Just a few months ago, the Netherlands celebrated Veterans Day. Veterans Day is the Netherlands' annual day of remembrance for the country's servicemen. Sometime ago while talking to a certain classmates of mine at the university, I had a chat with a couple of Dutch youths who had family members that had served in the military. I found it quite surprising that some of them weren't proud of their ex military family members. One of them, a Dutch girl told me of how her granddad had been a soldier in the period that Indonesia was seeking independence and how he had taken part in war crimes on the island. A bold claim if you ask me!
The Netherlands were "neutral" during the first and second world wars but became quite active towards the end of WWII. They carried out a series of police actions in Indonesia and while this isn't discussed enough in Dutch schools, it is important to understand what it is and the impact it has on Indonesia today.
So what are the police actions?
The police actions are part of a bloody war that the Netherlands conducted between 1945 and 1949 in Indonesia because it did not want to recognise the independence of the former colony. To this day, the war continues to raise a lot of unanswered questions, especially because Dutch soldiers committed a lot of war crimes that the Dutch government have refused to investigate. The main objective of the police actions was the recovery of economically important regions in Indonesia and to discourage the natives from seeking independence.
The First Police Action:
The first police action took place after the signing of the Linggadjati Agreement. According to the Dutch, the Indonesians did not want to fully cooperate or adhere to the terms of the agreement. In truth, the Netherlands didn't want to let go of the Dutch East Indies just yet and the natives desperately wanted their independence. Moreover, the Netherlands were on the brink of bankruptcy due to high military costs in early 1947. This meant that they were desperate and had to take action. The first police action was called "the Product."
This so-called police action was very important in the restoration of Dutch authority in the region. Economically advantageous areas had to be reclaimed and used for the redeveloment of the Netherlands after WWII. On Sumatra, for example, the Boekit-Asem mines were occupied and the ownership of certain plantations were also claimed by the Netherlands. This first police action was discontinued on August 5, 1947 due to heavy international pressure, especially from the US.
The Second Police Action:
The advance on Djokjakarta was led by General Spoor. The reason for this police action, according to the Dutch government was to force the Indonesians to cooperate with the Dutch according to the agreement of Linggadjati. This second police action had the name, "Operation
Crow" and the purpose was very different from that of the first. It was mostly meant to subdue the Indonesian Republic as a lot of important Indonesian leaders were arrested and imprisoned, including Sukarno and Hatta. During this police action, a lot of violence was used and many people were killed. The Dutch army often used various torture methods in getting what they wanted from their prisoners and the locals.
The operations of the Dutch army did not always go smoothly. They encountered considerable opposition in some areas, for example from the Siliwangi division of General Nasution. A lot of Indonesians were questioned as regards to the whereabouts of the Freedom Fighters and when they did not cooperate, the Dutch army felt compelled to torture and kill them. This led to criticism from many countries and there were even threats of sanctions being imposed on the Netherlands. The U.S. threatened to stop the Marshall-aid if the Netherlands continued down that bloody path and eventually, the Dutch decided to stop the second police action.
What is the Netherlands' relationship with Indonesia?
The history of the Netherlands' relationship with Indonesia can be traced back to the times of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. At the end of the sixteenth century, merchant ships of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands landed for the first time in the archipelago that we now call Indonesia. Spices and other exotic products such as coffee beans, tobacco, clove, nutmeg, pepper and star anise, were very popular back home and in other parts of Europe. This archipelago which was rich in natural resources became every Dutch merchant's dream destination.
In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established, a trading company that was given exclusive rights to trade in Asia. The VOC also received a number of special powers from the state, such as concluding treaties with indigenous peoples, building forts, installing local authorities and waging wars that would profit both the government and all under it. As a result, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries managed to get a firm grip on important parts of Indonesia, especially in the Molucca Islands and Java.
In 1798 the VOC went bankrupt and due to French occupation of the Netherlands and all kinds of political changes, the Netherlands lost control of the Indonesian region for a number of years. In 1816, the areas were transferred to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands again. Until the Second World War, the Netherlands kept expanding her influence in the Indonesian islands and trade remained a priority, as well as the so-called "civilisation" of the indigenous peoples.
The Coming of the Japanese
On December 7, 1941, Japan, which was an ally of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, attacked Pearl Harbour, a U.S. naval base in Hawaii. In response, the Dutch East Indies declared war on Japan. At the beginning of 1942 Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies and after just three months, the Japanese Imperial Army defeated the Dutch troops. The colonies came under Japanese rule and many Dutch people ended up in Japanese internment camps.
Largely due to the way the Dutch treated the Indonesians over the years, many of them became very nationalistic and temporarily sided with the Japanese. They didn't appreciate the years of oppression under the Dutch and united in various nationalist movements, calling for self-government and an independent Indonesia. These feelings were later reinforced by Japanese rule as the indonesians got tired of having visitors coming into their country, treating them like slaves and taking everything but giving very little in return. When the Japanese were finally defeated in the Second World War, they opened talks with Indonesian nationalists about gaining independence.
The most important group is the Indonesian Nationalist Party of Achmad Sukarno. On August 17, 1945, two days after the surrender of Japan in the Second World War, he proclaimed the independence of Indonesia: the Republic of Indonesia was born. With Sukarno at the head, the country started building up a military force. Other nationalist movements and groups of young revolutionaries - Permoedas - started arming themselves as well.
After the departure of the Japanese from Indonesia, Sukarno sought to solidify the independence of Indonesia but the Netherlands did not recognise that independent state. In the autumn of 1945, the Netherlands was still severely battered and recovering from German occupation. In the meantime, Indonesia was extremely restless as nationalistic groups and revolutionary youths wanted all non-Indonesians to leave their country. Some of these youths ran riot and attacked random (Dutch) foreigners who were residing in Indonesia. Sukarno had a bit of a hard time getting things under control.
