The use of violence is inextricably linked to colonization. This is already apparent in the 17th century, when Jan Pieterszoon Coen enslaved and deported or slaughtered Banda’s entire population of some 15,000 people to secure the monopoly on nutmeg and cloves.
In later years, the deployment of the military to suppress the Indonesian population was a constant of Dutch colonial politics. England ‘gave back’ Java to the Dutch in 1814 as a gesture of gratitude for their support against Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. The bankrupt Netherlands deployed the island as a cash cow, using its products to fill its empty coffers.
From 1816 to 1927 the Dutch were almost constantly at war somewhere within the Indonesian archipelago, often in various places at the same time. An ongoing wave of unrest, breaches of the peace, skirmishes, entanglements, irregularities, raids and ambushes continually needed putting down. Quelling uprisings and exercising a reign of terror were the major constants of the Dutch presence in the Indonesian archipelago.
In the wake of World War II, Dutch repression in the colony came to a head. Following the capitulation of Japan, the Indonesian nationalist leaders Sukarno and Hatta unilaterally declared Indonesia an independent republic on 17 August 1945. The declaration ushered in an era of extreme violence that led to the deaths of several thousand Dutch, Chinese and mixed-race inhabitants at the hands of various nationalist Indonesian groups who sought to wipe out any trace of foreign authority.
Despite Indonesia’s declared independence, the Netherlands still considered itself the sovereign power and dispatched some 200,000 troops to the region between 1945 and 1949.
‘Police actions’ = colonial war
Years of violence were to follow. The Dutch military intervention or ‘police actions’ led to appalling war crimes being committed. People were summarily executed, the intelligence services used extreme violence during interrogations and there were purges and revenge acts of terror after Dutch army losses. At several points the UN Security Council stepped in.
In 1949 the Netherlands was once again urged to recognise the Republic. The then Dutch prime minister Drees chaired a Round Table Conference which finally led to the official transfer of sovereignty in December 1949.
Revelations of Dutch war crimes
The Dutch former soldier Joop Hueting was the first to speak openly about the Dutch war crimes in Indonesia in a 1969 television programme. His revelations unleashed a storm of angry denials. But we now know that Hueting was telling the truth. Academics specialising in military history believe that the Dutch committed ‘tens of thousands rather than thousands’ of war crimes. As more research is done the Netherlands has gained an increasing insight into the structural violence that occurred during the ‘police actions’ of the late 1940s. In view of this we now tend to refer to colonial wars, in which war crimes were committed.