The useless spending of 4.1m euros on the study of ‘extreme violence’
The Jakarta Post, February 21, 2022, By: Marjolein van Pagee
Finally, after four years the Dutch government-sponsored research project Independence, Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia, 1945-1950 is finished. From the start I was critical of this project because the 350 years of colonialism were not taken as the starting point.
On Sept. 14, 2017, when the research was publicly presented in Amsterdam, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion. At that time, I had already raised my serious concerns. These concerns were not only mine. Around the same time, I met Indonesian Francisca Pattipilohy and her daughter Dida. Together with Jeffry Pondaag, chair of the Committee of Dutch Honorary Debts (KUKB), Francisca decided to write an open letter to the Dutch government. They sent me their concept letter and with a few others, I helped them improve it.
More people started to join our little “resistance group”. On Oct. 19 that year, via my foundation Histori Bersama, we organized a protest evening at Leiden University. Eventually, 138 individuals and organizations signed the letter.
When I was taking part in the panel discussion, my most important concern was the sidelining of Pondaag, the man whose actions had put the matter of Dutch war crimes on the agenda again. I pointed out that the project was not neutral as the Dutch Institute of Military History (NIMH) was carrying out the research. This institute is part of the Dutch Ministry of Defense and advised the Dutch State in the rejection of Indonesian claims. How in the world could they say that they were independent?
That the research project was far from independent was also proven in the composition of the Advisory Board and the so-called Social Resonance Group. Members from colonial, pro-military organizations, such as the Dutch National Veteran organization, were asked to take part. A high military commander had to advise the researchers about warfare.
This was in stark contrast with the sidelining of Pondaag, whose foundation was the only organization in the Netherlands representing the victims of the violence under investigation. There was no other Indonesian representation either, let alone that of decolonial scholars asked to give advice to the research team.
Along the way, I got the impression that the exclusion of Pondaag was not a coincidence. I became convinced that it had something to do with the reason the Dutch state had financed the project: It was some kind of “damage control”. The state only financed it to feign responsibility for 1945-1949, hoping it would draw away the attention from its historical misbehavior, which the court cases had revealed.
Apart from the fact that Pondaag’s legal actions endangered the Dutch self-image of being “a progressive, tolerant nation” I also smelled reparation-fear. That the government kept rejecting new claims, even after sponsoring the research, shows that it was not willing to do justice to Indonesians.
Now, four years later, the results confirm the concerns that were already listed in the open letter. In the summary of the conclusions, the researchers do not mention a single word about Pondaag or his foundation. The word “lawsuits” is only mentioned in line with several other factors. It means they do not acknowledge that the legal step of the KUKB was the first and only factor that started the chain of reactions.
Dutch media reports only increased in numbers after the widows of Rawagede won their lawsuits in 2011. Before that, Dutch research institutions had never bothered to call for a largescale investigation.
That this project was merely about damage-control to serve the interests of the Dutch State is reflected in their starting point. At the basis of this study is the colonial notion of “extreme” or “excessive violence”. This is a colonial notion as it implies that “normal violence” exists.
It suggests that apart from the violence that “crossed the line”, there was also violence that was “not too bad”. To me, this is the same as saying that colonialism had “good and bad sides”. This leveling of violence without analyzing colonialism means that they are not condemning the Dutch occupation as such.
The conclusion that “extreme violence” was not exceptional but “structural” is now celebrated as a major breakthrough. Yet, the countless files and documents produced within the context of the KUKB-hearings already alarmed the Dutch state from 2008 onward that it was just the tip of the iceberg.
The balancing act of the Dutch research team feels as if it wanted to know the exact “weight” of the violence in terms of calculating the exact percentage of the amount “bad” versus “less bad”.
This approach avoids the most important question that Pondaag repeatedly asks: “Where did the Netherlands get the right to consider an area 18,000 kilometers away as its property?” By using “extreme violence” the researchers assume that the Netherlands owned this right.
That the project is not independent is also reflected in the deliberate avoidance of the term “war crimes”, which has a stronger meaning within a legal context. This is remarkable because the participating researchers did use “war crimes” before in other publications. For example, in 2015 project leader Gert Oostindie used “war crimes” all the time in his book Soldaat in Indonesië (Soldier in Indonesia). So why reverse it now?
In the summary, the research team states that it used “extreme violence” as a neutral replacement of the word “war crimes” to keep “deliberate distance from frameworks and concepts in modern international law.”
Of course, the Dutch researchers claim that they were not bound by government restrictions. But is it true? With their deliberate distancing from international law, it seems that the Dutch researchers want to prevent the possibility that their results are used by Indonesians who may want to sue the Dutch state via the KUKB. It raises the question, for whom this research was done? Clearly not for those who suffered from the violent reoccupation.
Once again, like in 2017 when I took part in the panel discussion, I totally disagree with the majority of my fellows. The self-congratulatory language of Dutch articles pouring in now is quite overwhelming. The dominant message is: The Dutch researchers did an amazing job in being self-critical, the results of this study are “tough”, “controversial”, “eye-opening” and allegedly “unpleasant” for the Dutch government, which is now going to change its official statement. Prime Minister Mark Rutte even apologized. However, like the apologies of the Dutch King in March 2020, this is empty. As long as its starting point is “extreme violence” this is the opposite of a self-critical investigation. In 2017 I already felt it but now I am certain: this was a smooth cover-up by the Dutch government. The 4.1 million euros (US$4.64 million) were only spent to stop Indonesians from going to court.
The writer is a historian and the founder of Histori Bersama.