May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Rengat, 1949 (Part 2)

The people of Rengat, the Dutch archives and Dutch authorities have always known about the massacre of January 1949. Why then is the Dutch public not aware?  

Anne-Lot Hoek

On a gloomy morning in The Hague in March 2016, King William Alexander awarded Dutch Army commando troops the country's highest royal decoration. It was awarded for military courage shown during their 2005-2010 mission in Afghanistan. Several days later, King Alexander received a letter from 77-year-old Indonesian woman Nini Turaiza Tulus. Her letter detailed the execution in 1949 of her father in the Sumatran town of Rengat by the predecessor of these forces, during the Indonesian independence war. The bloodbath of Rengat had gone unnoticed by the public in the Netherlands. 

Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, proclaimed independence on 17 August 1945. Soon afterwards, a bloody guerrilla war broke out against the Dutch colonial powers. It took until the end of 1949, an estimated 120,000 deaths later, before the Netherlands conceded and recognised Indonesian sovereignty over the archipelago.

It is not widely known internationally that the Netherlands had their own ‘Vietnam War’, and their own ‘My Lai’. It took several decades before violence during the Indonesian war gained serious attention from Dutch academics. The ingredients for such a work were there, but not the urgency. Recently there are two publications of interest: a 900 paged book on Dutch military behaviour by Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach that will be published the end of September 2016, and KITLV director Gert Oostindie’s research of egodocumentation that was published in 2015 and is now translated in Indonesian. Their conclusion was that Dutch extreme violence was structural, not incidental. However, The Dutch Ministry of Defence on its website still calls the actions of its soldiers in Sumatra during that time a ‘striking performance.’ 

Anybody concerned with the Dutch reputation for human rights might find all this less than ‘striking.’ Arguably, the Dutch began to take a great interest in the importance of human rights in the 1960s, once it had begun to realise its own legacy of violence during periods of colonialism and decolonisation. But still this violence was not looked squarely in the face. In 1980, while Dutch solidarity groups fought against South African apartheid, the queen pinned a decoration on the ensign of the very same forces responsible for the attacks on Rengat, for their performance in Sumatra in 1948-1949. 

Nor has sufficient attention been paid to other, non-Dutch perspectives in the national memory. An example is the annual commemoration of the Second World War in the Netherlands on 4 May. That ritual acknowledges Dutch victims of that war and Dutch veterans of the Indonesian independence struggle in one breath. Yet the Indonesian war was of a completely different kind, in which the Netherlands actually begrudged another nation the freedom that is celebrated the next day, on 5 May. Other victims including tens of thousands of Indonesians are left out of the remembrance. 

To unleash the beast

Why did historians not deal with these imbalances? Why did nobody unleash the beast? The media often wrote in terms of ‘conspiracies of silence’ but the information was actually widely available. State archives on this period have been open since the 1980s.  As Paul Bijl from the University of Amsterdam shows in his book Emerging Memory: Photographs of Colonial Atrocity in Dutch Cultural Remembrance over the last century the Dutch have 'discovered' again and again that they had a violent colonial past. Yet academics preferred to focus on safer issues like the politics of decolonisation, while at the same time claiming colonial violence was not an ‘intellectual challenge.’  

It was clear from the start that the Dutch government was never interested in setting the record straight. Too many interests conspired against it. Legal concerns about procedures like war reparations played a role, as did fears of international loss of face. At home, large communities of postcolonial Dutch who had faced the wrath of war and its aftermath refused to countenance a revisionist history. 

The first real challenge came in 1969. Dutch war veteran Joop Hueting went on national television to speak about Dutch atrocities in Indonesia. ‘We were professional killers,’ he claimed, who didn’t shun sadistic torture like putting prisoners on a steaming hot truck to scald their skin, and who could easily murder an entire family. He specifically stated that these weren’t isolated incidents, but cases of structural violence in the Dutch army. 

Concrete threats from war veterans caused Hueting and his family to go into hiding, but the Dutch public was only momentarily shocked. Hueting himself was astonished when he noticed how loudly the public cried out over the Americans at My Lai, which had taken place the year before, but did not want to compare it to the Dutch My Lai equivalent that he described. 

