Can Indonesia sue the Netherlands for history?
JAKARTA, 14 May 2002 – Major celebrations are underway in the Netherlands to commemorate the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) 400th anniversary this year. This commemoration is especially targeted at Holland’s younger generation, to instill a sense of pride in their history. However, nations that have suffered under colonialism, such as Indonesia, would surely have a different perspective on the VOC, the trading company with political and military power.
The Indonesian Embassy in the Hague and Maluku descendants there have expressed a strong reaction. Indonesia’s State Minister of National Development Planning Kwik Kian Gie even made a strongly-worded speech at a recent VOC 400th anniversary commemoration at the Hague, with Queen Beatrix in attendance. A non governmental organization called the National Committee for the Indonesian Nation’s Dignity went to the Dutch Embassy in Jakarta on March 20, 2002.
They demanded that the Netherlands apologize for the oppression and severe human rights violations committed against Indonesians, especially after Indonesia’s declaration of independence on Aug. 17, 1945; to cancel all our debt owed to the Netherlands and Dutch institutions; and to compensate for Indonesia’s drained assets and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians. Merely protesting the celebration of the VOC is easy.
In the case of a legal suit, however, careful preparation would be needed. For instance, the above Committee cites that “VOC’s establishment in 1602 marked the beginning of an inhumane and unjust oppression by the Dutch. It delivered riches and a golden age to the Dutch, but brought poverty, misery and death to the Indonesians.” Moreover, “none of the serious human rights violations committed by the Dutch have ever been investigated by an international tribunal.” The criteria and data on the wealth and poverty brought about by the Dutch must be supported by comprehensive and accurate figures. There should also be a clear standard and evidence of the heavy violence and violations committed by Dutch soldiers.
According to the scholar Henk Schulte Nordholt, there were two waves of violence during the colonial era. The first occurred during the latter half of the 17th century, when the VOC established a trade monopoly by conquering strategic regions such as Malaka, Makassar and Banten. The second happened during the Dutch East India administration, thanks to expansion by the colonial army (1871-1910), which claimed some 125,000 lives. Obviously, the evidence and surviving witnesses of all these cases have grown extremely scarce. If there is any relevant incident that may warrant a lawsuit, that would be the case of Capt. Raymond Westerling, who allegedly caused the death of 15,000 to 40,000 people in South Sulawesi. A review of the victim count is still possible. The father of senior historian Anhar Gonggong was among those killed.
An interesting item would be the report made by a Dutch historian, Jan Bank. Entitled De Excessennota (1995), it was written under the supervision of an inter-departmental commission (the Netherlands’ Departments of Defense, Home Affairs, Justice, Foreign Affairs, Education and Science). The report, as quoted from Mestika Zed’s book published this year, presents the “excesses” related to the thousands of war crimes committed by Dutch civil and military officers between 1946 and 1950. All kinds of violations are listed, from neglect of professional responsibility, abuse of military authority, threats of violence, pillage, rape, break-in of people’s homes, torture and murder.
The war crimes took place in different locations in Indonesia, and the report is backed by archival sources. The rape case of a woman arrested by two members of the Dutch military intelligence (NEFIS) in Lubuk Alung, West Sumatra on May 28, 1948 was taken from a report to the NEFIS Director in Batavia dated June 2, 1948. Also included are 15 thick bundles of clippings, containing daily news and bulletins, including those from the Netherlands’ official news agency Algemene Nederlands Persbureau. Let us compare the above case to the lawsuit filed in the United States over the past slavery of African-Americans. On March 26, 2002, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, an attorney, entered a lawsuit at the federal court of Brooklyn, New York. The 36-year-old African-American woman demands a compensation of US$1.4 trillion from three major companies: Aetna Life Insurance, the train operator CSX and Fleet Boston Financial Corp.
Between 1790 and 1860 (slavery was not officially eliminated in the U.S. until 1865), the U.S. economy benefited by $40 million thanks to the eight million unpaid workers. The present value of such an amount is $1.4 trillion. The three companies are deemed to have caused suffering for hundreds of thousands of African-Americans hundreds of years ago. Aetna is accused of selling life insurance for slaves to their masters. Farmer-Paellmann managed to collect 1,852 such insurance policies. CSX employed the slaves for their railway construction, while Fleet Boston financed the project.
Farmer-Paellmann, a graduate from the New England School of Law, conducted a five-year research for this case. Aetna insists that the event took place hundreds of years ago, and as such would be difficult to be brought to trial. Its board of directors claim that they are not responsible since the corporate structure underwent changes in 1980. Moreover, they have previously issued an apology and contributed $36 million to the African-American community. It will not be easy to win this lawsuit, since the African-Americans’ genealogies are hard to trace. Should this lawsuit be successful, however, the compensation would be used to improve educational and health facilities for African-Americans.
Clearly demands of responsibility from the Dutch — through the mere collection of signatures — pales in comparison to the efforts of the above attorney. Has any data been collected about the victims from Indonesia’s side? The conclusions here are that first, history, which used to be linked to sociology, anthropology, psychology and literature, now touches the areas of law and justice. Second, the history of a nation or commemoration of a historical event can no longer escape foreign scrutiny. A country can no longer write her own history as she sees fit, as in the case of Japan vs. China and South Korea.
Thirdly, a human rights perspective should be incorporated into the curriculum of history. Demands for apology from the Dutch can be made, of course, but the extent of its benefit for Indonesians needs to be questioned. A total debt write-off would surely be impossible. However the claim of compensation is feasible. Concerned with human rights, the Dutch government would not object to paying the compensation. This year it has provided an assistance of $6,000 for every Jewish Dutch who was a victim of the Holocaust.
It is legitimate for Indonesia’s NGOs to file a lawsuit against the Dutch government. However, maybe 10 years from now, there might be a similar lawsuit from Dili, the capital of East Timor. The Indonesian government would be requested to pay war reparations, and a few generals who so far have eluded trial would be charged for serious human right violations in that new state, in an international tribunal.
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