Jakarta – "Sorry" is the hardest word for the Netherlands to say. It is so hard that it has taken the country more than two centuries to apologize for its role in the slave trade.
This is what Prime Minister Mark Rutte had to say on behalf of his people in The Hague on Monday, as reported by Reuters: "For centuries under Dutch state authority, human dignity was violated in the most horrific way possible [...] and successive Dutch governments after 1863 failed to adequately see and acknowledge that our slavery past continued to have negative effects and still does. For that, I offer the apologies of the Dutch government."
What is startling about his statement is not so much that the Netherlands is finally accepting responsibility for the horrors it committed against other nations around the world, from what is now Indonesia to much of the African territories they once occupied and ruled, but that it has been able to live in constant denial for more than two centuries without ever feeling the slightest guilt.
If Holocaust denial is a crime, maybe this, too, should be made a crime. To think that the Netherlands has had the audacity to host the International Court of Justice, whose task includes investigating allegations of genocide.
The Dutch are slowly, if not reluctantly, coming to terms with their ugly history. The slave trade is only a small, albeit probably the most violent, part of the larger history of their conquering and ruling various parts of the world. They have a long way to go yet before they can reach closure.
Their official history, and what they teach their children, paints colonialism in the vein of the white man's burden, which is pretty much the same as how other European nations see their colonial history. It's certainly the way that the Netherlands has treated the Dutch East Indies, the former name of Indonesia and its most precious colonial possession, from which it extracted so much that the Netherlands became one of the richest nations on earth while it impoverished the natives.
Much of the literature on the Dutch role in slavery focuses on the profitable trans-Atlantic slave trade, from West Africa to the Americas. Little is written and known about the slavery in what is now Indonesia. But the existence of Javanese communities dating centuries in South Africa and countries as far away as Suriname suggest its slave trade was no less profitable. And slaves were also trafficked between the islands in the Dutch East Indies.
In February, Rutte offered an apology for the "war crimes" Dutch forces committed against civilians in an independent Indonesia after the end of World War II, when they tried to reimpose Dutch rule. This apology, however, was confined to the war of independence in 1945-1949 and ignored the killings and many other atrocities committed during its colonial rule dating back to the 17th century.
Indonesia has moved on, as have most nations affected by the slave trade and ruthless colonial rule of the Netherlands. But the Dutch people can hardly move on unless they rectify their understanding of their history. Rutte has admitted as much, that its slavery past continues to have negative effects on the Netherlands.
But it's for them to come to terms with their collective guilt. They can take all the time in the world for all we care. It's their problem.