The way forward

Is The Netherlands finally trying to come to terms with its colonial past? What are the ways forward towards a better understanding of the colonial legacy? Anne-Lot Hoek argues for inclusion of dissenting and focus on Indonesian voices and sources, more emphasis on transnational perspectives and the long-term effects of colonialism, and the use of literature and film to reach larger audiences. The discussions between Indonesian and Dutch researchers offer great opportunities, especially for the further decolonization of the Dutch debate. We hope this publication offers some incentives for joint debate.

Featured image: Remembrance ceremony at the river Indragiri, where many of the victims of the massacre of Rengat on 5 January 1949 were killed. The radio reportage by Anne-Lot Hoek with English subtitles can be found in the section Research journalism. Photo by Anne-Lot Hoek, 2016.

Dissenting voices: the way forward

Looking back on the historical debates and the critics that have been portrayed in this publication, one can say that critical, dissenting voices that challenged national narratives have always been there, but often, they were not heard, recognized, understood, amplified, or explained well. Critics were often rejected as unreliable, or even demonized. For a long time, there has been little space for critical reflection on the blind spots in the narrative about the Dutch Indies by ‘outsiders’ to the academic world. However, the dissenting voices pushed the public debate forward. The establishment often pushed back, attempting to delegitimize critics in debates about the colonial past with powerful tools such as labelling their criticism as moralism, conspiracy theories, activism, incompetency or as judging history by the norms and values of today.

Bosch, Sjahrir, Koesoemobroto, Lijftogt, Hueting, Kousbroek and Pondaag were part of a long tradition of critical voices. Many of their statements, actions or writings refute Fasseur’s argument that moralism or activism are contra-productive. Has the public debate moved in new directions in terms of inclusiveness? There are several examples in which Indonesian perspectives have been taken into account: the exhibition ‘Oorlog! Van Indie tot Indonesie’ at Museum Bronbeek in 20151, where the documentary ‘Libera me’ from Martin van den Oever was shown on the joint experiences of Indonesian and Dutch veterans2, the photoproject of Suzanne Liem (see below)3 on the widows of Rawagede (also shown in the Dutch National Military Museum in 2017) and the work of Nicole Immler (University of Humanistic Studies/NIOD) on transitional justice, based on interviews with Indonesian victims.4 Nevertheless, Remco Raben stated in his inaugural lecture 5 at the University of Amsterdam in 2016 – fourteen years after his radio interview with Rudy Kousbroek-  that Indonesian perspectives still play little role in the representation of our national memory or remembrance, and that the histories of Indonesia and the Netherlands follow nationalistic lines, instead of acknowledging the strong entanglement.

Ibu Taswi, one of the widows of the massacre in Rawagede (1947) photographed by Suzanne Liem for her book De Weduwen van Rawagede –  Getuigen van de dekolonisatieoorlog [The Widows of Rawagede – Witnesses to the decolonization war] (Amsterdam University Press, 2018). Source: website of Suzanne Liem

Professor Ariel Heryanto (Monash University) stated that the current Dutch debate is best defined as ‘colonialism in crisis.’ The Dutch are arguing amongst themselves in a domestic debate on the so-called good and bad of colonialism. Different interpretations of the colonial heritage indeed lead to heated debates in the Netherlands.6 There is, however, more attention for postcolonial critics, and a much broader debate on the Dutch colonial heritage has evolved. Dutch perspectives remain dominant in these debates, and postcolonial critics, such as Gloria Wekker, are often met with harsh criticism,7 especially on their academic merits. Dissenting voices, (postcolonial) critics and Indonesian perspectives in the Dutch debate are important, not just to fill in the blind spots in colonial history, but especially to move the Dutch mind-frame in new directions that lead to a better understanding of the colonial heritage.

These voices call out for an understanding of the colonial heritage that transcends national borders and timeframes. Bambang Purwanto – a leading historian at Universitas Gadja Mada in Yogjakarta – equally emphasized in 2016 in the newspaper NRC that he would like to see a historiographical dialogue on colonialism between Indonesia and the Netherlands in its wider form rather than narrowing the history down. 8 In Heryanto’s view pluriformity and transnational solidarity form important elements. For instance, few Indonesians – and Dutch as well – are aware of the important role Australia played in the Indonesian revolution, or the different societal groups involved in the revolution. In Indonesia the debate is defined by anticolonialism, with a strong focus on the unity of the nation.9 Historian Bonnie Triyana stated during a public event of the Dutch based project Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 45-50,  that his history teacher told him at school that the Indonesian independence was gained by the struggle of ‘Indonesians.’ But who are ‘the Indonesians’? Triyana questioned himself. Amongst ‘the Indonesians’ were in fact many people who are in present day Indonesia considered as ‘the others,’ such as the Chinese.10

