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Landscape of the Soul – Indonesia’s Forgotten History

“By Ron Witton”

[email protected]

In the 1960’s I completed BA and MA honours degrees in Indonesian and Malayan Studies from the University of Sydney and then went on to gain a doctoral degree from Cornell University focusing on Indonesia. Since then I have taught Indonesian social sciences and have also worked as an Indonesian interpreter and translator. I have continued visiting Indonesia since my first visit in 1962 and taught for a while in post graduate social sciences at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta. With that background, I thought I had fairly good grounding in Indonesian history and society.

However, this confidence was profoundly shaken when, by chance, I was in the NSW country town of Coffs Harbour and happened to visit the town’s art gallery. There I was confronted by an exhibition entitled “Landscape of the Soul: A Mixed Media Exhibition Illustrating the Experience of European Dutch and Eurasian People in Indonesia During the Japanese Occupation, the Revolution and After”.

What I learnt was that soon after Indonesian independence was declared on 17 August 1945, there occurred the most horrific massacres of men, women and children who were of mixed Dutch and Indonesian descent, a profoundly important historical event but one that has hardly entered academic, let alone popular, historical consciousness. Since then, I have begun reading about what happened in that period. I have come to realise that the main reason I was unaware of those events is that it is only in the in the last ten years that academic scholarship has begun to examine those events and their significance. At the end of this article, I have listed some of the materials that have helped me begin to understand what moved Frances Larder to create the wall hangings that artistically re-create this forgotten period of Indonesian history.

In my readings about this period I was soon introduced to two terms: Binnenkampers and BuitenkampersBinnenkampers ( refers to the over 100,000 Dutch nationals who were held from 1942 to 1945 in Japanese internment camps while Buitenkampers (i.e. out of-campers) refers to the over 250,000 Dutch nationals who remained outside the camps for the duration of the war. The majority of this latter group were those of mixed Indonesian and European descent (“Eurasians”). It should also be remembered that among the Eurasians there was a comparatively small number who were of mixed Chinese-European descent.

Dutch colonial law provided for the Dutch citizenship of the father to be passed on to children of mixed Eurasian parenthood, and so the majority of Eurasians were considered to be Dutch nationals. Before the war, while there was very little racial strife, the “Indos”, the somewhat derogatory term used to refer to Eurasians, had a sharply demarcated social position within the colonial society of the Dutch East Indies. Having often had more schooling than native Indonesians and being fluent in Dutch, they generally had relatively good employment prospects compared to most Indonesians. However, they were generally restricted to inferior or limited positions such as clerks, petty officials and NCOs. Nevertheless, they generally felt themselves to be part of Dutch society, albeit colonial society, and had a high level of loyalty to the Netherlands.

Ironically, some Eurasians had in fact been party to a very early nationalist attempt in 1911 to form a political party to promote an independent country free from Holland. However, the Dutch government refused to recognise the party and exiled its leaders. As Indonesian nationalism grew in the 1920s and 1930s, Eurasians increasingly saw their fortunes linked to the colonial order.

This then is the background to the events immediately following the declaration of Indonesian independence when there occurred what has been described as a “brief genocide”. The Japanese had trained many young Indonesians in martial arts and had instilled in them the idea that the “enemy” were the Americans, the English and the Dutch. With the surrender of the Japanese and the immediate declaration of Indonesia’s independence by Sukarno and Hatta, the prospect of the re-establishment of Dutch rule resulted in an intense level of paranoia of the Dutch and anyone who supported the Dutch, whether that was the British troops who landed and were ordered to restore Dutch rule or local Dutch nationals who were often characterised as spies and supporters of NICA, the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration.

Ironically the Dutch who were in internment camps were to a certain extent protected from such attacks, particularly as they could return to such camps which provided them with a level of protection. However, many, many thousands of Eurasians had no protection at all and were brutally massacred by rampaging Indonesians who saw this as a way of expressing their support for Independence. It is significant that as a student of Indonesian history I was taught about Dutch soldiers such as Raymond “Turk” Westerling who massacred many thousands of Indonesian civilians in support of Dutch counter-insurgency efforts against the Indonesian nationalist movement. However, we were never taught the names of Indonesians, such as Sabarudin, who helped coordinate and carry out the massacre of Eurasian men, women and children. While there has been some attention paid to the atrocities carried out in such locations as the Simpang Club in Surabaya, there are many sites of massacres that have been lost to the historical record. The parallel with the little known locations of many of the 1965 massacres that occurred throughout Indonesia need hardly be stressed.

It is clear that only in the last 10 years has there begun to be a body of scholarship examining this period of Indonesian history and Frances Larder’s exhibition helps one to begin to comprehend the historical trajectory of events before, during and after the Japanese occupation. Of particular concern has been the effect that those horrific events had on the children of Eurasians in that period, and indeed Frances Larder was a child during that period. Such children are now quite elderly but remain the only eyewitnesses. Their vivid recollections of that terrifying period and the effect it had on their lives is what makes the Dutch documentary (with English subtitles) Buitenkampers , so heartbreakingly moving.

Frances Larder’s exhibition, through her wonderful wall hangings, supplemented by historical mixed media materials, records Eurasian colonial life, the privations of the Japanese occupation, the killings following the Japanese surrender, the exodus of some 100,000 Eurasians to Indonesia after independence, their alienation and isolation in Holland, and the subsequent migration of some of them to Australia.

I am pleased that the Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre was the second gallery to host her exhibition, and that an exhibition in Melbourne is already being planned. This is an exhibition that deserves to travel from gallery to gallery across Australia to help further Australia’s understanding of both the diverse heritages that migrants have brought here and the particular experience of Australia’s Indo-Eurasian citizens.


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  1. 09/Nov2019 English articles on this topic is so useful and Ron Witton’s article was very welcome. A lot of articles are in Dutch and because I don’t speak the language it’s been difficult to develop background knowledge in my quest to help an 80 year man (now living in Australia) of mixed Dutch, Indonesian and possibly Chinese heritage and who was aged 3 years living in Poerworedjo Midden-Java when the war started. As he no longer has living relatives, he has no way of ‘proving’ to Dutch authorities whether he was a Binnenkamper during the Japanese occupation or then whether he ever stayed in a bersiapkamp. Unfortunately the authorities thus far seem to disbelieve any of the memories of his experiences.

    Can you tell me what records form the basis of the figures of an estimated ‘220,000 of Europeans who were not interned’. Am I correct in assuming that this figure includes Dutch ‘citizens’ with mixed heritage ie Eurasians.
    [I have asked the Netherlands Red Cross in their new Nationaal Archief location to search for him and his ‘Oma’ to no avail.]
    I would be most appreciative if you have any details for other English language, academic based documents that might even touch on the difficulties of life outside the internment camps for people with Dutch connection whether by marriage, birth, or through occupation? Many thanks!


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