History and Identity: Moluccans in the Netherlands
Ben Allen & Aart Loubert
On December 2, 1975, the cause for Moluccan independence stepped out of anonymity and onto international headlines as a group of determined Dutch Moluccan youth seized a train in northern Holland, taking 50 passengers hostage, killing the engineer and then coldly executing two of the passengers in front of television cameras. The terrorists were demanding Dutch help in the struggle to regain the independence of the south Moluccan islands, situated just east of New Guinea in the western Pacific, an archipelago seized by Indonesian troops shortly after declaring its independence in April 1950. The dramatic action was the first in a number of hostage seizures that shook Holland over the next few years, marking one of the most serious threats to Dutch civil security of the post-war period.
"It was absolutely terrible," recalls Krijn Reitsma, working in Amsterdam at the time, "They took many innocent people hostage and killed some of them point blank. We were just happy that more were not killed."
"It was terrible that people were getting killed," says Jootje Sinai, a second-generation Dutch Moluccan, "You understand what they were fighting for but not why they had to kill people. It was a terrible time and I hope it never happens again."
Today, 21 years after the last of the terrorist dramatics of the late seventies, and as Indonesia slowly moves toward democracy, the prospects for greater Moluccan autonomy or even Moluccan independence look brighter than ever before. But many Moluccans living in Holland have lost the same nationalist passion that burned so strongly two decades ago.
"I know that my history is connected with the idea of Moluccan independence, but I don't believe in that idea any more," sighs second-generation Dutch-Moluccan Charley Behoekoe Nam Radja, "I did when I was young. I have other ideals now, like trying to make Holland a more successful multi-cultural society." After almost fifty years of life in Holland, the Dutch Moluccan community is slowly giving up on its decades-old dream of packing up and returning to an independent South Moluccas and is struggling to succeed in the increasingly complex world of 21st-century Holland.
The story of the Moluccan community in the Netherlands is a long and complicated one, and has its roots in commercial expansionism stretching back to the early days of Dutch independence; 1999 marks the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first Dutch ships in the Spice Islands. From ancient times the Moluccas were a top provider of cloves and nutmeg for the world market, and in the beginning of the seventeenth century the Dutch United East Indies Company, Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC), obtained a monopoly on the export of cloves from the Indies. The VOC expanded financially and geographically, bringing almost all of the Indonesian archipelago under its control over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite tremendous early promise, however, the VOC, marred by internal corruption and fierce trading and military competition from Britain and France, did not last. It folded in 1789, passing control of its territories over to the Dutch government.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a considerable number of Moluccan men (primarily Christians from the island of Ambon) were entering into service with the Dutch colonial army, the Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger (KNIL), a force that consolidated and enforced Dutch control over the Indies. The Moluccan army recruitment was a clever part of a Dutch colonial strategy that sought to 'divide and conquer' the Indies. They provided the Moluccans with a higher social status and education for their children in return for the loyal military service of Moluccan soldiers who enforced Dutch colonialism. Jaap Wijnhoud, high-level Dutch prime ministerial advisor for minority relations acknowledges, "we governed them very roughly... We do have a rather bad colonial history. We played one group against the other."
The KNIL was more a police force than a military organization, striving more to maintain law and order within the country than to defend it against a foreign aggressor. This became very clear when Japan attacked the Netherlands-Indies with the outbreak of World War II in the early 1940s. "The KNIL was no match against that enemy," according to Dr. Wim Manuhuttu, director of the Moluccan Historical Museum in Utrecht, some fifty miles south-east of Amsterdam. After two months of fighting, the KNIL surrendered to the Japanese.
Upon assuming control of the Indies, "the Japanese quickly presented themselves as the liberators of Indonesia against white colonialism," according to Manuhuttu. Playing on decades of Indonesian resentment against Dutch colonialism, the Japanese "distinguished between the rest of the Indonesians with the Christian Ambonese who were seen as assistants, cronies, the iron fist of the Dutch. There were a high proportion of killings and tortures perpetrated [against by Moluccans] by the Japanese secret police." Indonesian nationalists cooperated with the Japanese government, who gave them some freedom in running internal Indonesian affairs.
