Wed, 22 Mar 2000

East Timor: Dutch war crime replayed

By Aboeprijadi Santoso

This is the first of two articles on the origins of war crimes in Indonesia.

AMSTERDAM (JP): Fifty-five years after a Dutch officer, Raymond Westerling, engaged in war crimes in the shadow of Indonesia's decolonization, a number of Indonesian officers were accused of similar crimes in what was essentially last year's decolonization of East Timor.

Notwithstanding the historical differences, there were eerie similarities in the military atrocities of both nations.

At the end of World War II, a revolution broke out in Indonesia. When the Dutch -- following the Japanese capitulation -- attempted to regain control, they found themselves fighting a politically lost war. While world opinion fell on the side of Indonesia, Holland found a hero in Raymond Westerling.

"Every morning," a Dutch writer recalled, reflecting on his childhood in Hilversum, "we prayed at school for Westerling, the brave rebellious captain who did everything to keep the Indies (Indonesia), whilst the government in The Hague had already acquiesced to Sukarno and his henchmen".

In reality, Westerling was an adventurous Ramboesque warlord, a conclusion drawn from J.A. de Moor's somewhat apologetic study, Westerling's Oorlog (Westerling's War), Indonesia 1945-1950 (1999).

A British trained sergeant, Westerling led the Dutch first elite special forces. He fought bravely in Medan, Java and Sulawesi, but was incapable of controlling his troops. He enjoyed a special relationship with Commander Gen. S.H. Spoor and thus had carte blanche ("a license to kill", in De Moor's words), to act as brutally as he wished.

Most controversial was "his" war in South Sulawesi in the early months of 1947. About 3,000 (not "40,000" as the myth has it) local freedom fighters and villagers were killed as a result of his counter-insurgency methods, called standrecht (summary justice).

With intelligence information gathered through a network of local spies, "the troops surrounded villages at dawn, rounding up the male population ..., tracing (the) 'extremists' and killing them on the spot in front of the population."

Once the locals were sufficiently terrified, calm was then restored. "Gen. Spoor," according to De Moor, "defended (this new method), and so the idea of standrecht proliferated".

The fierce resistance was a result of mobilization and militaristic training during the Japanese occupation. The popular support for the republican forces grew as nationalism and anticolonialism rose in tandem with this legacy.

In December 1948, the Dutch army occupied Yogyakarta and arrested Sukarno, but could not completely quash the local guerrillas.

As Indonesia gained momentum internationally, the turning point came at the political/diplomatic level rather than on the battlefield. As the formal transfer of sovereignty began to unexpectedly draw closer in December 1949, it was a great blow to the Dutch officers who felt they had won many of the battles but politically lost the war.

Not surprisingly, a few weeks later Westerling attempted a coup. The adventure was welcomed in Holland, but it killed almost 100 people and did not succeed. A "criminal bluff", one historian commented.

But the Dutch war was more than "Westerling's oorlog". Gen. Spoor was caught in a real dilemma. While attempting to keep order by employing a strategy of standrecht, he also expected his elite forces to act quickly, effectively, and be disciplined.

Such conditions became over time a growing contradiction for a foreign army operating in an often hostile environment. Even when Westerling and his followers were removed in November 1948, his successor was told that he had to combine professionalism -- or military ethics -- with fighting power. But even so violent excesses still occurred, De Moor admits.

In other words, military professionalism and discipline could hardly be enforced in a colonial conscript army. The colonial war was a hotbed of uncontrolled violence, victimizing sundry numbers of unarmed civilians. This became a permanent risk as the army tried to restore rust en orde (i.e. social tranquility and political order) to Indonesia, a security concept that contradicted the chaotic reality.

The Dutch state, facing war devastation at home, was confronted with the fait accompli of revolutionary changes in Indonesia. The colonial state was weak and depended on the 120,000 conscript army personnel to maintain its stranglehold on the country.

As it lost the diplomatic battle, and with its politicians in The Hague discredited and its army plunged into crisis, it generated new risks and even bloodier violence. A declining colonial state being ceaselessly attacked by angry revolutionaries resulted in numberless atrocities and war crimes.

The Dutch postwar governments succeeded in evading the war crime issue mainly due to pressures by Indies war veterans. It was not until 1969 when an ex-soldier, J.E. Hueting, spoke of the earthscourge method -- the burning of villages in Java -- and other "regularly committed" crimes, that an official report (Excessennota 1969) admitted to "systematic cruelties".

But these were referred to as war excesses instead of war crimes. As a result, the issue has never been properly resolved.

The writer is a journalist based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.