Jan Pronk

An Inconvenient Relation

Speech Seminar, International People’s Tribunal 1965: Indonesia’s 1965 Massacre. Unveiling the Truth, Demanding Justice Nieuwe Kerk, The Hague, 10 April 2015

Early April this year media in the Netherlands reported about a mass revenge action by Dutch military on 24 July 1949, killing 60 civilians in Prambon Wetan, a village in East Java.

This news came after widely published articles, during recent years, about similar killings of villagers, clearly non-combatants, in Rawagede, a village in Sulawesi. 

One thing is certain: this will not stop. Yet more information about war crimes by Dutch military sent to Indonesia, more than sixty years ago, will become known. Many studies have been published about the events during the decolonisation of Indonesia, which took place by force of arms at both sides. People were killed, women have been raped, both Indonesians and Dutch, but in order to reveal the truth still more research is necessary.

War crimes were committed. For a long time in the Netherlands we did not speak about the violence abroad, applied by Dutch government order. But didn’t people know this, for instance already in the sixties, when in Indonesia the mass killings took place after the coup of 1965?

Of course we knew. Anyway, we should have known, and we could have known. In the Netherlands we had been aware of the so-called police action against Indonesian freedom fighters. We did not know details about Dutch atrocities of the forties, but we had heard about Westerling. We could have read letters and articles written by Dutch soldiers, who had opposed Dutch military violence in Indonesia. We could have read Vrij Nederland, a Dutch weekly, founded during World War 2 in order to mobilize resistance against German occupation, which had continued to mobilize people against Dutch oppression of movements for freedom in Indonesia. We could have taken a position instead of keeping silent.

In the nineteen sixties a Dutch scientist, Hueting, wrote a report about Dutch war crimes in Indonesia. It did arouse much publicity and anxiety. It was discussed in Parliament. But the official reaction was: what happened were incidents, deplorable, but not structural.

This was the background behind the attitude of the Netherlands authorities concerning the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965. The number of people killed came close to a million. The killings ended in genocide. However, the Dutch position was characterized by silence. In the Netherlands we always talk about human rights violations in other countries. Why did we keep silent in 1965?

Five excuses

I already mentioned a first possible reason behind the official Dutch position at the time. Maybe politicians and opinion leaders did not feel at ease about the Dutch war crimes of the forties. Anyway, we closed our eyes.

There was a second reason. In the sixties, and also thereafter, authorities in the Netherlands were cautious not to blame the military veterans. Veterans had organised themselves and were politically active. Successive governments were afraid that in the end not the veterans, but the state itself would be held morally responsible, politically accountable, and vulnerable to legal claims. This has gone on until today. Fear of litigation and financial claims always has been an important reason for authorities in the Netherlands to deny specific responsibilities. Officialdom in the Netherlands is reluctant to admit that the state could be held responsible for negligence, let alone for crimes committed in the name of state. For this reason many political leaders prefer to avoid criticism on human rights violations by regimes of other countries. At some point such criticism might backfire. Outsiders may have the impression that the Dutch are quick to criticize. The opposite is true. In official circles reluctance has prevailed. That is the case until today, witness for instance the debate concerning the Dutch involvement in the case of Srebrenica, in 1995. And in the nineteen sixties this was another reason why the Dutch were hesitant to criticize the new rulers in Indonesia. 

Knowledge about Dutch crimes in Indonesia, as colonizers during more than two centuries, was a third reason. In Holland opinion leaders had drawn a veil over the colonial history. Excuses had been plenty. Though colonial practice had been criticized by some opinion leaders, a few political opponents, writers and others, mainstream thinking in the Netherlands had been that ‘we had done something great overseas’ (‘Daar is in Indië iets groots verricht’). During the sixties people in power knew better, but they did not have an interest in dragging up the past. So, the natural inclination of officials, facing barbarities in the former colony, was to stay aloof.

A fourth reason was the hatred in the Netherlands against President Sukarno. The Dutch did not respect Sukarno as the leader of a newly independent country, nor as a founding father of the post-colonial movement of non-aligned countries. In the eyes of the Dutch Sukarno was an evil despot. He was the enemy. President Sukarno was held personally responsible for the so-called ‘loss’ of Indonesia, including - ten years later - West Irian. The Dutch government had persisted in a separation of Western New Guinea from Indonesia, but suffered a second defeat. That blow had again been delivered by Sukarno, who had added insult to injury, when he succeeded in getting political support from our best friends: the US, who pressured us to give in. Moreover, Sukarno had inflicted damage to Dutch commercial interests, when he summoned Dutch firms to leave Indonesia. After having been humiliated as rulers, we were - even worse - hit as merchants. So, when Sukarno was ousted, the dominant reaction in Holland was:  ‘good riddance; his chickens come home to roost’.

Dutch foreign policy has always been strongly based on commercial considerations: exports and investments abroad. Since Indonesia had become an independent country, Dutch exports to Indonesia and Dutch investment in Indonesia had been marginalized. Dutch commercial interests saw a new chance to recover terrain after the coup in 1965, and after the mass killings. This was a fifth reason why Dutch authorities preferred good relations with the new regime in Indonesia. The Netherlands even took the initiative to establish a new international aid consortium to assist the new Indonesia: the IGGI, the Intergovernmental Group on Indonesia, of which we became the chair. Most people agreed that Dutch development aid, which in itself was a new instrument of foreign policy, was given in particular to our former colony, Indonesia. Bygones were bygones, in all respects.


I had been a student and a researcher in the fifties and sixties. I did belong to a new generation of people criticizing establishment politics. The mood was changing. The so-called New Left movement in the Netherlands was pleading for change: democratisation, protection of human rights and freedoms, and a foreign policy not based on commercial interests but on solidarity with oppressed people abroad. In 1973 this led to a new government, the Den Uyl government, which is still regarded having been the most leftist government in The Netherlands so far. In that government I became Minister for International Development Cooperation. My task was to change the Dutch development policies, while respecting obligations which previous governments had entered into. All at once I found myself in the position of chairman of the IGGI.

