Colonial atrocities explode myth of Dutch tolerance

LAST THURSDAY, in a court in the northern Dutch city of Groningen, a trial took place of a sort that is only supposed to happen in despotic Third World countries. In the dock was writer Graa Boomsma, who penned what is believed to be the first fictional account of the Dutch experience in a brutal colonial war in Indonesia from 1945 to 1950. Also charged was a journalist whose interview with the author deeply angered Dutch war veterans.

Both were charged with tarnishing the honour and good name of Dutch troops by comparing their actions to those of the Nazi SS.

In the Netherlands there is a memory hole about this period, while volume after volume has been produced describing the horrors of life under the German occupation or the savagery of the Japanese forces in Dutch colonies in the Far East. The Dutch, quick to moralise about human rights abuses by other nations, have never properly examined or debated the unpleasant history of their own experience in the colonial war. Dutch society seems to suffer from collective amnesia when it comes to the murderous behaviour of the soldiers who tried unsuccessfully to suppress the Indonesian independence movement in the jungles of Java and other islands almost 50 years ago. Young conscript soldiers, acting under orders, put numerous hamlets to the torch and butchered men, women and children.

In the trial Mr Boomsma referred to the most notorious atrocities committed by the Dutch in Indonesia over Christmas 1946 in the south Celebes. A battalion under Captain Raymond Westerling killed at least 4,000 Indonesians over a two-month period. Charges were never brought against Westerling and his men, or the military and political leaders who ordered the action.

The war crimes against Indonesian villagers were committed with the direct knowledge of The Hague, at about the same time that Germany's Nazi leaders were being tried in Nuremberg. Today The Hague is the site of a major UN investigation into war crimes committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Dutch unwillingness to confront more unpleasant parts of its history does not stop at the harassment of writers and journalists. Last year the authorities refused to allow Ponke Princen, a Dutchman now resident in Indonesia, back into the country.

Mr Princen fought as a youth in the resistance against the Germans but opposed the war in Indonesia and resisted the draft in 1946. He was arrested and sent there anyway but deserted after six months and fought for Sukarno, the father of Indonesian independence.

Even though he works today as a human rights monitor and is a regular conduit of information to the Netherlands Foreign Ministry about abuses being committed by Jakarta, the same ministry denied him a visa to enter the country last year under pressure from veterans' associations.

Official histories of the war of independence have reportedly been changed to produce a watered-down version of what really happened as the Netherlands struggled to hold on to the Dutch East Indies by keeping them divided and preventing the emergence of a single free nation. In all, around 6,000 Dutch soldiers died in the war and at least 150,000 Indonesians were killed.

Little is popularly known in the Netherlands about the atrocities. Mr Boomsma has written what he says is the only novel about the period, The Last Typhoon. Published in 1992, it is based on his father's experiences as a young conscript. Mr Boomsma's case has been taken up by International Pen, the writers' group, which has expressed its concern that the case is being brought in a country that is considered 'an example to others in its commitment to the highest principles of democracy'.

Mr Boomsma's troubles began when he gave an interview to a provincial newspaper in which he stated that Dutch soldiers 'were no SS, no, although they could certainly be compared to them because of what they did. But they were forced to do these things'.

For this he was accused of slandering the Dutch veterans who served in Indonesia during the period and charged under Article 261 of the country's criminal code. Eddy Schaafsma, the journalist who interviewed him, was also charged. Both could be jailed for up to a year if they are found guilty on 6 June, although a fine is a more likely outcome.

Mr Boomsma was not the first to make a comparison between the Dutch soldiers and SS. According to Reinier Salverda of the Department of Dutch at University College London: 'It has been said and published several times in the past in the Netherlands'. Mr Boomsma stands by his allegations. He told the court it was the military leaders and politicians of post-war Holland who should be on trial, not a writer and a journalist.

'The task of a writer is to be the memory of a people,' he said. 'My book is about the military atrocities that my father saw and committed, which included the murder of soldiers, women and children. There is a taboo (about the subject). All these war criminals were never convicted. It's not me who should have been accused, but the state.'

Jop Hueting, perhaps the most famous Dutch soldier of the Indonesian war, who was decorated for the bravery he displayed in an airborne assault on Jakarta, has compared some of the massacres he witnessed to the My Lai incident during the Vietnam War. Mr Hueting, who was also in court as a possible witness for the defence, says the comparison between the Nazi SS and the Dutch forces is appropriate, because 'it is a metaphor for unbelievably violent behaviour by our forces'.

He said: 'I went to war as a naive boy from a liberal family, so I don't feel guilty for what happened.' But while he has spoken out about the war crimes since the late 1950s, 'it was impossible for me to break through the wall of silence'.

(Photographs omitted)

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