Indonesian artist Iswanto Hartono calls out for more ambiguity in remembering the colonial past. Hartono feels that ambiguity is opening new perspectives on how we see our past. In 2017 he held an exhibition in Oude Kerk Amsterdam where he burned a wax-figure of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. According to Hartono Coen is a controversial part of Dutch-Indonesian history because there are people who want to remember him and there are those who just want to forget. Hartono used wax as a medium because it represents the tension between remembering and forgetting. “In order to forget, we must first remember” he says.11

The public debate in the Netherlands led to the decision of the Dutch government in 2016 to sponsor the Dutch based project Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-50 of Dutch institutions NIOD, KITLV and NIMH.12 The aim of the project is to answer questions regarding the nature, scale and causes of structural violence in Indonesia, considered in a broader political, social and international context. Purwanto – head of the Indonesian part of this research – underlined the difficulties in cooperation during a workshop in May 2018 between Dutch and Indonesian researchers. The project is aimed at investigating Dutch military violence: addressing a Dutch problem, not an Indonesian one. At the same time, he emphasized that cooperation – that has been part of a longer process – has an advantage for opening up the dialogue. Whereas in the past joint Indonesian-Dutch projects were characterized by freedom to discuss anything, the sensitive period of 1945 – 1949 was carefully avoided. That has significantly changed according to Purwanto, but there are still many difficulties to overcome. For starters: what is the point of departure for research? Indonesia declared itself independent on 17 August 1945, but the formal Dutch governmental approach is that the Dutch handed Indonesia its independence in 1949. This is one of the points that critical voices such as Jeffry Pondaag (Kukb), Francisca Pattipilohy, Marjolein van Pagee (Histori Bersama), historians Lara Nuberg and Dr. Ethan Mark (University Leiden) who speak out against the project have responded to in a letter that was directed towards the Dutch government.13

This video shows Francisca Pattipilohy, an Indonesian voice that speaks out about the set-up of the research project Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 45-50. In the video she states that “The research seems to consider colonialism as a given, the illegality of the Dutch occupation (the core problem) is not investigated. The video was published by the Histori Bersama Foundation, that aims to translate recent publications from Dutch and Indonesian media that refer to the colonial past and the Indonesian independence war (1945-1949), to arrive at a shared history.14

Reflections of critical voices inside and outside the Dutch research project further emphasize the lack of critical voices in the set-up of Dutch research, one of the features of modern-day decolonial thinking. (See also the section Research journalism). Why was Jeffry Pondaag, for instance, not involved in an advisory board group? And why are Indonesian and independent international academics not invited to co-write the summary/synthesis of the research?15 At the same time Dutch academia is carefully stepping into the deepening of critical awareness of past and present academic positions and practices that has recently intensified worldwide. Sanne Rotmeijer (KITLV), Marieke Bloembergen (KITLV) and Priya Swamy (Museum of World Cultures) for instance organized the workshop ‘Academic research in a decolonizing world: towards new ways of thinking and acting critically’ at the KITLV – and supported by KITLV, KITLV Society and Leiden University – in Leiden in 2018.16 The aim of the workshop – with international keynote speakers Prof Walter Mignolo (Duke University) and Dr. Priyamvada Gopal (Cambridge University), scholars, activists, curators and students – was to make participants think more critically about their own position and academic knowledge production, including in relation to activism outside academia, and to seek for ways to act more critically, and for inclusive forms and practices of academic research and teaching. This was also emphasized during the Dutch historical KNHG year congress in 2018, which was titled: ‘Who writes the history? Exclusion, silence and taboo in the history.’ The aim of the congress was to deepen the awareness of the exclusion of perspectives in history writing.17

The Netherlands finally seems to be trying to come to terms with its colonial past. History writing on colonialism and 1945-1949, however, the creation of new narratives, has moved into the wider sphere of opinion makers, activists, filmmakers, museums, writers and artists, aiming for a larger audience to become aware and involved. Inclusion of dissenting, postcolonial critical and Indonesian voices and sources, the opening up of the focus in the Dutch debate to transnational perspectives and the long-term effects of colonialism, and also a better connection between academic research and the public debate are the way forward towards a better understanding of the colonial legacy. The discussions between Indonesian and Dutch researchers in several different projects therefore offer a great opportunity, especially for the further decolonization of the Dutch debate.18