At that time there were still tens of thousands of political prisoners in Indonesia. Many of them jailed in Buru, without due process, in dire circumstances, under conditions of forced labour. Some were threatened with the death penalty. We decided to use the IGGI not only to support economic stability and poverty reduction in Indonesia, but also to exert pressure on the Indonesian authorities to set the political prisoners free. We used not only diplomatic pressure behind the screens, but also public pressure together with non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International. We also tried to support human rights activists and dissidents in Indonesia itself.

This was not easy, because of the five reasons mentioned above. In the Netherlands still many interest groups tried to silence any criticism on the Indonesian regime. The new government was in a position to put human rights considerations above the lamentations of business and veterans, but we were still haunted by our colonial past. Were we in a position to raise critical issues of human rights, in spite of our own misdemeanours during the colonial past, and during decolonisation? We came to the conclusion that we could and should do so, cautiously, and without haughtiness or prejudice, but also clearly, and without misapprehension. As a matter of fact we received approbation and support from people in Indonesia when we pleaded the cause of the post 1965 political prisoners. Such support was given in particular by four groups: human rights lawyers and activists, non-governmental organisations, student movements and intellectuals.

The outcome is well-known: nearly all political prisoners were set free in 1976. This was due to pressure from three angles: the new American administration, after President Carter took office; the International Labour Organization (ILO), castigating Indonesia for the establishment of a regime of forced labour, violating international law; and, thirdly, the IGGI.

The IGGI was the only international aid consortium which was not chaired by an international organisation, such as the World Bank, but by a partner country: the Netherlands. For decades the IGGI turned out to be the most successful aid consortium of all: since its beginning in 1967 and until the end in 1992, each year Indonesia was given more assistance than it requested. This was unheard of in the field of international development assistance. All countries for which international consortia or consultative groups had been established received annually less foreign aid than was required to meet the growth targets agreed by the partner countries themselves. Amongst the donor countries political motives prevailed: Indonesia was seen as a bastion against the threat of communism in Asia. In particular Western countries, but also Japan, fearing after Vietnam also other countries would fall into the grip of world communism, saw Indonesia the main bulwark against a process of countries being overturned like domino tiles.

In 1977, ten years after the establishment of the IGGI, I took the initiative to end the Netherlands chairmanship of IGGI, and to render this a regular consortium, chaired by the World Bank. In my view there was no need any more to make an exception. Governments had established IGGI as a means to deal with Indonesia’s emergency situation after 1965. In that respect the IGGI had been a success and economic policies in Indonesia, under the wise leadership of Minister Widjojo, had resulted in stability and economic growth. Indonesia had been brought back to normalcy. However, because of a cabinet crisis in the Netherlands in the same year, this initiative could not be followed up. The structure of the consortium was not changed. 

During the following ten years the economic situation of Indonesia improved further, despite the international economic difficulties of that decade. The IGGI could remain a thriving consortium: the Cold War had not yet ended. More than many other developing countries Indonesia was able to carry out a policy of economic adjustment which did not make poor people the main victims if the crisis. Due to increasing foreign investment, trade and aid, Indonesia could rely on adequate foreign exchange earnings, and avoid a situation of high indebtedness, which would have required harsh domestic adjustment. Indonesia was able to proceed with rural policies aiming to reduce the number of people below the poverty line.

There was still a small group of political prisoners in Indonesia. They had not been brought to court, but remained in captivity. In the nineteen eighties Western countries had not pursued the pressure of the seventies, probably due to the same reasons why they wished to keep the relations within the IGGI undisturbed.

After 1989

The end of the Cold War in 1989 was also the beginning of neo liberalism: privatisation and market deregulation, further opening of markets for finance, investment and trade, and less reliance on foreign aid. End 1989 I again became Minister for International Development Cooperation in the Netherlands. Shortly after I took office we were informed that some political prisoners would be executed. Both in my capacity as Dutch minister and, again, as Chairman of the IGGI, I was asked to raise the issue and press for release. We were successful, but it was clear that President Suharto resented this strongly.  When two years later the Indonesian army massacred a group of students and civilians in Timor, we raised our voice again. President Suharto responded by deciding to cut all relations with the Netherlands in the field of development cooperation. In the Netherlands the initial outcry against the massacre in Timor was soon overtaken by voices of unease regarding the consequences for Dutch exports and private investment. Those were the same voices which after 1965 had said that we should stay silent about the genocide: the voices of Dutch commerce, media - in particular the newspaper Telegraaf - and right wing and centre political parties in the Dutch parliament, led by De Hoop Scheffer, who ten years later became Minister of Foreign Affairs and, thereafter, Secretary General of NATO. Again geopolitics and commerce were given the upper hand.

I conclude: for thirty years in the Netherlands we have debated whether - and how - to respond to the genocide in Indonesia and the human rights violations in the aftermath of the killings. Should we stay silent, forgive and forget, because of geopolitical and Dutch commercial interests? Or should we raise our voice, change the character of our relation with the Indonesian regime, and become involved in international activities in order to release political prisoners, fight impunity and promote human rights?   

For a few years we have been able to voice concerns and to mobilize international action. Looking back, I am pleased that we have been able to make a contribution. However, we must admit - and I regret to say this - that for many more years business has dominated the scene.


Jan Pronk


Public Seminar, International People’s Tribunal 1965: Indonesia’s 1965 Massacre. Unveiling the Truth, Demanding Justice

Nieuwe Kerk, The Hague, 10 April 2015.


See also: www.1965tribunal.org