The prime minister of the Netherlands has apologized to Indonesia for the “excessive violence” employed by the Dutch empire during the reconquest of its former Dutch East Indies colony after World War II. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s apology came after the release of findings from a government inquiry that revealed the Dutch state had condoned the systematic use of extrajudicial executions and torture during the Indonesian war of independence in 1945-49.
“We have to accept the shameful facts,” Rutte said at a news conference following the publication of the report. “I make a deep apology to the people of Indonesia today for the systematic and widespread extreme violence by the Dutch side in those years and the consistent looking away by previous cabinets.”
Between August 1945, when Indonesian revolutionaries declared their independence from the Netherlands, and December 1949, when the Dutch were finally forced to recognize Indonesia’s independence, an estimated 100,000 Indonesians were killed, compared with around 5,300 (including local auxiliaries) on the Dutch side.
In 1969, a Dutch report acknowledged that there had been “violent excesses” in Indonesia during the Indonesian independence struggle, but argued that Dutch troops were conducting a “police action” often incited by guerrilla actions. As one observer noted, Cees Fasseur, the late Dutch East Indies-born historian who penned the 1969 report, “carefully (and now infamously) avoided all use of the term ‘war crimes’ and concluded that ‘excesses’ had taken place, but that these had been incidental.”
The findings of the new review, funded by the Dutch government in 2017 and conducted by more than two dozen academics and experts from both Indonesia and the Netherlands, faces the question of colonial atrocities head-on. It describes the evasive conclusions of the 1969 report as “untenable” and concluded that the “extreme violence” of the Netherlands’ military and intelligence services was not incidental but central to the imperial enterprise.
For example, on December 9, 1947, Dutch troops entered the West Javanese village of Rawagedeh (now called Balongsari) in order to “cleanse” the area of Indonesian independence guerrilla fighters. According to an account by the scholars Bart Luttikhuis and A. Dirk Moses, “They rounded up the population, inquired after the whereabouts of the enemy and then executed a large part of the village’s male – unarmed – population.” The Dutch admitted that 150 were killed in Rawagedeh, while the Indonesian government puts the death toll at 431. In 1946-47, Royal Netherlands East Indies Army troops under Raymond Westerling launched a vicious counterinsurgency campaign in what is now South Sulawesi, which claimed the lives of several thousands.
According to the government report, during the 1945-49 war the Dutch army was “frequently and structurally” guilty of “extrajudicial executions, ill-treatment and torture, detention under inhumane conditions, arson of houses and villages, and often arbitrary mass arrests and internments.” It added, “The sources show that the use of extreme violence by the Dutch armed forces was not only widespread but often deliberate, too. It was condoned at every level: political, military and legal.”
The publication of the government inquiry and Rutte’s apology mark the culmination of a slow process of Dutch acknowledgement of the violence and coercion that underpinned its 350-year rule over the Indonesian archipelago. In March 2020, the Netherlands’ King Willem-Alexander formally apologized for the “excessive violence” committed under Dutch colonial rule and recognized 1945 as the official beginning of Indonesia’s independence.
The following October, the Netherlands also announced that it would pay compensation to the children of Indonesian men summarily executed during Westerling’s campaign in South Sulawesi, after a court ruled that nine elderly women living in Indonesia were widows “of men unlawfully executed under the responsibility of the Dutch state” and were thus entitled to damages. In 2011, a court made a similar finding in the case of the Rawagedeh massacres.
An important acknowledgement of historical wrongs, the timing of the recognition is perhaps unsurprising. According to Luttikhuis and Moses, the crucial fact is that the ranks of surviving Dutch army veterans and ex-colonists has been gradually shrinking, opening up the space for a more honest imperial reckoning. “In all,” they write, “the question of Dutch colonial atrocities has become much less sensitive now that most of the Dutch involved have left the stage.”