By 1944, when it had become clear that Japan would eventually lose the war, Indonesian nationalists hurried to secure independence before the Dutch could restore their colonial system in the islands. Two days after the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, the nationalists proclaimed the independent Republic of Indonesia with Doctor Sukarno as its president. "And so," according to Manuhuttu, "one war ended and another war began," this one a 'War of Decolonization' pitting Indonesia nationalists, mainly from the large central Indonesian island of Java against the Dutch, supported by the Moluccans. After some years of unsuccessful and bitter guerrilla fighting, the Dutch, pressured by the strong post-war anti-colonialism of the United States and United Nations, finally negotiated the formation of an independent federal state in Indonesia in 1949. The Round Table Agreement guaranteed considerable autonomy for the individual Indonesian states as well as Dutch commercial interests in Batavia. This federalist state lasted only a few months, however, as the Indonesian nationalists did away with the federalist power-sharing system and replacing it with a unitarian government dominated by Java.
Partly as a reaction to the stridency of Indonesian (Javanian) nationalism, nationalist feelings amongst the Moluccans was on the rise as well. During the war, many Moluccans had suffered awfully at the hands of the Japanese occupiers, while the Indonesian nationalists had cooperated with the Japanese. Each group blamed the other for collaborating with the enemy. Because of their participation in the military operations against the young Indonesian republic the Moluccans were called 'black Dutch', 'bloodhounds of the white' and 'traitors' by the Indonesians.
"After the Indonesians changed the federal structure of the United States of Indonesia into the Unitarian state of Indonesia [thus imposing Javanese control over all of Indonesia], the Moluccan nationalists decided to take their fate in their own hands", says Wim Manuhuttu, "and on April 25 1950 they proclaimed the Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS), completely independent of Indonesia." Moluccan independence would not last long, however, as Indonesian forces quickly invaded the islands, seized cities and installations and forced the RMS into a bloody guerilla war.
As these dramatic events unfolded in the Moluccas, to the west, the Dutch were demobilizing their colonial army. "The Moluccan soldiers of the former KNIL who were stationed on Java and Sumatra were an embarrassment to the Dutch government and because they were seen as being collaborators with the Dutch, and because the Indonesians would not permit them to return to the Moluccas while war continued, the Dutch government decided to bring the former KNIL-soldiers of Moluccan origin to the Netherlands, with the intention of having them return to the Moluccas a few months later", according to Manuhuttu.
The Dutch government placed the almost 4,000 soldiers with their wives and children (in total approximately 12,500 individuals) ironically enough in former German concentration camps like Westerbork and camp Vught. The Moluccans were not encouraged to look for work because the unions in the Netherlands feared that they would drive down Dutch workers' wages. In addition, their stay was seen as only temporary; it was neither the intention of the Dutch nor the Moluccans themselves to integrate into Dutch society at the time. "Forced to idleness, isolated in their camps, robbed from their military status, confronted with another climate and struggling with their language problems there was nothing left for them then but to drift on their hope, their memories and their myths. One of these myths was the RMS, the independent Moluccan state. They started to derive their identity on the RMS-ideal. Through peaceful demonstrations and petitions they tried to move public-opinion in favor of Moluccan independence".
But the Dutch, despite initial statements about the Moluccans eventually returning to an independent state in their homeland, had no intention of straining their relationship with powerful Indonesia by pressing for Moluccan independence. "Look," says Wijnhoud, "we agreed to independence in 1949. That's the end of story. That they change from federalism to a unitary state, that's their problem. When you say that this country is independent you don't interfere in their domestic policies." But, Moluccans in the Netherlands argue, the Dutch were part-guarantors of the Roundtable Agreement of 1949 that guaranteed autonomy for Indonesia's states.
When in December 1963 the Indonesian army succeeded in finally breaking the Moluccan resistance on the island of Ceram, they arrested RMS President Chris Soumokil, sentencing him to death by hanging, an action carried out in 1966. According to Dr. Fridus Steijlen of Leiden Universtiy, who recently published his doctoral dissertation on Moluccan nationalism in the Netherlands, "The death of President Soumokil in 1966 resulted in some radical changes in the RMS-movement in the Netherlands. At first there is a change in the RMS-government. Because of the fall-away of president Soumokil, J.A. Manusama, who had been living in the Netherlands since 1953, becomes the first president in exile of the RMS. Secondly, the death of Soumokil marks the radicalization of the Moluccan community. They have been in the Netherlands for over fifteen years and in and amongst the growing second generation many seemed to be prepared to take the struggle over from their parents." Charley Behoekoe Nam Radja, a second generation South-Moluccan working for FORUM, (an institution for multicultural development in the Netherlands) says: "I was brought up to return to the Moluccas by my parents. I was educated to be a Moluccan in the Moluccas. My stay in Holland was only temporary." A strong sense of Moluccan nationalism was instilled in the second generation, and as time wore on, this second generation became increasingly impatient.
