Yvette Tanamal, Jakarta – The time was nigh for Indonesia to embark on a candid discourse about its role in enabling slavery during the colonial era, experts said following Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte's apology speech addressing the Dutch state's historical role in slavery.
The Dutch slave trade had inflicted significant agony on Indonesians, they said, particularly on the tens of thousands dispatched to other Dutch-ruled nations like Suriname. Yet the fact that the slaves had first been first brokered by local kingdoms like Bali and Lombok indicated a real need for national reconciliation and education, they urged.
In a 20-minute speech, Rutte on Monday night sought forgiveness from its former colonies, particularly seven Caribbean states: Suriname, Curacao, St Maarten, Aruba, Bonaire, Saba and St Eustatius. Calling the Dutch slave trade an unimaginable "criminal system [...] so inhuman and unjust", Rutte announced a fund for social initiatives in Curacao, St Maarten, Aruba and Suriname.
Indonesia, a former Dutch colony wherein slavery was practiced, was not explicitly mentioned, except for the acknowledgement that "between 660,000 and over 1 million people [...] were traded within the areas under the authority of the Dutch East India Company [VOC]". While some media outlets have reported that it indicated an apology to Indonesia, historians argued that it did not – due to complications rooted in Indonesia's complicity in the matter.
"The Indonesian kingdoms were the ones selling the slaves. The Dutch took it as an opportunity, enjoying what was available to them. It is a different story in the Caribbean, where the Dutch transported slaves and enslaved existing locals," said Andi Achdian, a colonialism expert at the National University of Indonesia (UNAS) to The Jakarta Post.
"This dark side of our history must be perceived in its full naked truth."
When it comes to slavery, Indonesia must first admit some of its ugly histories first before demanding apologies, the experts stated.
In the 16th century, the VOC was among the largest slave traders in the world, transacting people across the Atlantic and Asia. In Indonesia, slaves were sold to and from South Africa, India and Sri Lanka, with the "top merchandises" including bondsmen from Ambon, Ternate, Bali and Borneo.
A considerable proportion of the slaves were those who lost during ethnic wars and were subsequently sold by the winning kingdoms, the historians explained.
But none of the aforementioned facts are common knowledge in Indonesia, and there is an apparent disconnect between the younger generation with their ancestors' histories, they noted with concern.
"Much of the accounts on slave practice during the colonial era are kept in the national archives. They are inaccessible to anyone, meaning that researchers and experts are left with little to work with," added Bondan Kanumoyoso, dean of the faculty of cultural sciences at the University of Indonesia (UI).
So limited was official data, Bondan noted, that even the numbers Rutte had used in his speech needed to be scrutinized considerably.
"We have to approach this topic with utmost clarity. The narrative about Dutch slavery in Indonesia has not been researched fully. There needs to be an honest discourse about the dark practice," Purnawan Basundoro, dean of the faculty of cultural sciences at Airlangga University, told the Post.
A possible maneuver
Rutte's speech, made ahead of ministerial visits to the Caribbean, has received its share of criticism both among Dutch citizens and those on the receiving end of the apology. Experts argued that the text had been laden with "colonial feel", stemming from the prime minister's lack of consultation with the Caribbean nations. Many citizens, on the other hand, were skeptical that the apology was sincere, and suspected it was a mere political maneuver.
While 200 million euros (US$12,830.29) have been pledged for awareness projects and an additional 27 million euros were allocated to a slavery museum, experts agreed that Rutte's refusal to first consult with the former colonies indicated his avoidance of discussing possible reparations.
The Indonesian government – the House of Representatives and the Foreign Ministry – had also considered Rutte's speech to be primarily for his domestic political agenda, said Commission I Representative TB Hasanuddin on Wednesday.
Previously, the Netherlands had apologized to Indonesia twice, once for the systemic cruelty inflicted by the Dutch military after the Indonesian independence and again for racism. Jakarta did not respond to either of the apologies because none of the statements were official diplomatic communications, said TB Hassanudin.