This became a consistent pattern for decades. It was like a rock hitting the water, causing a brief arousal of emotion only to fade away, the violence itself never analysed by historians. One of the few Dutch academics who did address the violence was Harry Poeze of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in his masterpiece about the Indonesian revolutionary Tan Malaka. He told the story from an Indonesian perspective. 

In fact the government did react to Hueting’s statement, but only in a palliative manner. It gave the historian Cees Fasseur just three months to compile an archival inventory in 1969. This became the Memorandum on Excesses. The prime minister concluded the violence had not constituted ‘war crimes’ but had been ‘incidents.’ And that was that, for decades to come. 

Every now and then the flame would light up again. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Dutch deserter Poncke Princen, who crossed over to side with the Indonesian revolution, aroused the ire of Dutch war veterans when he asked to return to Holland. The funeral in 1987 of Captain Westerling was another such moment. And another was the state visit to Indonesia by Queen Beatrix, who deliberately arrived a few days after the 17 August Indonesian independence day celebrations in 1995 to avoid upheaval at home. Yet another was the Dutch writer Graa Boomsma, who was sued by Dutch war veterans after his book compared their behaviour to the methods of Nazi Germany. In recent years there have been several revealing photographs of atrocities, found now and then in a dying veteran’s album and published in the newspaper. They caused great commotion, but, without the proper context, they revealed nothing more than what they showed. 

Until very recently, there had been some friendly knocking on the door, but no one bothered to kick it in. This happened in 2011, when the Dutch/ Indonesian activist Jeffry Pondaag and lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld successfully sued the Dutch state for atrocities committed in the Javanese village of Rawagedeh in 1947. Later they sued again over the large-scale executions carried out in South Sulawesi in 1946 under the command of Captain Westerling, and for a woman who had been raped by Dutch soldiers in the Javanese village of Peniwen in 1949. At last, the hand of the law had broken through the controversy.

A year later, three Dutch research institutes appealed for funding from the government to conduct thorough historical research into Dutch violence during the Indonesian revolution. The appeal was turned down. In the meantime, Swiss/ Dutch historian Rémy Limpach concluded that extreme violence against Indonesians by the Dutch army was widespread and integrated into the structure of the Dutch army. He will publish his book on Dutch military behaviour during 1945-1949 in September 2016. The director of one of the institutes, Gert Oostindie (KITLV), recently wrote a book based on the published diaries and letters of Dutch war veterans that supported this conclusion. 

According to KITLV director Gert Oostindie, confronting the public with an ugly issue such as Dutch war crimes was, so to speak, ‘not done’ amongst the Dutch academic elite of colonial historians, many of whom had ancestry in the Dutch Indies. ‘The atmosphere was: why should we bother to look into that? It wasn’t “chic”.’ 

The younger generation of Dutch historians, meanwhile, appeared to lack the radical attitude necessary to make the story part of the national discourse; to be able to integrate multiple perspectives into the narrative and address the issue of violence. As most indicated, this wasn’t something intentional, but very different academic questions were being posed at that time. However, some of these historians were Asian Studies specialists, and part of international discussions with academics like historian Robert Cribb. Others were anthropologists who did address issues of violence and Indonesian perspectives. But these discussions hardly seemed to influence the Dutch national discourse. 

As late as 1999, historian De Moor still described the performance of the commander responsible for the attack on Rengat as an example of good ‘military-administrative pacification work’ by which he was able ‘to win the population for the Dutch cause.’ The violence and its implications on the Indonesian side has remained a ‘blind spot’ in the Dutch debate. The gap is wide between Dutch colonial historians on the one hand, with their one-sided Dutch perspective, and Asian Studies specialists and anthropologists on the other, who sympathise with the Indonesian perspectives. So far, the two have never come together. 

Words matter

An academic elite uninterested in violence and non-Dutch perspectives dominated the Dutch public debate for a long time. The main public figure in this debate was Cees Fasseur. When he wrote the Memorandum on Excesses in 1969 he was a young civil servant in the Justice Ministry. When he later became a professor at the University of Leiden and enjoyed full academic freedom, he did not take the subject further. It didn’t interest him, he said. But whenever the media reached out for historical context on this subject, he was the first to climb the stage. 

