Dutch colonization of Indonesia ended more than half a century ago – 1945 according to our official history books, or 1949 according to theirs. Our tax contribution, on the other hand, continued until 2003. Seen as a debt settlement for their lost investment, it helped the Netherlands during the dark period after the Second World War and beyond.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021, I sat down with a friend who raved about the Netherlands over a cold glass of ginger ale. “The Netherlands would be a good place to stay. The good education system, social security, modern infrastructure and the interesting tax system. It’s an attractive place! he says, convinced and excited as he thinks of the reasons to leave Belgium, the place where we carry our mortgages for life – far from the lands we each call home. His France, mine Indonesia.
Good food, he continued, is obviously out of the question, but their adoption of Indonesian cuisine helped add some flavor to the potato repertoire well portrayed by van Gogh during his time in the fields of Brabant. “It should be bearable,” he concluded his speech.
I humbly thanked him, but reminded him that we did more than just influence their taste buds. “I will make sure Indonesians also get the credit we deserve for our financial contribution.”
The negotiations began on August 23, 1949, in the center of The Hague, inside the Ridderzaal, or Hall of the Knights. The room is part of the 13th century inner courtyard where the Dutch have practiced and perfected their negotiating skills since 1446. Inside, a monumental oval table has been installed, which later gave this conference its name: the Round table conference.
The Indonesians were represented by two aligned camps, the Indonesian Federal State (RIS) and the Republic of Indonesia, who came with one goal: sovereignty. Mohammad Hatta, chief delegate, had just turned 47 in August – the oldest of his peers – sitting with Mohammad Roem, 41, Sultan Hamid II, 36, and Anak Agung Gde Agung, two years shy of his thirtieth birthday.
The youngest in the room was Indonesia. Exactly four years and six days on opening day, a Tuesday. His formative years had hitherto been marked by excessive violence. The two “agresi militer Belanda” (Dutch military aggressions), also known by their euphemistic Dutch name of “politionele acties” (police actions), had claimed many victims. It turned out that these two distinct terms played a central role in the debt settlement debate.
While for the young nation and its young delegates, sovereignty was the ultimate and only goal, the Netherlands approached this negotiation with a financial interest. Their program was less romantic: debt settlement and restoration and preservation of investments in plantations, mines, railroads and streetcars. There was also talk of pension schemes and making Dutch ports the only entrance for Indonesian export trade to Europe.
The figure put on the table was 6.5 billion guilders, made up of two different budget lines. The first line was the debt of the Dutch East Indies government from 1942. The amount was 2.1 billion guilders, which was to be passed on to the successor sovereign. The rest, almost 70% of the total claim, was intended to compensate the Dutch for their losses during the War of Independence, including for their military acts (or “police actions” according to the claimant) which took place after independence.
Trading began in the summer and ended in mid-autumn. An amount of 4.5 billion guilders was agreed.
There were rumors of nationalist leaders warning that Mohammad Hatta had been too conciliatory. Others said mistrust between the two sides was so high that Indonesian delegates focused only on quickly recognizing sovereignty at all costs.
Less than two months after the conference, the Netherlands officially recognized Indonesia’s full sovereignty. And by the mid-1950s, 3.7 billion guilders out of the 4.5 billion had been transferred to the Netherlands.
Payments were then briefly interrupted following various political crises: changes of government, wage resistance, the West Irian conflict and the Cold War, among others. However, with the change of power in 1966, payment of the remaining (at that time) 650 million guilders resumed.
The debt repayment process was administered and owned in part by the Dutch funds Claimindo and Belindo. Indonesia thus paid the debt via the Dutch state, which then divided the money between the three parties. Both Claimindo and Belindo were listed on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange – and throughout the years of payment, shareholders got 40 guilders per share per year.
After the last penny was received in 2003, Claimindo and Belindo quietly disappeared from the stock market – quietly but with a whimper – marking the long-awaited end of imperialism.
A year later, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a 74-page report entitled “To forget the past in favor of a promise for the future”.
This line is said to have been quoted by the Indonesian debt negotiator in 1966, Ahmet Ponsen, and is written in italics on the header of the pages throughout the report. Although it’s an innocent bookish practice, I’m subtly reminded to forget the past every time I scroll through the pages.
