Even before its release, the film De Oost (The East) by director Jim Taihuttu caused a furore. Last year, the Moluccan veterans’ organisation Maluku4Maluku filed a police complaint against the makers of the film on the grounds of it being ‘a group insult’ and ‘sowing the seeds of hatred’. The Federation of Dutch Indo filed a preliminary injunction demanding that the film makers include a disclaimer emphasising the fictitious character of the film. The judge rejected this demand. Then Palmyra Westerling, the daughter of Captain Raymond Westerling, was incensed at how her father is portrayed in the film. In an open letter, she calls for a boycott of the film. According to her, the makers are ‘falsifying history’ and depicting the KNIL soldiers as ‘Nazi war criminals’. Just as interesting are the comments under social media posts and articles about this film. De Oost is supposedly ‘a nail in the coffin of our forefathers’, ‘a knife in the back of our Indies soldiers’ and the makers ‘should be ashamed of themselves for pissing over the graves of thousands of dead like that’.
De Oost portrays the controversial Captain Raymond Westerling, commander of the Depot Special Troops, part of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) in the Dutch East Indies. The film is set in the former Dutch East Indies in 1946, during the Indonesian War of Independence. The story is about Johan de Vries, a young wartime volunteer in the Free Dutch Forces who, under the leadership of Westerling, takes part in the massacre of villagers in South Celebes (now Sulawesi).
Westerling is a war criminal
The realisation that Indonesian history has a completely different face in the Netherlands only dawned on me a few weeks after I had arrived in Leiden for my studies. During a discussion in the lecture hall about Dutch Indies literature, I mentioned that Indonesia had proclaimed its independence on 17 August 1945. However, my professor responded that Indonesians only gained their independence on 27 December 1949, when Queen Juliana signed the transfer of sovereignty on Dam Square in Amsterdam. That was the moment when I realised that Indonesian history, my historical truth, is interpreted differently on this side of the world.
Could something similar be going on in the reactions to De Oost and Westerling? In the collective war memories of Indonesians, Westerling is an out-and-out thug. We learned at primary school that Westerling had blood – a lot of blood – on his hands: he was responsible for the genocide of 40,000 innocent people in South Sulawesi and the attempted coup against the then-President Soekarno.
‘In the Netherlands, there is no single, broadly shared war memory of the period 1945-1949 in Indonesia’
No collective war memories
In that respect, the film corresponds to my perception of Indonesian history. But I can imagine that this portrayal is experienced as violent – or even worse: insulting – by Indo and Moluccan Dutch people whose (grand)parents served as KNIL soldiers or war volunteers in the Dutch East Indies. Does their collective memory of the Indonesian War of Independence also play a role in this?
“In the Netherlands, there is no single, broadly shared war memory of the period 1945-1949 in Indonesia,” says Kees Ribbens, endowed professor of Popular Historical Culture and War at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC). Ribbens studies how memories and images of war are expressed in popular culture and what these war memories still mean to this day.
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De Oost is stirring up a lot of commotion among Indo and Moluccan Dutch people, but also among former wartime volunteers, conscripts and their descendants. However, according to Ribbens, the rest of the Dutch population is probably shrugging its shoulders because they do not see the Indonesian War of Independence as an integral part of Dutch history. “This period is not automatically engraved in the collective memory; it is mostly considered a controversial, sensitive memory,” he says. “Because it is sensitive, people don’t want to talk about it or question it too much.” We can see this in the small number of popular productions revolving around this war. In addition to a number of documentaries, the comic book Rampokan by Peter van Dongen, the educational comic book De Terugkeer (‘The Return’) by the Indies Remembrance Centre IHC and the films Gekkenbriefje (1981), De Schorpioen (1984), Oeroeg (1993) and Gordel van Smaragd (1997) are practically the only popular depictions that represent this period.
Suffering throughout the generations
Because there is no clear Dutch interpretation of the war in Indonesia, the Indo and Moluccan Dutch have to make do with their own personal history. The suffering and war trauma that their families went through is passed on silently from generation to generation because their story is not given much space in national history.
To mention just a small part of their suffering, the first generation of Indo and Moluccan Dutch soldiers fought for the Kingdom of the Netherlands during the Second World War. Many were imprisoned in Japanese camps during the Japanese occupation and were then forced to repatriate to the Netherlands. The Netherlands gave them a cold reception: they were housed under appalling conditions in former concentration camps and the KNIL soldiers were dismissed from military service. They became second-class citizens and felt that they were not accepted into the Dutch society. This is also reflected in Indo and Moluccan literature: themes such as unresolved traumas, identity crises and homesickness are central. And now, after all that misery, a film is released that puts their (grand)parents in a bad light. No wonder they are furious.
‘The police actions are not part of decolonisation. It was attempts at recolonisation’
In that lecture hall in Leiden, I learned that history has many faces. What to the Dutch is termed ‘police actions’, to my people is ‘agresi militer’ (military aggression). What is known as the ‘Bersiap’ period in the Netherlands is called ‘Revolusi Nasional’ (national revolution) in Indonesia.
“This period 1945-1949 is indeed the perfect example of differing perspectives,” confirms PhD student Lise Zurné (ESHCC). She researches Indonesian wartime memories using re-enactments Serangan Umum 1 Maret 1949 in Yogyakarta. She cites an example: “According to Indonesians, these police actions are not part of decolonisation. It was attempts at recolonisation.”
Likewise, in Indonesian popular culture, the period 1945-1949 is presented as a period of unity, says Zurné, portraying Indonesians as fighting together for their own country and freedom. She notes, for example, that the annual re-enactment is performed in a very spectacular, heroic and nationalistic way. In that story, the Dutch are reduced to villains.
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Willing to talk
Is there a middle ground to be found between the Dutch state that prefers to sweep this sensitive period under the carpet, Indo-Europeans and Moluccans who do not feel at home anywhere and Indonesians who lump all Dutch soldiers together? According to Ribbens, dialogue is the key word. Ribbens: “If you want to have a historical culture where the past is significant, you have to be willing to hold the past up to the light. You have to be willing to listen to each other and ultimately revise your interpretation.”
When western media and films portray muslims as terrorists almost all the time, there is no problem. But when those who actually suffered start to demonstrate their sufferings by means of films it is problem because now the “untouchables” are being hurt. It is no brainer that in modern times, movies have become a great medium to influence people’s perceptions and Hollywood and co. have been using muslims and islamic contexts always in a negative manner. I am not particularly sure about how the dutch film industry behaves in these terms, but in general, across europe and north america, this is the case. So, you got your nationalistic feelings hurt, but those people experienced real pain and death. Just like what france did in algeria, what italy did in libya, etc. This university and western media always talk about diversity, inclusion, human rights, so on. But when it comes to muslims, it is so hard for them to act. The ongoing genocides in Xinjiang, China as well as Israel have not even had much coverage. And why were thousands of muslims in myanmar had to flee to bangladesh, because they were murdered, raped, terrorized. Almost nothing on that.The list goes. Such humanitarian crises should have much higher priority than any other problems, but I guess people will just do what is convenient for them and doesn’t put themselves in difficult position. And btw, I totally do not claim that what happened in Indonesia is only related to muslims; I am well aware that Indonesia is a very diverse country where there are many other people with various beliefs. I just want to point that after only 1 movie against your feelings, you become outraged (and I am not saying whether the portrayals are entirely correct or not). Just think how muslims across the world feel when almost every western movie makes a negative and often inaccurate portrayal of them and their religion. And this gets 0 attention. Wonder why?
Great thought provoking article, especially for someone like me who is from North America and knows very little of this history. Thank you.