The Netherlands will pay reparations to Indonesian victims of colonial atrocities. Could the UK do the same?
Andi Monji was 10 years old when he was forced to watch his father executed in front of him.
The 83-year-old Indonesian man, who had travelled to The Hague to testify in front of a Dutch court, was last month awarded 10,000 euros ($17,000) as compensation for the murder.
“His father Mr Monjong was one of more than 200 men to be summarily executed during the purge of the village of Suppa on January 28, 1947,” Mr Monji’s lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld told the ABC.
While it has resisted paying reparations, the Dutch Government has formally apologised for the brutal violence it inflicted across the Indonesian archipelago during the 1940s.
Many atrocities occurred as the Netherlands resisted the creation of an Indonesian nation after founding father Sukarno proclaimed independence on August 17, 1945.
So what are the international implications of recognising colonial-era massacres, and could similar cases be lodged on behalf of Australian Aboriginal victims of colonial violence?
Murder in the village of Suppa
Dutch attempts to reconquer Indonesia in the 1940s were euphemistically referred to as “police actions” against “terrorists” and nationalist “extremists”.
According to historian Chris Lorenz, “the Dutch government at first tried to represent its last colonial war as a continuation of the Second World War, that is, as a continuing struggle of Dutch democracy against ‘fascist’ Japan.”
But in reality, the fading Dutch empire was waging counter-guerrilla warfare in a desperate attempt to regain its resource-rich South-East Asian colony.
In Celebes, now the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi, Dutch troops used what would come to be known as the brutal “Westerling method”.
This entailed storming villages and separating men from the women and children. Men suspected of harbouring anti-Dutch attitudes were summarily executed.
A Dutch inquiry in the 1950s found that more than 3,000 men had been murdered over a three-month period. Indonesian estimates have the figure as much higher.
Andi Monji is among Indonesian victims compensated for killings, torture and rapes committed by Dutch forces.
Mr Monji’s case is not the first time Ms Zegveld has achieved justice for victims in Indonesia.
“We have managed to obtain reparations in the form of moral damages for an Indonesian woman who was gang-raped by the Dutch army during the purge of her village in 1949, as well as for an Indonesian man who was tortured whilst in Dutch captivity in 1947,” she told the ABC.
“The colonial times of a country like the Netherlands have, in the past, usually been presented as a source of national pride,” Ms Zegveld said.
“I think it is important that the State of the Netherlands takes a long, hard look at its colonial past.”
A history of violence in Indonesia
Dutch rule of Indonesia was bloody.
The 1740 Batavia massacre, referred to in Dutch as Chinezenmoord (murder of the Chinese), saw Dutch soldiers massacre up to an estimated 10,000 ethnic Chinese in what is now Jakarta.
An historical Dutch map of Batavia, the previous name for today’s Indonesian capital Jakarta.
In December 1947, Dutch troops killed an estimated 431 people in the village of Rawagede for not revealing the whereabouts of a nationalist leader they were hunting.
2011 was the first time the Dutch state acknowledged colonial-era atrocities by apologising for the Rawagede massacre.
“In this context and on behalf of the Dutch government, I apologise for the tragedy that took place in Rawagede on December 9, 1947,” said then-ambassador to Indonesia, Tjeerd de Zwaan.
Then in 2013, Mr de Zwaan apologised for all “excesses committed by Dutch forces” between 1945 and 1949 — particularly in Celebes and Rawagede.
“Sometimes it is very important to be able to look back in order to be able to look one another straight in the eyes and be able to move forward together.”
In March this year, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands expressed regret and apologised “for the excessive violence on the part of the Dutch in those years”, referring to the 1940s.
“I do so with full awareness that the pain and sorrow of the affected families will be felt for generations,” the King said during a joint press conference with Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
King Willem-Alexander apologised for “excessive violence” by Dutch forces during a meeting with Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo in March.
“Note that the Dutch king did not apologise for colonialism or even violence, just ‘excessive’ violence,” said Dirk Moses, a professor of genocide history at the University of Sydney.
“So it seems he’s not denying the right of the Dutch to reconquer their colonies, just the way they went about it.
“Like the British, the Dutch regarded their rule as enlightened and progressive compared, say, to the Spanish.”
Right to reparations ‘enshrined in international law’
Survey data published by pollster YouGov last month found that Dutch and British respondents were the most likely to see former empire more as a source of pride than shame.
Some 33 per cent of Britons said countries colonised were better off because of colonisation, as opposed to just 17 per cent who said they were worse off.
But at least 8,400 mainly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed by colonists between 1788 and 1930, according to research led by the University of Newcastle.
Asked whether Aboriginal Australians could be entitled to reparation payments from Britain, Ms Zegveld said “absolutely”.
“There are victims alive today who suffered as a result of that violence,” she said.
June Oscar, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, agreed.
“The right of Indigenous peoples to remedy and reparation for what they have lost and suffered as a result of colonisation is enshrined in international law,” Ms Oscar told the ABC.
“Measures must include public truth-telling, access to justice for victims, and processes for restitution and compensation.”
A declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 declared the “right to benefit from remedies and reparation” for victims of gross human rights violations.
This echoed the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in 1998, declaring principles “relating to reparations to, or in respect of, victims, including restitution, compensation and rehabilitation.”
Aboriginal children remain 10 times more likely to be taken
A spokesperson for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office told the ABC that “the UK is fully committed to promoting and protecting human rights for all individuals without discrimination on any grounds.”
“There is no disputing that some communities — including indigenous peoples — suffered during colonial times,” the spokesperson said.
“We are doing our utmost to address modern day discrimination and intolerance, and ensure that current and future generations do not forget what happened.”
Among the initiatives aimed at engaging Aboriginal Australians is the provision of three postgraduate scholarships to Indigenous candidates per year to study at Cambridge or Oxford Universities, they said.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar says Australia must stop ongoing violations against Indigenous people.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a right not only to reparations for harms done in the past, but to effective measures aimed at the cessation of continuing violations, and to guarantees of non-repetition,” Ms Oscar said.
“Without the latter, we do not see meaningful change. For example, despite prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008, we have seen the rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are removed from their homes increase.”
National research shows Indigenous children are 10 times more likely to be removed from their families than other Australian children, and they make up 36 per cent of children living away from their parents in Australia.
An estimated 17,664 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were in out-of-home care in 2017, compared with 9,070 a decade prior.
“We need acknowledgement that the system is broken, to reset the relationship between government and our peoples, and to implement processes of co-design and shared decision-making at all levels of government,” Ms Oscar said.