Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, left, with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi in Jakarta on Thursday. (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside)

Dutch FM: Confront Painful Parts of Indonesia-Netherlands History


MARCH 24, 2016

Jakarta. Indonesia and the Netherlands must have the courage to confront the difficult periods and events in their common past to be able to move forward together, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told students in Jakarta on Thursday.

"After the birth of the Republik Indonesia on Aug. 17, 1945, we experienced a painful separation, a process marked by terrible violence," Koenders said. "The deployment of military force in 1947 put the Netherlands on the wrong side of history."

"The years after the Proklamasi [declaration of independence] had lasting consequences for those suffering during that time — both Indonesians and Dutch," the minister added. "I believe this is a history that we should have the courage to examine and discuss, lest we forget. And we preferably do this together."

Historical sensitivities 

Only in 2005 did a Dutch foreign minister, Ben Bot, openly recognize Aug. 17, 1945 as the date when the Indonesian republic came into existence, clearing the way for better bilateral ties. Previously, Dutch officials had insisted that Indonesia only became independent on Dec. 27, 1949, when the Netherlands formally relinquished sovereignty to its former colony.

Relations between the two countries have improved significantly since Bot's acknowledgement, and the formal apology by the Dutch government in 2013 for massacres committed in South Sulawesi to quell resistance against Dutch rule.

Some experts in Indonesia and in the Netherlands have been calling for a more open-minded approach to the common Dutch-Indonesian past for years.

Koenders insisted on Thursday that "even with all its ups and downs, our shared history offers a sound basis for building a shared future."

Agreeing to disagree

At the Dutch cultural center Erasmus Huis in Kuningan, South Jakarta, where he delivered his speech, the minister told the Jakarta Globe that he believed Indonesia-Netherlands relations currently were "really at a high level."

"They are at a high level because we discuss all issues openly, with a lot of trust in each other," Koenders explained. "As you know, for instance we have different views on the death penalty, so we will discuss that — not only in terms of judging, but also in working, for instance right now, on drugs policy, together."

Koenders also met with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi and other ministers earlier in the day. Human rights, long an important pillar of Dutch foreign policy, were on the agenda, the Dutch government said in a statement.

Last year the Dutch ambassador in Jakarta was briefly recalled to The Hague after the execution of a Dutch drug convict in Indonesia. The move does not appear to have had a major impact on trade ties, however, as the Netherlands still ranked fourth in investment realization in Indonesia for 2015, outperforming economic giants such as China and the United States.

The rejection of the death penalty is a point on which "we agree to disagree [with Indonesia]," the minister told the Globe. He added that "we have questions whether it [capital punishment] can be effective in tackling drugs issues," but that does not prevent the two countries from working together "in a very productive and positive ambiance."

On the rights of LGBT people in Indonesia, which has been a highly controversial topic in recent months, Koenders said: "For me, that's a question of human rights, it's not an issue to be politicized."

"They have the right to be protected [from violence], all over the world, and I think that is also something that your minister of security [Luhut Panjaitan] mentioned in his public statement."

Luhut, Indonesia's coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said last month that LGBT people, as citizens of Indonesia, have the right to be protected against violence and to be treated humanely, although he also said he believed they needed to be "cured."

Areas of cooperation

In his speech, Koenders identified several main issues that he said are important both for the European Union and for the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is dominated by Indonesia due to the size of its economy and population.

The minister singled out migration crises, foreign terrorist fighters and domestic violent extremists, freedom of navigation and maritime security, and keeping the Internet open and secure. In practical terms, he said Dutch-Indonesia cooperation was centered around the maritime economy, education and issues related to the rule of law.

On the tensions in the South China Sea, where China has been increasingly assertive in staking its claim to almost the entire area, Koenders said that the Netherlands does not take sides in territorial disputes. He added however that "freedom of navigation and maritime security are absolutely vital, not only for your [Indonesia's] safety and prosperity, but also for the rest of the world."

"There are many opportunities for us to deepen our friendship and collaboration even further, for example in the areas of trade and investment, the judicial sector and counterterrorism," he said. "Our relationship should be forward-looking. It should be an equal partnership. We should build on our common past, not be hostages to it."