Mayors ask the government to express regret for the fate of Moluccans, but how deeply should the Netherlands really be ashamed?

The mayors of seventeen municipalities with a Moluccan community push in an open letter to express its regret in the future cabinet for the ‘unworthy’ reception of Moluccans after the decolonization of Indonesia. Publish the letter in de Volkskrant coincides with the seventieth anniversary of the disembarkation, in Rotterdam, of the first Moluccans from Indonesia. Eventually some 12,500 people – mostly veterans of the disbanded Royal Netherlands Indies Army (KNIL) and their family members – would make the crossing.

According to the mayors, the migration of the Moluccans – residents of an archipelago in the east of the Indonesian archipelago – was a tragedy of mistakes and broken promises. The Moluccans, ‘loyal soldiers who had fought in the name of our Queen’, were released from the army shortly after their arrival in the Netherlands, they were mainly housed in former German camps (such as those in Vught and Westerbork), and did not return to the country of origin – in spite of the promises of the Dutch government to make efforts to this end.

A gesture by the Dutch government would be seen as a blessing by the Moluccan community, says Sjors Fröhlich, mayor of the Utrecht municipality of Vijfheerenlanden, and one of the signatories of the letter. What should that gesture consist of? ‘You could think of a conversation between representatives of the Moluccan community and the Minister of the Interior or the Prime Minister. At the very least, it should say: we are ashamed of what has been done to you. Mayors have expressed themselves in that spirit, but the national government has always remained unstated about this. ‘

Needs of young Moluccans

With such an expression of regret, the government would also meet a need of young Moluccans, says Fröhlich, mayor of a municipality with about 800 residents of Moluccan origin. ‘The third and fourth generations, as you are already talking about, still feel strongly connected to the history of their parents and grandparents. But also with the people who stayed behind in the Moluccas. They are touched when they hear that they are being forced to hoist the Indonesian flag. ‘

The cold reception of Moluccans is also part of the family history of writer Herman Keppy, publisher of the twice-yearly publication Indies Magazine. Yet he has ‘mixed feelings’ about the positive attention that the Moluccans have suddenly enjoyed in recent years. ‘Certainly: it was very painful for proud Moluccans to be housed in former detention camps. And they felt displaced in every way. Yet by now I am getting very tired of all the sad stories from and about Moluccans who have been treated so badly and who still feel homesick for the land of their ancestors. Come on, after seventy years other stories could be told about us. ‘

By this he refers not only to the success stories about Moluccans in the Netherlands – to which the mayors also refer in their open letter. Or the fact that the average Moluccan, in his opinion, is better off in the Netherlands than in the Moluccas. He is mainly concerned with the distortions and the ‘nonsense clichés’ in Moluccan historiography. Just take the well-known suggestion that the KNIL consisted predominantly of Moluccan (or Ambonese) men, and that there would be no place for them in independent Indonesia. ‘That is really nonsense. On the Dutch side, many more Javanese than Moluccans fought at the KNIL against Indonesian independence. They could all go to the Indonesian army, the new rulers were very generous in that. About two thousand Moluccan KNIL veterans, including the few officers, have made use of this opportunity. ‘

No return

The rest, about four thousand soldiers, however, did not want to adopt Indonesian nationality, nor could they return to the Moluccas because at that time – 1950 – the battle had just raged between the Indonesian army and Moluccan independence fighters. At the insistence of a few Moluccan sergeants major, who were regarded by the Dutch government as authoritative discussion partners, these four thousand veterans (the KNIL had been disbanded) were shipped to the Netherlands – with the plan to return to the Moluccas as soon as circumstances permitted. .

So it never came to that. Keppy: ‘The Netherlands had promised us an independent republic, it is said. But how should the Netherlands have done that after the transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia? The fair story is that the Moluccan veterans did not want to return to an old homeland with new masters. ‘

Their fate was certainly tragic, says Keppy. But there is something to be said about the common conclusion that they could not return to the Moluccas. ‘The Moluccans do not do themselves justice if they reduce their history to what has happened to a relatively small group in the Netherlands in the last seventy years. Elsewhere in the world live millions of other Moluccans. And the history of the Moluccans in the Netherlands did not start in 1951, but already 114 years ago, when the first Moluccans came to the then motherland to study or work, as a doctor for example. ‘

The Dutch do not have the slightest need to contradict or qualify Moluccan victimization, says Keppy. ‘It is typical for the contemporary Dutch to be ashamed of their past. When someone with a brown complexion speaks to them about past misconduct, they nod ashamedly. Well, I’m brown too, and I say that attitude is starting to dislike me a bit by now. ‘

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