Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

The generation that breaks the silence

Published: Feb 11, 2023
Versi Bh Indonesia

Lea Pamungkas

This year is special for Dutch society, especially those connected in some way with the Netherlands Indies. On 17 February 2022 Prime Minister Mark Rutte officially apologised for the extreme violence during Indonesia’s War of Independence 1945-1949. Then on 15 August 2022, during the National Commemoration 15 August 1945 for the Japanese surrender and the end of the war in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian ambassador was for the first time invited to lay a wreath. This showed that the commemoration of those who died during the Japanese Occupation not only included European victims but also Indonesians.

But it is not that easy to overcome the impact of events now 77 years ago. That chaotic period left behind a polemic. It is known as ‘bersiap’ among those who identify as Indo-Europeans, Ambonese, Chinese, Menadonese, former KNIL members, and veterans repatriated afterwards to the Netherlands. The Dutch government calls it a ‘police action,’ Indonesians call it ‘military aggression’ or the Independence Revolution. The suggestion to just call it ‘violence’ has until now not found widespread acceptance.

For those in the repatriated group the period remains complex, coloured by trauma and stigma. Its complexity not infrequently slips right into the family. Sometimes members of the same family bear entirely different or even contradictory historical burdens. Perpetrators and victims gather around the same dining table: grandpa was a colonial KNIL soldier, grandma the daughter of an indigenous contractor who was killed by Dutch soldiers. To escape the attentions of Indonesian guerrillas, they were forced to go to a country they knew nothing about. In due time children and grandchildren were born with skins coloured chocolate, half-chocolate, or white. This is just an example. More extreme compositions are quite possible.

Dutch King Willem Alexander accompanied by Queen Maxima planting trees during a state visit to Bogor Palace in West Java, on March 10, 2020. (Antara/Sigid Kurniawan)

In the face of such complexities, and to avoid internal conflict, many of those repatriated shut down on the past. Silence. Don’t talk about it. Deny. Which often leads to leakages here and there, both mental and behavioural.

The product of an unwritten history

‘My family is a product of world history, but not one that ever appears in our (Dutch) history books,’ wrote the author Sacha Celine Verheij on Instagram. Indisch Zwijgen (The Silence of Indies People) is one of many forums for third-generation Indo-Europeans now sprouting up with various names. The number of Indo-Europeans in the Netherlands today is estimated at more than three million.

Unlike those who came before, this third generation appears to have chosen another way: break through the silence and attempt a common history. Without for ever sharpening the differences and nursing wounds that are not permitted to heal.

Similar efforts to break through the silence of the Indische trauma are occurring among ethnic Malukans, Menadonese, Chinese, and Papuans. They make themselves heard and socialise their vision through documentary films, podcasts, exhibitions, symposia, and much else besides.

The third generation feels the silence and disavowals practised by their parents influenced their growth as a new generation. ‘My father’s suppression of his feelings, his difficulties speaking about the Second World War, had an impact on my own education and that of my siblings. For me that meant never processing the trauma. I grew up with a difficult emotional emptiness,’ said Patrick in a profile published on Indisch Zwijgen. ‘There was a kind of denial of the consequences of this trauma. So when I am facing an emotional situation, or there is something in a relationship, the tendency is to look away, that does come up. Silence is a mysterious hole in my family history.’


For Indonesia, the Independence Revolution 1945-1949 is a brilliant victory. At the age of 77 years, so much progress has been achieved. But that doesn’t mean shutting our eyes so as not to see things critically. In many respects, legacies of the colonial mentality such as racism and discrimination have been hard to leave behind.

Of all the ‘thorns in the flesh’ afflicting Indonesia, the Papuan problem is the worst. At the same time, it shows how the Independence Revolution did not immediately eliminate colonial legacies. Ever since 1 May 1963, the date on which Papua became part of Indonesia, Papuan citizens have felt unheard, treated like step-children, and exploited. Indonesian governments have continually practised systematic racism and discrimination. Until the present day. 

Everyone will remember the moment three years, on 19 August 2019, when security forces surrounded a Papuan student hostel in Surabaya. A flagpole with the Red and White, raised by the local government, unintentionally fell into a storm drain. The Papuan students were immediately accused of separatism. Violence broke out, and security personnel swore at them in racist tones, calling the students 'monkeys'.

This behaviour triggered demonstrations in various student cities in Java, Bali, Sulawesi, Maluku and eventually in Papua itself. Posters with ‘I am not a monkey’ appeared in Papuan towns. It reached a climax in Sorong, where more than twenty demonstrators died after clashing with security forces.

Elimination of the Left

Besides racism there is the complete annihilation of the civilian left, which had played such a leading role in the struggle against colonialism. Starting long before 1945-1949, and throughout the Revolution, leftists who believed in the ideologies of socialism and communism did an enormous amount to accelerate the Independence Revolution; whether through political parties or by spreading ideas in articles, films, fiction, painting, music, and posters.

