Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch came at a price – Indonesians are still waiting for them to acknowledge it
The Dutch colonisation of Indonesia ended more than half a century ago – 1945 according to our official history books, or 1949 according to theirs. Our fiscal contribution, on the other hand, continued until 2003. Considered a debt settlement for their lost investment, it aided the Netherlands through the grim post-World War II period and beyond.
Fast forward to summer 2021, I sat with a friend who lent his praises to the Netherlands over a cold glass of ginger drink. ‘The Netherlands would be a good place to stay. The good education system, social security, modern infrastructure and interesting tax system. It’s an attractive place to be!’ he said, convinced and excited as he thought of reasons to move out of Belgium, the place where we bear our lifetime mortgages – away from the lands that we each call home. His France, mine Indonesia.
Good food, he went on, is obviously out of the question, but their adoption of Indonesian cuisine has helped add some flavour to the potato repertoire depicted well by van Gogh during his stay in the fields of Brabant. ‘It should be bearable,’ he ended his speech.
I humbly thanked him, but reminded him that we’ve done more than just influence their taste buds. ‘I’ll make sure Indonesians get the credit we deserve for our financial contribution too.’
Negotiations started on 23 August 1949, in the centre of The Hague, inside the Ridderzaal, or the Hall of the Knights. The hall is a part of the thirteenth-century inner court where the Dutch have exercised and perfected their negotiation skills since 1446. Inside it, a monumental oval table was set up, which later gave this conference its name: the Round Table Conference.
The Indonesians were represented by two aligning sides, the Indonesian Federal State (RIS) and the Republic of Indonesia, who came with one goal: sovereignty. Mohammad Hatta, head delegate, had just turned 47 that August – the oldest among his peers – sitting with Mohammad Roem, 41 years old, Sultan Hamid II, 36, and Anak Agung Gde Agung, two years shy of his thirtieth birthday.
The youngest in the room was Indonesia. Exactly four years and six days old on the opening day, a Tuesday. Its formative years had so far been marked by excessive violence. The two ‘agresi militer Belanda’ (Dutch military aggressions), also known by their euphemistic Dutch name as ‘politionele acties’ (police actions), had taken a severe toll. As it turned out, these two distinct terms played a central role in the debt settlement debate.
While for the young nation and its young delegates, sovereignty was the ultimate and only goal, the Netherlands approached this negotiation with a financial interest. Their agenda was less romantic: debt settlement and the restoration and preservation of investments in plantations, mining, railways and tramways. There were also talks about retirement schemes and having Dutch ports as the only entrance for Indonesian export trade to Europe.
The number put on the table was 6.5 billion guilders, composed from two different budget lines. The first line was the debt of the Dutch East Indies government as of 1942. The amount was 2.1 billion guilders, which had been set to be passed on to the sovereign successor. The remainder, almost 70 per cent of the total claim, was to compensate the Dutch for their losses during the independence war, including for their military acts (or ‘police actions’ according to the claimant) that took place post-independence.
The negotiation started in summer and ended mid-autumn. An amount of 4.5 billion guilders was agreed.
There were noises from nationalist leaders warning that Mohammad Hatta had been too conciliatory. Others said that the mistrust between the two parties was so high that Indonesian delegates focused solely on speedy sovereignty recognition at any cost.
Less than two months after the conference, the Netherlands officially recognised Indonesia’s full sovereignty. And by the mid-1950s, 3.7 billion guilders out of the 4.5 billion had been transferred to the Netherlands.
The payments were then briefly stopped following various political crises: changes in government, resistance to pay, the West Irian dispute, and the Cold War, among others. However, with the change of power in 1966, payment of the (by then) remaining 650 million guilders resumed.
The debt repayment process was administered and partially owned by Dutch funds Claimindo and Belindo. Indonesia thus paid the debt via the Dutch state, who then split the monies between the three parties. Both Claimindo and Belindo were listed on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange – and throughout the payment years, stockholders secured 40 guilders per share annually.
After the last penny was received in 2003, Claimindo and Belindo quietly disappeared from the stock exchange – without a bang but with a whimper – marking the long-overdue end to imperialism.
A year later, the Dutch Foreign Office published a 74-page report titled ‘To Forget the Past in Favour of a Promise for the Future’.