It is possible to discern some ‘strategies of avoidance’ in relation to the issue of violence. Historians like Fasseur often spoke of the need for ‘neutrality,’ by which they meant an objective outlook on what really happened, rather than making it into a moral issue. One of the problems with this ‘neutrality’ was that is was mainly sought in the Dutch archives. Oral history, recording the concrete experiences of people, as Fasseur and many of his contemporaries often remarked, was unreliable. When I spoke with Fasseur in 2013 after a Dutch television programme in which Dutch activist Max van der Werff interviewed Indonesian victims of Dutch atrocities committed in Java, he reacted indignantly. ‘These people are mixing up experiences of their own army in 1965 with that of the Dutch police actions in 1948!’ he exclaimed. In other words: the statements these people make are untrustworthy. 

He later repeated this on tape to KITLV researchers in a 2014 interview: ‘The idea that these kinds of bloodbaths went on unnoticed, is of course clear-cut nonsense!’. Apparently, integrating Indonesian experiences didn’t fit his idea of the ‘accepted truth,’ which, he seems convinced, could be found only in the Dutch archives.

But it also gets more personal. In his memoirs, written just before he passed away, Fasseur suggested that his lack of interest in further research was itself a matter of moral conviction. ‘Why look into all these tragic events again?’ he asks. This could be a reason why he never afterwards indicated the need for more research concerning his claim in the Memorandum on Excesses that Rengat caused 80 deaths. In response to Limpach’s research in 2015, he stated that in 1969 it would have been impossible to accuse people of committing war crimes in Indonesia. After all, they had just fought against Nazi Germany and were then sent by the Dutch government to fight against the Indonesians. In other words: these soldiers had suffered a great deal; it would be morally unacceptable to say to them and their relatives, 'you might have committed war crimes'. Understandable as this sentiment no doubt is, it is neither ‘neutral’ nor ‘objective.’ It could in any case have been dealt with decades earlier, for instance in the 1980s or 1990s. 

One thing Fasseur did not mention, though it obviously played a role in Dutch society, was violence against (Eurasian) Dutch civilians by Indonesian revolutionary youth at the onset of the Indonesian Revolution. This had not received much attention in the Netherlands either. These postcolonial groups were given a cold welcome when they came to Holland after Indonesian independence. They had suffered greatly in the Japanese camps and at the hands of the revolutionaries, yet were looked down upon as former colonials. Whenever Dutch war crimes against Indonesians were mentioned in the Dutch media, they responded in anger. Sadly enough, this polarised a discussion that should only have been about a war that caused many tragic deaths, and for which the Dutch government bears the greatest responsibility.

Another ‘strategy of avoidance’ of the Dutch academic establishment concerns its use of words with a pacifistic or euphemistic ring. The use of words such as ‘excess’ to describe brutal violence is common, rather than phrases like ‘structural violence.’ Persistent labelling of violence in such ways creates wildfires. The British professor Phillipe Sands argues in his new book, East West Street, that words matter profoundly for the way violence is perceived in a society. The Turkish turmoil around the Armenian Genocide clearly shows this. But so does the upheaval in Dutch society in 2013, when American historian William Frederick indicated that the killings of (Eurasian) Dutch by Indonesian revolutionary youths in 1945 may have been genocide. A wave of emotion went through affected postcolonial groups. ‘Genocide’ was much worse than it had seemed thus far. 

Academics had been aware since at least 1970 that there was a clear indication of a structural pattern to Dutch military violence in Indonesia. Just one year after the Memorandum on Excesses, sociologists Jacques van Doorn and Wim Hendrix, two former conscripted soldiers who had taken up careers as sociologists, described such a structural pattern out of their own experiences. Despite their analysis, they still upheld the term ‘excess’ and no follow-up research was done. 

The well-known Dutch historian Loe de Jong was the only one who tried to assail the use of the word ‘excess’. In the epilogue to his 1987 magnum opus about the Netherlands in the Second World War, he used the term ‘war crimes’ for the Dutch military behaviour in Indonesia. This became a riot when a co-reading war veteran leaked this conclusion in a well-read Dutch newspaper. The powerful veteran community put him under so much pressure that he changed it back to ‘excess.’ Historian Stef Scagliola was one of the first to use the word ‘war crime’ in her dissertation in 2002. Fasseur, who had supported Loe de Jong in his experiment, didn’t write about ‘structural violence’ or ‘war crimes’ himself. He called the juggling with terminology in his memoirs ‘not more than a play of words.’

