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Being 'Indo'

Being 'Indo'
Published: Mar 22, 2011

In a series of weekly articles Inside Indonesia explores the complex stories of ‘Indo’ history and identity

Yatun Sastramidjaja

   Starting a new life in Holland in 1951
   IISG Collection Rijkschroeff 04

We all know that Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony and that after the Japanese Occupation Indonesians fought a long independence struggle before their sovereignty was a fact. Afterwards, Indonesia’s new leaders made sure that the colonial chapter in history was closed. Likewise, the Dutch government did everything to keep the lid on the political particulars of the colonial past. Colonialism was an embarrassing episode which was best ignored. Consequently little is known about the fate of the hundreds of thousands of people who were a product of this colonial past: the people of mixed Eurasian blood, heritage and identity, who were born and raised in the Netherlands East Indies but after the war, were forced to leave the country which they had grown accustomed to calling home.

The stories of how these people have built new lives in the Netherlands or elsewhere, and of the resultant challenges they have faced, are very complex and diverse. They are stories of conflict and conciliation, forgetting and remembrance, denial and recognition, trauma and hope. The larger story that binds these individual stories together is the struggle to redefine and control identity and culture. In the following weeks, Inside Indonesia features a series of articles that highlight different aspects of this struggle.

Benedict Anderson opens the series this week with his reflections on Lizzy van Leeuwen’s book on the construction of ‘Our Indies Heritage’ in The Netherlands. His review presents a vivid historical account of the bitter experiences of Indo-Europeans – from colonial-era Netherlands East Indies to present-day multicultural Holland – and gives us clear insight into the political intricacies at work in the formation of ‘Indo-identity’ – all against a backdrop of major societal changes.

Next, Lizzy van Leeuwen herself gives us a critical analysis of the politics of marginalisation of ‘Indo knowledge’, from colonial to post-colonial times. Highlighting the close relationship between power and knowledge, she argues that scholars have had a major stake in this marginalisation leaving scores of unanswered questions and forgotten stories with which the Indo community has attempted to grapple. Njonja Peters then highlights the story of another ‘forgotten’ group: the Indies-born Dutch repatriates who eventually settled in Australia. She points to the deep emotional bond which many of them still feel for their homeland – despite (or perhaps because of) their double displacement – cherishing fond childhood memories that grow stronger when shared in new community groups, real and virtual. Yet she also shows how the war has caused a rupture in the nature of the memories produced, from nostalgia to trauma, and that Indies-born Dutch Australians, bereft of a homeland, still carry their traumatic experiences.

The articles by Fridus Steijlen and Marijke Schuurmans show that the experience in the Netherlands is quite different. Special monuments have been erected there to commemorate the traumas of the war and forced ‘repatriation’. However, the monuments were a long time coming, and once these memories-cast-in-stone were erected they became deeply-contested sites of struggle in themselves. Marijke Schuurmans highlights the controversy surrounding the Indisch Monument in The Hague. Many in the Indies community felt initially that this ‘national monument’ neglected their experiences of the war. They have made it their own by giving it a personal touch. Fridus Steijlen tells us the story of what is perhaps the most troubled group in the forced exile from Indonesia; the Moluccans, who have long continued to fight for their own country. His article shows how the development of Moluccan memory sites reflects their problematic integration in the Netherlands, but also how this eventually helped them to make the transition from exiles of war to migrants here to stay.

Of course, Indo identity is not only about memories of the past. For the third post-war generation, quite different issues of identity are more relevant. The final two articles in the series, written by two young ‘Indo’ women, one Netherlands-born and -raised and the other a native Balinese, highlight this. Amis Boersma writes of ‘moving home’ to the land of her mother to work as an advisor at a well-known Indonesian human rights organisation and embark on a new life. Interweaving her personal and work-related experiences, she tells a touching story about adjusting, dealing with culture clashes and enduring the difficulties and joys of ‘in-betweenness’. A different kind of culture clash is highlighted in Asriana Kebon’s article, in which she writes very personally about how young ‘Indos’ in Indonesia are confronted by great pressures to conform to the stereotype of Indo stardom. Indeed, in Indonesia, the problem is not marginalisation but rather over-exposure of Indo presence, although there are signs that the times are changing here, too.

The articles in this series cannot tell the whole story of Indo history and identity. There are numerous other stories of past and present experiences of different generations of Indos around the world. As telling these stories goes more than halfway to recognition, these articles begin the work of understanding this neglected group in Indonesia’s past and present.

Yatun Sastramidjaja ( is a researcher and a member of Inside Indonesia’s editorial team.


Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011{jcomments on}

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