree on the fields of Bogor Palace in 2019. The strength of its wood symbolises the strength of the relationship the Indonesians wish to have with The Netherlands. 

"Once on opposite sides, now closer"

The King is optimistic about the future: "It is a hopeful and encouraging sign that countries which were once on opposite sides have been able to grow closer.... The ties between us are becoming ever stronger and more diverse. That gives me great pleasure."

 

Read more about Máxima, the Latin American Queen of the Dutch.

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