The full title of this report is indeed “Forgetting the Past for a Promise of the Future: The Netherlands, Indonesia and the 1966 Financial Agreement: Negotiation, Regulation and Implementation”. A title that states the author’s position so clearly that it leaves no room for imagination.
In the epilogue, he concluded, “So the debt settlement was mainly because Indonesia explicitly wanted it.” He continued, “It was a quid-pro-quo deal.” He said that in order to receive development aid, support and loans from the West, it was in Indonesia’s interest to accept the debt.
Count the cost
According to historians Anne-Lot Hoek and Ewoet van der Kleij in their highly cited article “De prijs van onafhankelijkheid” (The price of sovereignty), in today’s currency, Indonesia’s total contribution to the Low after the war could amount to 103 billion euros (151 billion Australian dollars). To imagine the gravity of this amount: Indonesia’s average annual public expenditure between 1967 and 2020 was 36.62 billion Australian dollars per year.
The amount paid to our extended-stay guests was therefore equivalent to nearly five years of government spending. Needless to say, this is a sum from which the people of Indonesia could have greatly benefited.
The amount was also much higher than Marshall Aid, a loan granted by the United States to countries in Europe for their post-war recovery. Hoek and van der Kleij estimate the loan for the Netherlands at around 16 billion euros in today’s currency. Although worth far less than Indonesia’s payments, even today in the Netherlands, as elsewhere on the continent, the Marshall Aid program is remembered as heroic in its achievement; foreign aid that put Europe back on its feet.
Our florins, on the other hand, remain on the sidelines of history.
“On the Margins of History” is the title of a notable screenplay in the series of notebooks Gramsci wrote from his prison cell under the Italian Fascist regime. It was his twenty-fifth notebook out of a total of 33 that he had written at the time of his death in 1937, six days after his release for health reasons. “Man”, he writes in one of his notes, “is above all consciousness, that is to say, he is a product of history, not of nature”.
After going through the long official Italian history, he proposed another type of history: the history of subaltern groups – the lower ranks of society, born from the intersectionality of variations of race, gender, economic class. These are the histories “from below”, of fragmented groups who are denied access to hegemony.
This idea of subalternity itself subsequently caught the attention of South Asian scholars, in their attempt to rewrite the historical record from colonialism to decolonization from the perspective of the rural subaltern masses. This attempt, however, carries the threat that subalterns will always be represented through the words of elites, such as historians, scholars, or mainstream parties of the masses.
A passage from the novel by VS Naipaul A bend in the river illustrates very well the Western historical process: “The Europeans wanted gold and slaves […] but at the same time they wanted statues to be erected of people who had done good things for the slaves.‘
Or in the case of 1966, the West wanted the (colonial) debt paid, but at the same time wanted to be remembered as humanitarians giving development aid.
In other instances, statues were literally erected as a reminder of bravery in the West’s quest to exploit Others. In the Discovery Monument in Lisbon, Portugal, for example, a map was carved to glorify his discovery of the “world”, including that of the archipelago – although at that time, let’s be clear, sovereign kingdoms reigned over the islands, from Aceh Darussalam to Mataram, Ternate and Tidore.
Like the ‘politionele actie’, the word ‘discovery’ becomes important. Accepting that we are only their discovery would subject us to the “white gaze” – to use Frantz Fanon’s term – and would lock us into their imagination.
Continuing to accept these conditions would diminish Indonesia’s contribution to the creation of its nation-state. It would etch their sense of entitlement and reinscribe our marginal position in the world, and worse, our personal history.
I have thus taken to claiming our unrecognized credit whenever someone expresses their admiration for Dutch achievements. They might have decided to forget about this long and aggressive phase in the formation of their nation. But what they became and how they became certainly cannot be divorced from the three-century financial expedition, not to mention the recovery plan that we helped.
These things deserve a place in their, and ours, collective memory.
So when another Dutch friend made a joke about us missing the blue in our flag, I told him to remember that without our red and white it would only be blue. We may not have done it with pleasure – it is not a ‘graag gedaan‘ (with pleasure) – but nevertheless, you are welcome.
Titi Kusumandari (Linkedin: akusumandari) is a marketer and writer.