  1. Museum Bronbeek, Oorlog! Van Indië tot Indonesië 1945 – 1950 [From The Indies to Indonesia 1945 – 1950], exhibition newspaper, February 19, 2015.
  2. Jos Janssen and Martin van den Oever, “Libera Me, men moet kennen de geschiedenis,” [Libera Me, one must know the history] Youtube Omroep Gelderland, October 18, 2015.
  3. Published as Suzanne Liem, De Weduwen van Rawagede – Getuigen van de dekolonisatieoorlog [The Widows of Rawagede – Witnesses to the decolonization war] (Amsterdam University Press, 2015).
  4. Nicole Immler, “Narrating (in)justice in the form of a reparation claim: bottom-up reflections on a postcolonial setting – the Rawagede case,” in Understanding the age of transnational justice: crimes, courts, commissions and chronicling, ed. Nancy Adler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018), 149 – 170; and Human rights as a secular social imaginary in the field of transnational justice, the Dutch-Indonesian Rawagede case in: Social imaginaries in a globalizing world, ed. Hans Alma and Guido Vanheeswijck (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), 193 – 220.
  5. Remco Raben, Wie spreekt voor het koloniale verleden? Een pleidooi voor transkolonialisme [Who speaks for the colonial past? A plea for transcolonialism], inaugural lecture, University of Amsterdam, September 28, 2016.
  6. See for example the discussion on author Kester Freriks pamphlet on colonialism: Kester Freriks, “Tempo Doeloe, ook een mooie tijd,” [Tempo Doeloe, also a good time] NRC Handelsblad, October 5, 2018; Thomas Smits, Klaas Stutje and Suze Zijlstra, “Koloniaal geluk is niet los te zien van koloniaal leed,” [Colonial happiness cannot be viewed separately from colonial suffering] NRC Handelsblad, October 9, 2018; Reza Kartosen-Wong, “Tempo Doeloe? Een gruwelijke bezetting,” [Tempo Doeloe? A horrible occupation] NRC Handelsblad, October 13, 2018; Remco Raben, “Nooit meer Indië, de zes denkfouten van Kester Freriks,” [Never again Indie, the six errors of thinking by Kester Freriks] de Nederlandse Boekengids, December 16, 2018.
  7. Siep Wynia, “De Joke Smitprijs voor Wekker is een grote fout,” [The Joke Smit prize for Wekker is a big mistake] Elsevier, December 12, 2017.
  8. Anne-Lot Hoek, “Een onderzoek naar schuld en boete,” [An investigation into debt and fine] NRC Handelsblad, November 22, 2016.
  9. Anne-Lot Hoek & Martijn Eickhoff, “Luister ook eens naar de Indonesische stemmen,” [Also listen to the Indonesian voices] NRC Handelsblad, January 15, 2019, based on several email and live conversations with Ariel Heryanto.
  10. Bonnie Triyana, “Dekolonisatie of rekolonisatie?,” [Decolonization or recolonization] from 12.37 min, filmed September 13, 2018, Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam.
  11. Iswanto Hartono, “Wie wil vergeten moet eerst herinneren,” [Whoever wants to forget must first remember] NRC Handelsblad, September 29, 2017. For more information [in English] about the exhibition Europalia Indonesia, see the website De Oude Kerk.
  12. See website of the research project Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 45-50.
  13. Open letter to the Dutch government. Bezwaren tegen het Nederlandse onderzoek “Dekolonisatie, geweld en oorlog in Indonesië, 1945-1950” [Objections to the Dutch study “Decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia, 1945-1950]. And the reply of the Dutch government [English translation] from the website of Histori Bersama.
  14. Histori Bersama, Video message Francisca Pattipilohy, Not invited to speak during the second public meeting of the Dutch research on 1945-1949 September 13, 2018, Amsterdam.
  15. Shortly after this publication, an article in De Groene Amsterdammer was published ‘Heeft een gedicht niet ook gewicht?'[Does a poem not also have a weight?] by Niels Mathijssen on 17 April 2019 in which the final investigation of the research project is criticized by various historians, including Anne-Lot Hoek. They argue that Indonesian sources are not considered enough.
  16. Sanne Rotmeijer (KITLV), Marieke Bloembergen (KITLV) en Priya Swamy (Museum of World Cultures), “Academic research in a decolonizing world:towards new ways of thinking and acting critically?,” workshop held October 8-9, 2018, KITLV, Leiden. This two-day interdisciplinary workshop set the stage for deepening critical awareness of past and present academic positions and practices in relation to the call to decolonize academia that has recently intensified inside and outside of academic institutes worldwide. A critical conversation about this matter was not only topical, but also much desired among scholars in Dutch academia, and particularly in Leiden with its long tradition of orientalist research and collecting. This workshop therefore provided a much needed space for reflecting on and questioning colonial predicaments in academic research and teaching.
  17. Lise Koning, “Wie schrijft de geschiedenis?Verslag KNHG Jaarcongres: uitsluiting, stilte en taboe in de geschiedenis,” [Who writes the history? Report KNHG Annual Congress: exclusion, silence and taboo in history] KNHG website, December 13, 2018.
  18. Anne-Lot Hoek reflected on the sensitivity of the term decolonization during the launch meeting of Bridging Humanities, June 2018, see the video here.