Published Article: The Two Sides of History

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

 Moesson Magazine  |  June 2020

The history of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia often sparks controversy that makes the two countries engaged in love and hate relationship for many years. It is mostly because we learn our shared history from different perspectives.

For the last few years, the numbers of young people in Indonesia interested in tracing the Dutch heritage has increased. They team up in communities, organize trips to historical sites, hold walking tours along the heritage trails, and discover many things that are not taught in schools. It leaves a big question mark, to me personally, what exactly happened in the centuries of Dutch colonization in the archipelago? Was it really all about injustice, inequality, and exploitation as we have always been taught at school?

My very first impression of Dutch colonizer was that they were cruel and inhuman. I got that thought when I was nine, when my late father took me to Jakarta History Museum, located in the 18th century building built by VOC (Dutch East India Company) as the city hall of Batavia with an underground prison at the back of the building. The VOC used the prison to detain the rebels and anyone threatening their interests. It was dark, damp, and eerie with rusty solid iron ball and chain on its floor. No one can stand up straight inside as it was only 1.2 meter height. I couldn’t help but getting terribly scared.

Until I was 11, I had always looked forward to celebrating our independence day on every August 17th. We, the kids, would parade around the neighborhood in traditional costumes, waving the national flags in our hands. Along the route, on both street sides, people put bamboo spears painted in red and white to remind us how brave our freedom fighters were in defending our independence with that spears against the Dutch military who attempted to re-establish the colonial power. It made me wonder how it would be possible to fight the Dutch who came with modern machine guns, tanks, and artilleries, with such a traditional weapon.

It was not until 12 years later that I got enlightenment when I visited the Dutch War Cemetery Ereveld in Bandung. From one mass grave in that yard, I learned for the first time about Bersiap, a dark period in the history that I had never heard. I discovered the fact that it was not the Dutch military that they fought with bamboo spears, it was the unarmed Dutch civilians, the Eurasians, and anyone accused of being associated with Dutch colonial power. They were brutally murdered, and there has never been any initiative from Indonesian authority to acknowledge that period. I wonder if today, it is taught at schools.

“No, I have never heard of Bersiap. What happened in that period?” answered Pak Ichsan Muchtar, a teacher at Dwi Matra, a private elementary school in Jakarta with curiosity when I raised the question. For generations, the schools have hidden that period from our sight, left behind the impression that Indonesian revolution was no more than the struggle to defend our independence.

“I teach history for the fourth grade,” Pak Ichsan continued. “At their age, it will be difficult to comprehend the complexity of the colonial history. They won’t understand what exploitation or inequality is, so I emphasized the teaching mostly on the value of heroism and patriotism.”

“So how do you describe the Dutch colonialism to the students?” I was wondering.

“Well, to picture the nature of colonialism, I often tell them that in the past, only certain privileged people who had access to formal education. Therefore, they shouldn’t take the education they have now for granted.” Pak Ichsan answered.

In my memory as a young student, Dutch was not always seen as evil. When I was ten, my late father took me to his hometown in Purworejo, Central Java from Jakarta by train. For almost seven hours on the rail, he showed me how the Dutch built over thousands kilometer railways in Java, and that was even longer than what they had built in the Netherlands. He also told me how brilliant the Dutch engineers were in designing many railway bridges over valleys and huge rivers, and long railway tunnels that penetrate rocky mountains. But unfortunately, not every young Indonesian student has the same opportunity to see that other side of Dutch colonialism.

“Oppression, exploitation, forced labor, and humanitarian disasters,” answered my 16 year old nephew Dzaki spontaneously when I asked him what he had in mind about the Dutch colonialism in Indonesia.

“They might build the roads, the bridges, the railways, but they cost our people's lives,” he continued.

For students his age, the teaching of Dutch colonial history in school is often related with human rights violations like for instance, the loss of 12000 indigenous’ lives due to heavy labors in the construction of De Grote Postweg, a road spanning 1000 km from Anyer to Panarukan, under the command of Governor General Herman Willem Daendels, and also the famines and epidemics happened in the mid-19th century as a result of Cultuurstelsel, a policy imposed by Governor General Johannes van den Bosch, where many productive agriculture lands, mostly in Java, had to be cultivated with export commodity crops that would generate profits for the Dutch. The policy required peasants to work on the plantations for 60 days in a year and cash crops such as indigo and sugar had to be cultivated instead of rice.

“Cultuurstelsel might have caused misery for the indigenous, but it also brought good changes to us, we were slowly transformed from agrarian society who only knew how to cultivate rice and vegetables to more industrial one who learn how to cultivate cash crops,” said Pak Andreas Saptono, a teacher at Binus International School, Jakarta.

“It’s all about perspective, from where we see the history. Placing ourselves in both shoes, Indonesian and Dutch, will allow us to understand better what happened in the past,” he continued.

In perceiving the Dutch Politionele Acties, Pak Andreas realizes that the Dutch had made huge profits from its colony of East Indies before the war by investing lots of guilders in plantations, mining, and infrastructures.

“The war with Japan had practically ruined everything they had built here. After the war, of course they did everything they could to repossess their wealth and get their money back. That’s just made sense.”

Although he doesn’t specifically teach history, Pak Andreas often talks about it with his students who are critical and open minded. Many times they raise challenging questions that he cannot find the answer in any Indonesian history books.

“Objectivity is crucial in seeing our history, either you like it or not, because it’s the only way to learn from the past so we won’t repeat the same mistake in the future,” he advised.

A question popped into my head, is there any place here that allows young students to see the colonial history from different perspective than what most schools in common teach? My quest led me to Sakola Ra’jat Iboe Inggit Garnasih, a non-profit community that organizes educational activities for underprivileged children in Lio Genteng, a densely populated neighborhood in Bandung, West Java.

It was Gatot Gunawan who founded this informal school in 2017. His idea was to build the children’s character through the teaching of history, art, and culture. What fascinates me most about this school is their annual activity of commemorating the end of World War Two on every August 15th at the Dutch War Cemetery Ereveld in Bandung. It is unorthodox to see Indonesian young students, aged 6 to 13, lay wreaths at Dutch cemetery to honor those who lost their lives in the war to defend the colony, the victims of atrocities in Japan’s concentration camps, and the Bersiap period. To me personally, it’s a huge breakthrough in teaching the Dutch colonial history to young Indonesian students.

“It is necessary to give the children insight into what exactly happened in the course of history by letting them hear from both sides of stories, Indonesian and the Dutch,” said Gatot.

“We don’t need to pass our old generation’s resentment toward the Dutch to our children. We don’t want them to grow up with that,” he continued. “Times have changed, it’s time for both countries to reconcile with our shared past.”

I remembered few months ago, before the pandemic broke out, I revisited Jakarta History Museum, and stopped for a moment at the square in front of it where I saw a group of Dutch tourists posing cheerfully in front of cameras with some Indonesian young students who were on a study tour. They were engaged in friendly conversations right on the place where many horrible tragedies and bloodshed done by the Dutch occurred in the past: the notorious Chinese massacre in the 18th century, the executions of many convicts and rebels, including the sadistic one of Pieter Erberveld, a Eurasian man who was accused of plotting a rebellion against VOC.

I guess what people say is right; there is a thin line between love and hate. In our both nations’ case, the line is the time as it heals all wounds.




You Might Also Like