PRD leader Budiman Sudjatmiko addresses a rally c1996 /Supplied

Three years after the Independence Proclamation – in September 1948 at Madiun – there was a massive repression of communists. Thousands died, including Amir Sjarifuddin, former prime minister of the Republic of Indonesia. Two decades later, in 1965-1966, the leftist movement in Indonesia was really totally obliterated after soon-to-be President Suharto launched the campaign to suppress G30S. Hundreds of thousands died that time. Most of the survivors who were (or were said to be) PKI members were jailed without due process.

After that any attempt to nurture genuine democratic ideals, including putting forward alternatives from political opposition or the leftist movement, was made impossible. Just one bit of evidence among many was the jailing in 1996 of socialist-minded students affiliated with the People’s Democratic Party (Partai Rakyat Demokratik, PRD). The Indonesian military issued statements to convince the public that PRD leader Budiman Sujatmiko was a communist.

One military spokesperson said Budiman had used the word ‘friend’ (kawan) to address his mates, and that made him a communist. Another said the party had been deliberately declared on 22 July 1996, the day on which Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) general secretary DN Aidit had issued the party manifesto on 22 April 1951. Budiman, Petrus dan other PRD leaders were arrested in August and September 1996. Budiman was sentenced to 13 years jail for subversion. He was only released in December 1999 after Suharto had fallen.

Military domination of the state

In a book that accompanied the recent Rijksmuseum exhibition Revolusi!, Harm Stevens and his co-authors said Sukarno realised during the Revolution that that was not the final goal. Getting rid of the Dutch was one thing, building unity and growing a nation was another altogether. Indonesia had been broken by war and the Dutch blockade. Rebels and criminal gangs ran amuck in many regions.

Extended fighting between Republicans and the Dutch had strengthened the military’s position. They apparently never intended to let this position go, even at the cost of the people’s sense of justice and of the historical truth. Until today, the road towards justice, transparency and truth is often littered with obstacles by a government mentality that favours impunity for human rights violators.

Jaringan Solidaritas Korban untuk Keadilan carry out Aksi Kamisan in front of Merdeka Palace, Jakarta (25/11/2021)/ ANTARA FOTO/Indrianto Eko Suwarso/rwa.

The day after this year’s Independence celebration, 18 August 2022, President Joko Widodo announced the formation of a Non-Judicial Team for Past Severe Human Rights Violations (Tim Non-yudisial Pelanggaran HAM Berat Masa Lalu). It aims among others to settle the Tragedy of 1965, the Mysterious Shootings (Petrus) of 1983, the Kidnapping of Activists of 1997-1998, the Trisakti and Semanggi Shootings of 1998, the May 1998 Riots, and several other violations that remain on the government’s 'to do' list.

The team’s formation has been met with ‘pro’ and ‘contra’. Some have said the survivors especially of the Tragedy of 1965-1966 are now very frail. The Advocacy Institute for the Rehabilitation of Victims of the New Order (LPRKROB in Indonesian) said in a press release on 22 August 2022 that any agreement should include the restoration of their core rights: the right to truth, justice, rehabilitation, and a 'never again' guarantee.

Others don’t agree and say simply compensating survivors is not enough. ‘There must be a judicial process for the perpetrators of human rights abuse, which simultaneously should prevent a recurrence,’ explained Maria Catarina Sumarsih, whose son was a victim of the Semanggi I Tragedy in 1998.

Achieving justice is increasingly difficult in Indonesia because key military officers involved in the abuses – among them Wiranto, former commander of the Indonesian armed forces TNI – retain high office. Wiranto is chair of the Presidential Advisory Board. He was once indicted by the Serious Crimes Unit, set up by the United Nations Transitional Administration of East Timor (UNTAET), for involvement in killings, deportations, and torture in East Timor. And of course retired Lieutenant General Prabowo Subiakto, suspected of the kidnapping of activists in 1998 – the infamous Rose Team (Tim Mawar) was led by a Prabowo man – is now defence minister.

Revolution resolved some problems that were essential for many people, but it has also left behind some complex issues. The third generation after the Revolution now in the Netherlands is trying to break through the various silences in different ways.

For the Tragedy of 1965-1966, discussion forums such as Remember 65 (Ingat 65) and Every Day 65 (Setiap Hari 65) have sprung up. They never stop pushing back against the systematic silencing practised by the government, through alternative educational channels such as exhibitions, history discussions, books, documentary films, and the biographies of survivors. For the last 15 years, every Thursday between 4pm and 5pm, Aksi Kamisan (Thursday Action) has taken place in front of the presidential palace. It is also called the Black Umbrella Action (Aksi Payung Hitam). They are there to protest and to demand justice for the human rights violations of 1998.

Unfortunately even after all this time there has been no meaningful result. The state of the Republic of Indonesia continues to deny the historical truth of its own people. But let us remember the words of Angela Davis, who has been active on the American streets for 50 years: ‘We have to learn how to imagine the future in terms that are not restricted to our own lifetimes.’

Lea Pamungkas (lea.pamungkas@gmail.com) is a writer and an independent journalist.

Translated by Gerry van Klinken


Inside Indonesia 150: Oct-Dec 2022

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