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Dutch king's visit to Indonesia shows why apologies matter

Royal words should trigger wider review of imperial and post-colonial violence

| Indonesia
King Willem-Alexander walks with Joko Widodo during the welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Bogor on Mar. 10: other former colonial powers should follow the Dutch King's example.   © Pool Photo/AP

A recent visit by the King and Queen of the Netherlands to Indonesia was the first by Dutch royals in a quarter of a century. More significant, however, was King Willem-Alexander's direct and unreserved apology for the violent excesses of his country's four-year struggle to reimpose colonial rule in the former Dutch East Indies after the Second World War.

His comments will stimulate renewed efforts to seek accountability for historical atrocities in other former colonies of European and Asian powers. But they should also prompt soul-searching in Indonesia and fellow post-colonial nations about human rights abuses since independence, for which their governments have proved as reluctant to apologize as their imperial predecessors.

King Willem-Alexander's comments were blunt. He recognized Indonesian independence, which the Netherlands had not formally acknowledged since it was proclaimed on August 17, 1945, following the surrender of wartime occupier Japan, and expressed profound regret for his country's "excessive violence" during Indonesia's struggle for independence.

He said that he apologized "with full awareness that the pain and sorrow of the affected families will be felt for generations."

The Netherlands has led the way among former colonial powers in addressing the violence of the past. The Dutch ambassador to Indonesia first apologized for the 1945-49 violence in 2013, including to relatives of Indonesians summarily executed in a series of mass killings during counter-insurgency operations in South Sulawesi in 1946-47.

In 2016, the Dutch parliament launched a wider inquiry into the campaign to suppress Indonesian independence between 1945 and 1949.

King Willem-Alexander's words were welcomed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. But the king's contrite tone also implicitly pointed to Indonesia's own record of state violence toward its citizens, including the deaths of more than 1 million citizens in the 1965 suppression of the Indonesian Communist party.

Efforts to promote accountability and establish a process of reconciliation have been attempted since Indonesia's transition to democracy in 1998, but the barriers have so far proved insurmountable.

The army is worried about being held responsible for the distribution of weapons to mobs that roamed the countryside searching for communists, and there is staunch resistance from within Muslim organizations such as the Nahdlatul Ulama, which mobilized militia groups to hunt down suspected communists.

There is also mounting pressure for Indonesia to address the past in East Timor, where Indonesian troops are alleged to have committed war crimes in the run-up to independence in 1999, and in the far eastern province of Papua, where activists allege that tens of thousands were killed after Indonesia took control of the former Dutch territory in 1969.

Some prominent Indonesians see the Dutch King's remarks as a trigger for a review of historical allegations of wrongdoing by Indonesia. "This is a good moment to reflect on Indonesia's past," says Marzuki Darusman, a former attorney general, pointing to efforts at senior levels of Widodo's government to explore the idea of a truth commission.

Other officials worry, however, that opening the door to accountability would leave the country vulnerable to questions over its sovereignty in Papua. Widodo will be pulled in different directions, and may find it easiest to do nothing. "There will of course be strong pushback from some groups of people," says Darusman.

Yet as Indonesia charts a path toward greater activism on the world stage, for example by promoting freedom and equality for women in Afghanistan and seeking accountability for violence against Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, it will be hard for his government to avoid being accused of double standards.

The Netherlands' acceptance of accountability for its historical actions also sends a strong message to other former colonial powers that were responsible for violent episodes during their era of occupation in South and Southeast Asia, such as the U.K., France, Spain and Japan.

Indian activists have waged a low-key campaign to force the British government to apologize for the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, when troops fired on an unarmed crowd in the north Indian city. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the scene in 2013 and described the incident as "deeply shameful," but no official apology has been forthcoming.

David Cameron visits the holy Sikh shrine of Golden temple in Amritsar on Feb 20, 2013.   © Reuters

In Myanmar, where the government is under pressure to account for what its own commission of enquiry regards as war crimes committed against the Rohingya, British admission of abuses and excesses during its rule of the country, then known as Burma, might be helpful in stimulating local accountability.

Other former colonial powers should follow the Dutch King's example in returning historical artifacts to their original countries. King Willem-Alexander gave back to Indonesia a kris (traditional dagger) that belonged to Prince Diponegoro, an Indonesian hero who led a rebellion against Dutch rule in the early 19th century.

The kris was brought by the Dutch King and handed over to Joko Widodo.   © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Similar actions by other countries could prove powerful stimulants in improving relations, the U.K., for example, should consider returning a sizable ruby that was the property of the last Burmese king, although its whereabouts is unknown.

Memories of the colonial era are slow to fade, and governments everywhere are slow to apologize for mistakes, especially when culpability lies with previous generations. But King Willem-Alexander's acceptance of accountability for his country's actions three-quarters of a century ago deserves to be followed, by post-colonial governments as well as by former imperial rulers.

Michael Vatikiotis is the author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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