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