Time for rehabilitation of Dutch soldiers who refused to burn village

16 May 2013

Time for rehabilitation of Dutch soldiers who refused to burn village

The Dutch government must hasten the rehabilitation of soldiers who disregarded orders while serving in colonial Indonesia.

Harry van Bommel, Member of Parliament for the SP and Nicoline de Hoog, daughter of condemned marine Johannes de Hoog

Shortly after the beginning of the colonial war against Indonesia, three Dutch marines refused to obey an order to set fire to a village. For this refusal, they received heavy prison sentences.

Since then doubts have arisen as to whether razing the village to the ground was a proportionate measure, or if it was above all a reprisal. In refusing to follow the order, the three marines were in fact taking a stand against repugnant and criminal practices. They therefore deserve complete posthumous rehabilitation.

On 11th August 1947 a patrol of Dutch marines approached the village of Soetodjajan. When they arrived in the village the houses were searched for weapons and a number of them set on fire. This was considered necessary in order to secure a nearby road. Anyone resisting was executed on the spot. The arson was in response to landmines which Dutch vehicles had encountered the previous day.

Three marines - Johannes de Hoog, Louis Stokking en Marinus Smit – refused to go along with this, unconvinced of the measure’s military necessity. De Hoog and Smit cited their Christian principles. The fact that a day after the burning the nearby road was closed creates a strong impression that the marines had made a correct assessment and there had indeed been no military necessity for the action. It is in any case difficult to explain how razing civilians’ houses to the ground could be anything other than a reprisal.

The marines’ arguments for refusing the order were of no use when they were presented to the High Military Court in Indonesia and the men were sentenced to around two years in prison. At the trial the focus was on deliberate disobedience in time of war. To date there have been no other known cases of such refusals during the colonial war against Indonesia.

Sixty-five years later the image of the role of the Netherlands during the colonial war has been drastically altered. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, with a large dose of propaganda an image was created of a Netherlands which, in its old colony, would dispel the anarchy brought about by the Japanese occupation, bringing order and prosperity. Holland and the Indies belonged together, after all, and what had been forged over several centuries the ‘Japs’ could not tear apart, as one of the propaganda posters stated.

With these thoughts more than 100,000 young, unsuspecting soldiers were sent to the other side of the world. Once they arrived in Indonesia they found a very different reality, a dirty guerrilla war in which no means were eschewed. Torture was applied routinely by the Dutch troops and Soetodjajan was certainly not the only village to go up in flames. In grave and often excessive violence – for which the euphemism ‘police actions’ was coined – an estimated 150,000 Indonesians lost their lives.

During the colonial war the Netherlands stood on the wrong side of history. In 2005 Ben Bot, at that time Minister for Foreign Affairs, bravely admitted as much, sixty years after Soekarno declared Indonesia’s independence, adding expressions of regret for the painful and violent parting of the ways between Indonesia and the Netherlands.

In the course of a debate at the end of 2012 current Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans reiterated his predecessor’s statement, leaving no room for misunderstanding that he was indeed in complete agreement with Bot and that he had huge respect for what the former minister had said. Earlier in the year Timmermans, as a backbench MP, had argued for the rehabilitation of the three marines.

In 1969 historian Cees Fasseur was commissioned by Parliament to investigate the extremes of violence which characterised the Dutch war against Indonesia. The resulting report is known as the ‘Memorandum on excesses’. In it the question of the three marines is amongst the subjects covered. Fasseur stated in an opinion article a few years later that the three marines had not wanted to be guilty of what they themselves called ‘German reprisals’, and argued for their rehabilitation.

If the Netherlands stood, during the colonial war, on the wrong side of history, it follows logically that the three marines, in refusing to set fire to the village, stood on the right side. They refused to participate in a violation of the rules of warfare.

This act should have been commended rather than punished and although it’s rather late in the day, this could still be done. We are demanding complete rehabilitation for the three marines, each of whom is now dead, and hope and expect to see Frans Timmermans add this deed to his earlier words.

This opinion article first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the Dutch national newspaper De Volkskrant on 16th May, 2013.

You are here