Inspired by the explosive growth of radical movements around the world, especially that of the Black Panthers in the United States and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, more and more young Moluccans began to see violence as a way to force to draw the attention of the world to their plight, to, in the words of Dr. Steijlen, "force a resolution to the stalemate."
Leiden University Professor A. Köbben, a member of the Advisory Commission on South-Moluccans in the Netherlands during the 1970 relates that "the second generation Moluccans in the Netherlands admired Che Guevara, the Black Panthers and Yasser Arafat. They saw that using violence to get the attention of the international community was working".
In the early seventies, a small group of young Moluccan extremists turned to violence. Their first attack came on August 31, 1970, when thirty-three Moluccans occupied the residence of the Indonesian Ambassador in Wassenaar (a suburb of The Hague) to protest the announcement that Indonesia's repressive dictator was planning on coming to the Netherlands. "It was considered the ultimate insult to the Moluccan people of Holland that President Suharto would visit the Netherlands," according to Dr. Manuhuttu.
In the early morning of the 31st of August 1970, the 33 forced themselves heavily armed into the residence and killed a Dutch policeman. "It wasn't their intention to kill this man but the whole action was characterized by a lot of misunderstandings and mistakes," according to Manuhuttu. The Moluccan community generally supported the actions. RMS President J. Manusama stated at that time: "I, as the president, totally support the actions. What has happened in Wassenaar is a political statement, an act of patriotism. The occupiers are heroes, no murderers. For twenty years the Netherlands ignored us and supported Indonesia. Officer Molenaar [the officer killed] is the victim of that. In the whole world our case has attracted attention. The youngsters achieved that".
Despite the action, however, the Dutch government failed to react, and five years later, in 1975, seven Moluccans from the age of 19-25 years decided to hit both the Indonesian consulate in Amsterdam and, for the first time, a Dutch civilian target, hijacking a passenger train [near Assen] in the north-east of Holland and to force Dutch action on pushing for independence in the Moluccas. Three civilians were killed by the terrorists to pressure the Dutch government into negotiation quickly. The youths sent out a statement demanding from the Dutch people and government that they support their demands "for the peace and faith of the repressed Moluccan people and for peace in the world". Their message ended with a reference to the Dutch colonial past: "if some innocent Dutch got killed for the Moluccan cause, let the Dutch people not forget that in the past thousands and thousands of Moluccans have given their lives for the Dutch cause". Holland's troubling colonial past reared its ugly head again. At first, the reaction of the Moluccan community was one of shock, but during the action sympathy for their cause grew. Because of the brutality of the killings, however, President Manusama called them "A bunch of terrorists". Finally, the hijackers were persuaded into turning themselves in.
Two years later, in what Prime Minister Joop Den Uyl called, "the worst attack ever on the order of the Dutch state," hijackers seized another train and a primary school, taking more than one hundred school children hostage. The children were finally released before Dutch marines stormed both the school and the train, killing six of the hijackers. The 1977 action was followed by a smaller action in 1978, when a provincial government building in the north-eastern Dutch city of Assen was seized and held for a little more than a day before being seized by another contingent of Dutch marines.
While the hijackings did not succeed in moving the Moluccas any closer to independence, they did help bring about fundamental changes in the approach of Dutch public policy. Utrecht University professor Frank Bovenkerk, an expert on contemporary Dutch and Western European minority issues, explained in a recent lecture to the Amsterdam-based Humanity in Action program that the Dutch governmental response to the Moluccan hijackings marked a key departure from the previous minority policy in the Netherlands. "Instead of treating and confronting [the Moluccan community] in a hostile way as political trouble-makers, the Dutch government saw the hijackings as a response to the socio-economic conditions they faced in the Netherlands." According to Bovenkerk, the hijackings served as a wake-up call to the Dutch government, eager to avoid American-style minority and racial problems. It responded with social programs that sought to increase educational and employment opportunities for Dutch minorities in general.
"Since the seventies," says Jaap Wijnhoud, senior advisor to the Prime Minister on minority affairs, "[the Moluccan] problem became more visible. We began to see it as a different [kind of] problem."
The process of reaching out to the needs of the Moluccan community culminated in the 1986 issuance of the "Mutual Statement" by Moluccan community leader Rev. Metiarij and Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers. "It was a job plan," according to Wijnhoud, which, in addition to giving KNIL veterans a yearly allowance and providing funds for a Moluccan historical museum, laid down a framework to create job-opportunities for 1,000 Moluccan youth.