Yellow flags

It would have helped the Dutch discussion if there had been a better interaction with Indonesians, who could have told Dutch researchers: 'Look, this is what happened, talk to us about it.' Panca and Naya actually did this when I was in Rengat. But interaction with professional Indonesian historians on this subject wasn’t set up for a long time. I discovered to my surprise that the Rengat Event is as little known in Indonesia as it is in the Netherlands. In a coffee shop in Rengat, Naya tells me that the event is part of the regional, but not national, history. Just as Dutch national history has been selective, cultural memory in Indonesia has been shaped by present concerns as well.

One of these concerns could have been that the independence struggle had some characteristics of a civil war. Not all Indonesians supported the Republic. While driving through a Rengat neighbourhood called Gadang, Naya indicated to me it had been pro-Dutch during the revolution. ‘These people were traitors,’ she explains. They had collaborated with the Dutch. One of them was the local sultan. ‘My father was betrayed by the sultan,’ Nini adds. 

Yellow flags were put in front of houses that belonged to the sultan or his family right before the attack, Nini claims. The purpose appeared to be to mark them as pro-Dutch to the military. ‘The son of the sultan was flying with the Dutch over Rengat to mark the spots where to put a yellow flag.’ Encik Masfar, whose father was an adviser to the sultan, saw a yellow flag in front of his house just before the attack. 

The Dutch police report contains corresponding evidence: a Dutch captain says he brought the son of the sultan into safety by the start of the action, when found ‘shopping in the market.’ He installed a personal security member in front of the sultan’s house. The sultan, whom the police also interviewed after the attack, stated that he personally did not notice ‘any unmannerly behaviour.’ Naya says it is still a sensitive matter today. The sultan’s family recently ‘tried to change history’ by making the events of 5 January 1949 into a festivity: the anniversary of Rengat. ‘We were outraged!’ Naya says. ‘Luckily the district head declared this day was a distinct tragedy.’ 

Masfar is not surprised about the sultan’s support for the Dutch: ‘It was a relationship that went back far into history.’ As a young boy, he observed the sultan driving around in a big, fancy Dutch car. Local historian Susilowadi in 2006 wrote a history of the Indragiri sultanate. He describes a long Dutch involvement in the area, from the VOC up to the colonial administration. Such ‘collaboration’ was typical of many local aristocracies throughout the independence struggle. It was a continuation of the alliance between Indonesian royalty and the Dutch since colonial times.  

There were other ‘collaborating groups’ too, such as Ambonese and Menadonese colonial soldiers. All became the targets of popular anger after independence. The ‘long arm’ of Dutch colonialism took its toll even in its departing phase. It’s a story that includes division. It complicates the simplified discourse of heroism and a united Indonesian people. This is not dissimilar to the Netherlands, where it took a long time before it was possible to acknowledge in writing that many Dutch police had supported the Nazis during World War II, or for children of parents who had sympathised with the German occupier to address their experiences. 

The Dutch prime minister and the Indonesian president, when questioned in recent times about the violence of 1945-1949, both stated that it was necessary to look towards the future and let the past be the past. However, I feel Dutch and Indonesian researchers should keep searching for this common history. Late in 2016, the Dutch parliament is expected to set up an expert hearing on the issue of Dutch military violence in Indonesia. The words of the Dutch minister of foreign affairs who visited the village of Rawagedeh in March 2016 –  that this past should be researched – are hopeful. If set-up, this will be the first parliamentary hearing on this subject since 1969. It than will discuss new academic conclusions and hopefully it will outline new and improved horizons for the way forward for Dutch-Indonesian cooperation and research.  

Anne-Lot Hoek ( is a Dutch journalist who studied History at the University of Amsterdam. She is writing a book on Bali during the Indonesian independence war of 1945-1950. Her website is www.annelothoek.nlThis article is the second in a two-part series. The first can be accessed here.


Inside Indonesia 125: Jul-Sep 2016{jcomments on}


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