End of War Brings Future without Empire as Indonesia Celebrates 50 Years of Freedom, Its Former Colonial Master Confronts Its Past

Article excerpt

INDONESIA reaches a landmark today - 50 years of independence. But on the other side of the world, its former colonial power, the Netherlands, is engaged in a massive soul-searching exercise.

The media are finally revealing atrocities committed in Indonesia by Dutch troops almost 50 years ago, shocking a country proud of its liberal human-rights tradition.

Jop Hueting was the first former soldier to speak out almost 25 years ago, though very few have wanted to listen. In a recent interview, he recalls the moment when he decided what he was doing in Indonesia was wrong. Coming back from a patrol one evening in 1947, he and his comrades came across a group of 30 or 40 people praying in a tiny village mosque. One Dutch soldier turned his machine gun on the group in the mosque and shot blindly at old men, women, and children.

"I think I was broken down," he says. "Perhaps that is why I didn't stop him, but later I used to say to my comrades that some things we did there just didn't make sense."

Mr. Hueting was among the first of 150,000 Dutch conscripts sent to Indonesia after World War II in an effort to regain what had been a Dutch colony for centuries.

With Japan's surrender in 1945, the Indonesian independence movement took off. Dutch who had lived there for years found themselves with, as they saw it, no option but to fight. In 1946, the Netherlands sent thousands of troops. A bitter guerrilla struggle followed, with the Netherlands ceding sovereignty in 1949.

Stories of atrocities abound. There's little doubt that such incidents happened. But the number of people involved, and whether they were systematic or the inevitable outcome of warfare, are issues under debate.

An ugly comparison

Last year, novelist Graa Boomsma was taken to court for comparing what Dutch soldiers did in Indonesia to what the Nazis did in Holland. Veterans' groups prosecuted him for libel, but he was acquitted earlier this year. His book, one of the few fictional accounts of the war, was a personal attempt to come to terms with his father's experiences there. But his prosecution, he says, is evidence of a much wider problem. "Holland likes to point a finger at other countries and say what you're doing is very wrong," he says. "But when it comes to our own history, it's a rather different matter."

Unlike Americans, who have explored their feelings about Vietnam through books and films, the Dutch have never looked hard at their experience in Indonesia. …

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