By Fridus Steijlen

Saturday 24 February 2018, Ireen Hoogenboom and I, were invited by the Indonesian Student organization in the Netherlands (PPI-Belanda) to introduce and discuss the research program ‘Decolonization, violence and war, Indonesia 1945-1950’. PPI-Belanda wants to start a learning-circle on social science and humanities, and as a kind of kick-off organized a debate on our program in a first session. In a second session they discussed how to organize their learning circle. For us the first session was interesting, the second did not concern us because we are not members of PPI.

Discussions about our research program usually attract a lot of people and they are always lively. And of course, this time it was no different. Although the original idea was to have a closed meeting for PPI-members, there was so much interest that the organization decided to stream the meeting online and open it up for non-PPI members. To be as transparent as possible, Ireen started with presenting the program by shortly explaining the nine projects. Because we wanted to address the objections against and critical comments on the program – the purpose of the meeting was to have a discussion – I reflected on previous discussions I had with critics in Indonesia. My hope was that by sharing my own personal experiences, people would be inclined to give their views more easily. After that Ireen and I zoomed in on the ‘Bersiap-project’, the cooperation with Indonesian researchers and the ‘witness and contemporaries project’, projects in which we ourselves are involved.

During the discussion several interesting and important points were made. One was the use of terms. Does ‘decolonization’ in the title mean that the title presupposes a certain conclusion, a student from Tilburg asked, and the use of the term ‘Bersiap’ was discussed and contested as well. Terms and concepts that are used in the program are important measure points of the temperature or direction of the research program. Although ‘Bersiap’ is also used by the Indonesian government in the official historiography, it does remain a sensitive concept. And, as we argued, in course of time there will likely be a change in the use of terms and notions reflecting  development of perceptions within the group of researchers.

Another important issue that was raised, was the choice of regions for the regional studies and the rationale behind these choices. Most of the suggested regions are already part of the program, included by either the Dutch or the Indonesian researchers. Other regions, like West Sumatra, are still being considered. The valuable point made, was: West Sumatra was where the Indonesian headquarters was relocated to after the capture of Soekarno and Hatta by the Dutch Army in 1948. The call to include West Sumatra was a strong signal to the researchers to think very carefully about their choices. A student of Law raised the question whether the Dutch, or maybe even the Indonesian government, would be ready to face legal consequences in terms of responsibility and claims. I think this is not just a legal question, since it touches on broader concerns in both Indonesian and Dutch society about the impact of the study in terms of responsibility. It is up to the government and society how to deal with the results of the research.

Like in all debates there were not just questions but also statements. On the 24th hope was expressed that the result of this project would, or should (to make it more a statement), lead to a situation in which we no longer perceive Indonesia and the Netherlands solely by their relationship of colony and colonizer; a situation in which Indonesia has an inferior position. A special statement was made by an Indonesian student who applauded research and discussion about what happened between 1945 and 1949. But at the same time he was against the research because the Dutch government does not recognize the proclamation of the Republic of Indonesia on 17 August 1945. To be honest I was a bit puzzled by this comment, because I do not see us, Dutch scholars, as representatives of the Dutch government. Me and my colleagues have acknowledged 17 August for a long time already as the date on which the Republik Indonesia was proclaimed. That the Dutch government funds our research does not change my reading of this historical date!

The most important thing that happened on 24 February was that a discussion about our research between the researchers and the Indonesian students was given a good start. Some people were much in favor of the research program, others were against. The importance of the meeting was that both side were given the opportunity to exchange views with researchers of the program. Thanks to the online streaming more people were able to follow the discussion, which can still be viewed on the PPI-Belanda Youtube channel.

Through a later posting on that Youtube channel we found that during the second session – which we did not attend because we thought it was an internal PPI-affair dealing with the organization of the learning group – our research program shortly came up for discussion again. Criticism came from, amongst others, Ethan Mark (Leiden University) and Marjolein van Pagee (Histori Bersama). They criticized the disbalance in the program between Indonesians on the one hand and Indo-Europeans and Dutch on the other, and they argued that the KUKB foundation that stands up for the Indonesian victims of Dutch violence is totally neglected. It is a pity that they did not express their criticism in the first session, which they attended. We could have explained why there is a difference in participation from the Dutch and Indonesian side in for example the resonance group, and why you cannot read this in terms of power relations. And I would like to have stated that we, coordinators of the witness project, already in May 2017, contacted the chairperson of the KUKB inviting him to cooperate.

These discussions about the project give me the feeling of kue lapis (layered cake). There are many layers you have to take into account. The secret of the recipe however is that all flavors should be recognizable and have a place of its own. The same goes for history. Every party or ingredient should have its own space or contribution. And for me this first discussion with PPI Belanda was a good starting point!