After the independence proclamation and the violence that followed, the Dutch wanted restoration of authority only to them. The Indonesian Republic wanted nothing other than the recognition of their sovereignty. Both countries were dependent on the English, who constantly insisted on talks with each other. The result was that in February 1946 the Dutch agreed to the "Conference of Linggadjati", named after a mountain village in Central Java. It was in this village that both parties signed an agreement and as a result, Indonesia's sovereignty was recognised - sort of. The outcome was a cease-fire whereby the areas that were in the hands of the Dutch and the Indonesian Republic had to merged to form the United States of Indonesia comprising the entire territories of the Dutch East Indies, including the Republic of Indonesia, Kalimantan (Borneo), and the Great East. Both governments were to cooperate in establishing a Netherlands–Indonesian Union with the Dutch queen as its head. The agreement was intended to lay down broad principles, leaving the details to be worked out on a later date. Each party interpreted the agreement to suit their own interests and this eventually led to open conflict between the Dutch and Indonesian governments.
Due to the fact that both parties were actually not satisfied with the Linggadjati agreement and therefore made all sorts of extra demands, the two governments never ultimately recognised the agreements. As a result, there arose more tensions between the Netherlands and Indonesia and this led to the Netherlands deciding to "put things in order" by means of military actions: enter the police actions.
Even after the police actions, new negotiations between the Netherlands and the Sukarno-led Indonesian government did not yield anything. Meanwhile, several armed nationalist groups continued to attack Dutch troops in Indonesia with guerrilla war tactics. The police actions led to the international community being firmly behind the Republic of Indonesia. After calls from the international community and the United Nations, the Netherlands had no choice but to cancel the police action on January 5, 1949. On December 27, 1949, the Netherlands recognised Indonesia's independence.
Why are the military actions called 'police actions'?
The two police actions are in fact part of the Indonesian War of Independence, which the Netherlands and the Republic of Indonesia fought between 1945 and 1949. The Dutch government doesn't want to speak of war in the 1940s (seeing as they couldn't fight the Nazis in their own backyard but could bully and oppress a bunch of "farmers" on an island) and opted for the much friendlier sounding "police actions", as if it were an action by the police to get the Dutch East Indies back on track. The term plays the role of a euphemism to hide a painful reality: a bloody colonial war started by the Netherlands. When you're a foreigner and a history student in the Netherlands studying these so-called "police actions", the first question you ask yourself is, what do these war crimes have to do with the Dutch police or any kind of policing? They were not carried out by the police, they were nothing but an act of colonialism and oppression and giving it a fancy name doesn't change or undo what was done. The Netherlands keeps saying that it is a war in which the Netherlands is not an aggressor, but a liberator.
Why are the police actions so sensitive?
The police actions are sensitive because of the war crimes committed by Dutch soldiers during the actions. In January 1969, a broadcast of the VARA program "Behind The News" caused a major stir. Psychologist and war veteran Joop Hueting was one of the first veterans to openly talk about the war crimes committed by the Dutch, such as torture, rape and shooting prisoners of war. Later on, Hueting and his family faced lots of death threats. Editor Herman Wigbold, interviewer Hans Jacobs and Hueting himself were "left stunned" by the violent reactions. Not only Hueting, but also journalists who interviewed veterans about the crimes that took place during the police actions were threatened.
The interview was so moving that the House of Representatives asked the government for clarification.
Heuting is quoted as saying;
"At first we had no idea what we had to do as soldiers in the Indies. It was so terribly painful for both Indonesians and the Dutch. I always made a distinction between the Dutch who lived there and knew the country and we, as young guests, knew nothing about it. It was tragic. We arrived as liberators, but from whom did the country have to be liberated? From her own natives? In the course of time we became demoralised and we found out that we were fighting against the Indonesian population. That was, of course, wrong, even though the army commanders did not want to admit it."
Dutch-Indonesian relationship years after the police actions.
For a long time, the Netherlands was at odds with the Indonesian government and recognised December 27, 1949 as the official independence date of Indonesia, while Indonesians celebrated August 17 as their independence day. This is because August 17, 1945 was the day Sukarno declared the country independent. It was only in August of 2005 that the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Bot officially recognised August 17 as Indonesia's independence day. The cabinet also showed regret for the violence perpetrated during the police actions - especially for the massacre of villagers in the West Javan village of Rawagede. In 2005 Bernard Bot also attended the independence celebration in Indonesia and became the first Dutch government official ever to do so.
In 2013, the Netherlands made a formal public apology for thousands of summary executions carried out by Dutch troops during the police actions. The then Dutch ambassador to Indonesia Tjeerd de Zwaan apologised for the "excesses committed by Dutch forces." Two high-profile court cases in the Netherlands resulted in 20,000 euros being awarded to the widows of some of the victims.
Still, the Dutch government has not commissioned a large-scale investigation into the crimes.
Relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia can sometimes be "shaky" and although they often disagree with each other on certain issues, they also agree and work together on many fields. The Netherlands remains one of Indonesia's most important trade partners in Europe and lots of Indonesian products make their way into the country through the Port of Rotterdam every day. It isn't possible to travel around the Netherlands without encountering Dutch people of Indonesian ancestry or enjoying tasty Indonesian dishes. A visit to Indonesia also shows traces of Dutch influences and while the history between both nations may have been ugly in the past, one can only hope that they work together to make things better for their people in the future.