Netherlands Apologizes for Indonesian Colonial Killings

By : Bastiaan Scherpen | on 3:38 PM September 12, 2013
Category : News, Jakarta, Featured

Sulawesi 02_preview Dutch ambassador Tjeerd de Zwaan with relatives of widows whose husbands were summarily executed by Dutch forces in South Sulawesi in 1946-47. (JG Photo/Bastiaan Scherpen)

Almost 67 years after thousands of Indonesian men were summarily executed in South Sulawesi as part of a ruthless campaign to crush resistance against Dutch colonial rule, the Netherlands on Thursday officially apologized and announced a proposal to compensate victims of similar “excesses.”

Ambassador Tjeerd de Zwaan said at the Dutch embassy compound in South Jakarta that the violence that broke out after Indonesia declared its independence on Aug. 17, 1945, “claimed many innocent victims on both sides and resulted in suffering that is still felt today” in both countries.

Present at the ceremony were five relatives of South Sulawesi women whose husbands were executed. The women themselves did not attend. Their lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld, earlier said in a press statement that the women, aged 90-100, had asked Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans to make the apology in South Sulawesi, as they were “too old” to travel to Jakarta, 1,400 kilometers away.

“Making an apology implies that you go and meet somebody, not ask the person to come to you,” Zegveld said. The ambassador said on Thursday that he would shortly travel to Makassar in the hope of meeting with the widows.

The Dutch state reached a legal settlement this year with ten women from South Sulawesi after a similar case in 2011 was won by victims of the 1947 Rawagede massacre. An official apology and 20,000 euros ($26,600) in compensation were part of the settlements in both cases.

In his statement on Thursday, de Zwaan said that the Dutch government “is aware that it bears a special responsibility in respect of Indonesian widows of victims of summary executions comparable to those carried out by Dutch troops in what was then South Celebes [Sulawesi] and Rawagede [now Balongsari, West Java].”

“On behalf of the Dutch government, I apologize for these excesses,” the ambassador said in English before repeating his words in Indonesian.

Crackdown in Sulawesi

The massacres in Sulawesi were part of a 1946-47 campaign in which the controversial Dutch Capt. Raymond Westerling played an important role. As the commander of the Special Forces unit Depot Speciale Troepen , Westerling was called upon to “pacify” South Sulawesi, an order that Dutch military historian Petra Groen says should be seen as part of an effort to boost the newly founded state of East Indonesia’s chances of survival.

“This state formed the foundation for the federal [United States of] Indonesia that the Netherlands envisioned as a political answer to the Republic of Indonesia’s struggle for independence,” Groen told the Jakarta Globe.

“The political center of the state of East Indonesia was Makassar in South Sulawesi. When TNI guerrillas gained control in the area ... from mid-1946 onwards and the KNIL [Royal Netherlands East Indies Army] had no way of stopping them, the Netherlands-Indies government decided to deploy Westerling’s Special Forces.”

According to Groen, Westerling wasn’t ordered by Dutch authorities at the time to summarily execute suspects, but his methods did later get the government’s stamp of approval. Westerling, who died in 1987, remained a controversial figure even in the Netherlands but was never prosecuted.

The so-called “Westerling Method” entailed summary executions of people suspected to be involved in any anti-Dutch activity and other harsh counter-insurgency tactics. Estimates vary widely, but historian Jaap de Moor, a Dutch expert on Westerling, has put the death toll as a direct result of the actions by the Special Forces in South Sulawesi at around 1,500, with regular units being responsible for many other killings in the region. The Indonesian government at the time put the number of victims in Sulawesi at 40,000.

No more lawsuits?

Henk Schulte Nordholt, an Indonesia expert and head of research at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden, the Netherlands, said the offer of apologies was a big step in the right direction.

“Now, from the Dutch side there is the acknowledgement that a great wrong was committed,” he told the Globe. “But we do still need more research into the nature and prevalence of such military violence. And I would like to know if, and by whom, Westerling was protected [after his return to the Netherlands in 1952].”

However, it seems that the Dutch want to look forward rather than backward.

“The Dutch government has decided to introduce a measure enabling any future claim to be settled in a uniform manner, without the involvement of the courts,” de Zwaan said. An announcement in the government gazette Staatscourant published on Tuesday outlines requirements that victims must meet to file a successful claim for monetary compensation under the new regulation.

The requirements include: the claimant must have been married to a person summarily executed by Dutch soldiers, the execution in question must have been of a similar nature as those in Rawagede and South Sulawesi, and the execution must have already been mentioned in a publication. Statements of witnesses will be accepted as proof of the fact that the deceased husband was indeed summarily executed, the announcement reads. Claims will be accepted until Sept. 11, 2015.

Embassy spokesman Nico Schermers told the Globe that there are no estimates of how many people are likely to seek compensation through the scheme.

‘Important visit’

Despite good overall relations, ties between the Netherlands and Indonesia have at times been testy. The situation improved much after then-Foreign Minister Ben Bot in 2005 joined independence day celebrations in Jakarta. He said that through his presence, “the Dutch government expresses its political and moral acceptance of the Proklamasi, the date the Republic of Indonesia declared independence.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, when announcing late last month that there would be an official apology for summary executions, explained that this would not be an apology for everything that happened in Indonesia during the Dutch attempt to reclaim the former colony.

“Usually when we talk about apologies, it’s about our role in the colonial past or our role in the Police Actions,” Rutte said on Aug. 30, referring to the campaign known in Indonesia as Military Aggression against the fledgling republic. “For those cases the apology made by Ben Bot when he was minister of foreign affairs still applies — that the Netherlands at that time stood at the wrong side of history.”

Asked whether a planned visit to Indonesia by Rutte in November would also address the colonial past, the Dutch ambassador told the Globe that although it is sometimes important to look back, Rutte’s visit would primarily be focusing on the future. “This is an important visit and a big delegation will accompany the prime minister,” de Zwaan said, adding that both countries have a lot to offer each other and are eager to look forward.

Rutte is scheduled to visit Indonesia on Nov. 20-22 to further boost political and economic ties between the two nations. He will meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and will be accompanied by representatives of the Dutch business community.

[Updated on Sept. 13, 2013 at 11:25 a.m.]

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