Room 3 of the Revolusi! Indonesië onafhankelijk exhibition that is currently on at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam features rows of showcases in which all sorts of historical objects are displayed. The room focuses on family histories and personal stories about things that happened during the Indonesian revolution. On a wall a word is written in all caps on a red background: GEWELD (‘violence’). The information provided underneath describes the violence that engulfed Indonesia in 1945. The Dutch word describing this period, ‘bersiap’, gets a mention, as do words used in particular parts of Indonesia, such as ‘ngeli’ and ‘gedoran’.
It was this part of the Revolusi! exhibition that gave rise to heated debates, even before the exhibition was opened to the public. The Indonesian historian and guest curator Bonnie Triyana wrote in NRC that the word ‘bersiap’ would not be used in the exhibition because Indonesians are unfamiliar with it and it has ‘a highly racist connotation’. The Federatie Indische Nederlanders (Federation of Indo Dutch people) then pressed charges against Triyana because they felt his words constituted a denial of the period, which was traumatic for Indo Dutch people, as well as veterans. As a reaction, the General Director of the Rijksmuseum, Taco Dibbits, emphasised that Triyana’s words constituted a personal opinion and that the museum would in fact use the word. The Comité Ereschuld Nederland (Dutch Debt of Honour Committee) then pressed charges against the Rijksmuseum for using the word in the exhibition.
According to Soukotta, the soap opera relating to the exhibition reflects the current state of decolonisation in the Netherlands. “Instead of having an actual discussion on the subject, the Rijksmuseum opted to dismiss Triyana’s words in the debate that followed. Colonial logic is alive and kicking. It was vital to Dibbits that someone from the former colony be involved in the exhibition, but the moment that person brought up something that evoked profound reactions, Dibbits no longer wanted to be associated with it. He washed his hands in innocence,” she says.
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Last week, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies presented the long-awaited results of its major investigation of the violence inflicted on Indonesians during the war that lasted from 1945 to 1950. The findings resulted in Prime Minister Mark Rutte extending, on behalf of the Dutch government, ‘sincere apologies’ to the Indonesian people for ‘the extreme violence and the fact that previous governments consistently looked the other way’.
Soukotta was not surprised to hear that the investigators found many instances of violence during the war of independence. In the Netherlands, before this investigation, there were research and publications with similar results. Indonesians have known about the violence, which was, according to them, the consequence of the Netherlands’ attempt to recolonise the country, for a long time. Nor was she surprised to hear the prime minister’s apology. “To me, it seemed like a formality rather than a sincere apology,” says Soukotta. “It makes perfect sense for a government to apologise after the publication of such reports. But I want to know: what are the next steps they are going to take?” Furthermore, Soukotta felt the apology was too vague. “So he apologised for the violence inflicted during the war, but what about the centuries-long period of colonisation that preceded it?”
Soukotta believes that the Netherlands has a long way to go in its quest for decolonisation. “The first part of the decolonisation process, which was leaving the colony, was completed more than seventy years ago. But the current phase of the decolonisation process is about changing colonial logic, and I’m not seeing any sign of that,” she goes on to say. “The bersiap debate is an example that clearly demonstrates that the power dynamic between the Netherlands and Indonesia is still far from properly balanced. On the international level, too, the Netherlands and Indonesia are still in imbalance power relations.” For instance, Indonesia is unlikely to exert too much pressure on the Netherlands to get the Dutch to formerly recognise 17 August 1945 as the date on which the Indonesian republic became independent. After all, Soukotta says, that might jeopardise economic interests.
What can we do to decolonise our society? “Keep talking to each other,” says Soukotta. “Tell your story and listen to other people’s stories. This will create space for people to understand each other. Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about – a society in which different points of view are allowed to co-exist.”