This line was allegedly quoted from the Indonesian debt negotiator in 1966, Ahmet Ponsen, and is written in italics on the header of the pages throughout the report. Although an innocent bookish practice, I find myself being subtly reminded to forget the past every time I scroll down the pages.
The full title of this report is in fact ‘To forget the past in favour of a promise for the future: The Netherlands, Indonesia, and the financial agreement of 1966: negotiation, regulation and implementation’. A title that so clearly states the author’s position, so as to leave no room for imagination.
In the epilogue, it concluded, ‘The debt settlement was therefore mainly because Indonesia explicitly wanted it’. It continued, ‘It was a quid-pro-quo deal.’ It stated that in order to receive the development aid, support, and loans from the West, it was in the interest of Indonesia to agree to the debt.
Counting the cost
According to historians Anne-Lot Hoek and Ewoet van der Kleij in their much-cited article ‘De prijs van onafhankelijkheid’ (The Price of Sovereignty), in today’s currency, Indonesia’s total post-war contribution to the Netherlands could round up to 103 billion euro (A$151 billion). To picture the gravity of this amount: Indonesia’s average annual government spending between 1967 and 2020 was A$36.62 billion per year.
The quantity paid to our long-overstayed guests was thus almost five-years’ worth of government spending. Needless to say, this is a sum from which the Indonesian people could have greatly benefited.
The amount was also far greater than Marshall Aid, a loan granted by the United States to countries in Europe for their post-war recovery. Hoek and van der Kleij estimate the loan for the Netherlands at around 16 billion euro in today’s currency. Despite being far less in value than the payments from Indonesia, even today in The Netherlands, as elsewhere across the continent, the Marshall Aid program is remembered as heroic in its achievement; the foreign aid that got Europe back on its feet.
Our guilders, on the other hand, remain on the margins of history.
‘On the margins of history’ is the title of a notable script in the series of notebooks Gramsci wrote from his prison cell during the Italian fascist regime. It was his twenty-fifth notebook out of a total of 33 that he’d written at the time of his death in 1937, six days after his release due to ill health. ‘Man’, he wrote in one of his notes, ‘is above all else, consciousness – that is, he is a product of history, not of nature.’
After he went through the extensive official Italian history, he offered a different kind of history: the history of the subaltern groups – the lower ranks of society, stemming from the intersectionality of variations in race, gender, economic class. They are the histories ‘from below’, from the fragmented groups being denied access to hegemony.
This idea of subalternity itself later gained attention among South Asian scholars, in their attempt to rewrite the historical record from colonialism to decolonisation from the perspective of the rural subaltern masses. This attempt, however, carries the threat that the subaltern will still always be represented through the words of elites, such as the historians, academics, or dominant parties of the masses.
A passage from VS Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River illustrated very well the Western history-making process: ‘The Europeans wanted gold and slaves […] but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves.’
Or in the case of 1966, the West wanted the (colonial) debt to be paid, but at the same time wanted to be remembered as humanitarians who granted development aid.
In other examples, statues were literally raised to remember the bravery in the West’s quest to exploit the Others. In the Discovery Monument in Lisbon, Portugal, for example, a map was carved to glorify its discovery of ‘the world’, including that of the archipelago – although at that time, let’s be clear, sovereign kingdoms had been reigning the islands, from Aceh Darussalam to Mataram, Ternate and Tidore.
Like the ‘politionele actie’, the word ‘discovery’ becomes important. To accept that we are merely their discovery would submit us to the ‘white gaze’ – borrowing Frantz Fanon’s term – and traps us within their imagination.
To continue to accept these terms would diminish Indonesia’s contribution to the making of their nation-state. This would engrave their sense of entitlement and re-inscribe our marginal position in the world, and worst, in our personal history.
I came thus to the habit of claiming our unsung credit every time someone expresses admiration towards Dutch achievements. They might have decided to forget this long and aggressive phase in the formation of their nation. But surely what and how they have become cannot be detached from the three-centuries-long financial expedition, not to mention the recovery plan we have aided.
These things deserve a place in their, and our, collective memory.
So, when another Dutch friend cracked a joke about how we are missing the blue in our flag, I told him to remember that without our red and white, he would only be blue. We may not have done it with pleasure – it is not a ‘graag gedaan’ (my pleasure) – but nonetheless, you are welcome.
Titi Kusumandari (Linkedin: akusumandari) is a marketer and writer.