The Mutual Statement was more than just a job plan, however. It marks a recognition of sorts on the part of the Dutch Moluccan community that its stay in the Netherlands could no longer be considered "temporary", that they were, in fact, here for the long run.
Charley Behoekoe talks of how he used to speak to white Dutch groups trying to explain the actions of his radical countrymen hijacking trains. "The Dutch didn't know the history [of the Dutch Moluccan community]. In the history books, no one told them why and how we got here." As he spoke to them about the reasons behind the hijackings, he found himself "in between explaining and justifying [the actions of the terrorists]. I was angry because the Dutch didn't understand." But time has changed Behoekoe, and most of those in his generation. "Your children grow up, and you see them live in Holland, grow up in Holland, speak Dutch, developing Dutch values. I want my children to be happy. If they are happy in Holland, who am I to be educating them to go back to the Moluccas? So I stay in Holland... I am not a Moluccan anymore. There is a connection between me and the Moluccan islands but it is through my parents." Three years ago, Behoekoe took Dutch nationality.
A recent study on third generation Moluccans published earlier this year in the British-based Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies found that most of those it interviewed "emphasized that they lived in the Netherlands and that their future was in this country." Victor Joseph, a Moluccan journalist who runs the weekly "Voice of Molucca" Dutch radio program, says that Moluccans in Holland feel as though they might better serve those in their homeland by remaining in the Netherlands. "If we stay here, we can strive for an independent Moluccas effectively. Look at the Jewish lobby in the States, they'll stay there for centuries, but they're still very connected with Israel."
Third generation Moluccan youth still feel an emotional connection to the RMS as a symbol of their ethnic identity and out of respect for their elders. Dennis, a 22-year old with blue-dyed hair now living in Amsterdam says, "I support the RMS. I stand behind it." However, he has no plans of returning home, and speaks of the differences that history has wrought between the first and third generation of Dutch Moluccans. "I think the third generation is much further distant from the first generation. We are a part of this western culture... We support RMS for our parents, our grandparents."
So what has become of the passionate nationalism of the seventies? The violent separatism of the past has given way to a more practical concern for conditions in the Moluccas. "I believe in a free Moluccas. It would be a dream come true," beams second-generation Jootje Sinai, "but we need to look at what is going on at this moment." As the Indonesian government continues the painfully slow process of counting the peoples' votes from the June 7 presidential election, sectarian violence and poverty still plague life on the Moluccan isles. Clashes between Muslims and Christians have left some 200 people dead this year already. And the politics of separatism have taken a back seat to more immediate concerns. "I think that the general Moluccan community [in the Netherlands] is still in favor of the idea of more autonomy, more self-determination [for the Moluccas]," says Steijlen, "but their main concern is how to restore cohesion. It's broken. They say, 'Why should we worry about self-determination when all this [violence] is going on. We have to fix the immediate situation, because society is being killed.'" Sinai, who has visited her relatives living in the Moluccas, while fully supportive of the RMS, emphasizes the need for attention to be paid to practical concerns on the islands. "It's easy for us to say that the Moluccas have to be free but we must remember about the people there trying to earn their daily bread. The simple things of daily life. The simple things need to be taken care of before we can go forward." Those simple things include "infrastructure, building, bridges, water, pipes. They need water. The very practical things have to be [taken care of]. It's difficult to talk politics when the practical things are not there."
Fifty years after the arrival of 12,500 Moluccans 'temporarily' brought to the Netherlands, the Dutch Moluccan community appears to be in Holland for good. Their task in the coming century will be that of balancing the rich cultural heritage and history of their forefathers with the demands of life in the complex, multi-ethnic, westernized world that is the Netherlands today, a task faced by the younger generation of all of Holland's many immigrant groups. According to Behoekoe, Moluccans will need to "let their identity evolve in a more integrated way, to make it possible to live together with other people in Holland. That is my wish, my ideal. The Moluccan identity like we know now will not exist anymore. There will come another identity [in relation to] our roots in Moluccan history. And it's the task of our children to develop this new sense of identity."
BBC Crossing Continents, Dutch Moluccans appeal for solidarity, Thursday, 8 March, 2001.
This document: found at The Hague Legal Capital (31 January 2005) [click here or on the image]
[In Dutch] Fifty years of Moluccans in the Nederlands. A terrific overview of the circumstances leading to the radical actions of the Moluccan community in Holland.