In 2012, U.S. historian William H. Frederick sparked a fierce controversy about a horrible if largely forgotten episode in Asian history, the so-called Bersiap movement of the 1940’s. The affair demands our attention for what it suggests about the politics of memory, and how we value human lives. It also reminds us of the quite vast areas of modern history that remain wholly unfamiliar.
The incidents in question occurred in the former Dutch East Indies, later the nation of Indonesia. The Dutch had dominated this territory since the 17th century, making it perhaps the most celebrated example of European imperialism after British India. Unlike the British, though, the Dutch did not succeed in making a relatively bloodless exit from their Asian possessions.
When the Japanese invaded in 1941, they interned Dutch civilians and coerced European women into prostitution. They also targeted mixed-race Eurasians, the Indos. Far from ending with the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Dutch agony actually grew still worse as much of the country fell under the sway of radical nationalists. Besides a reasonably organized nationalist government and army, there were also legions of irregulars and youth militias, called the Pemuda. Meanwhile, other military forces were in play. The Dutch attempted to restore their rule, fighting a savage colonial war that lasted until 1949. Into this cauldron then came the dominant regional power, namely the British Empire, which wanted to supervise a peaceful transition from Japanese occupation.
From mid-1945, as Dutch and Indo civilians began to be released from the prison camps, they faced brutal persecution—massacres, rapes, torture, and mutilations at the hands of Pemuda groups. Militias organized under the dreaded slogan Siap! (Get ready!), which became a signal for slaughter regardless of the age or sex of the victims. This was explicitly a race war, directed against whites and Indos, as well as other groups the rebels regarded as supportive of Dutch authority—the Ambonese, native Christians, and also the Chinese. In the worst of the Bersiap pogroms, in late 1945, at least 30,000 people were murdered. Other Bersiap outbreaks would recur later in the decade, but 1945 was by far the bloodiest period.
Bersiap escalated into a full-scale international war, as the British tried desperately to protect civilians. To do so, they even enlisted the support of surrendered Japanese units, who were now rearmed to protect their former prisoners—and they did so faithfully. The extreme nationalists responded by attacking British soldiers, a stupid move given that these were mainly Indian units of the Fourteenth Army, which at the time had some claim to rank as the toughest and most professional armed force on the planet. In November 1945, the British and their allies fought an apocalyptic battle against the rebels in the city of Surabaya. It was one of the most significant struggles in late imperial history, and one that remains quite unknown to most non-specialists. Although the British conquered the city, they had no desire to restore Dutch colonial rule, which duly ended in 1949. Indonesia was born.
So how are these events remembered today? For Indonesians, the revolution of the 1940’s remains an heroic time, and the battle of Surabaya is especially treasured and idealized. Sutomo, the thoroughly evil terrorist leader, is a national hero. The Dutch government, meanwhile, has painful memories of its army’s role in the guerrilla war, and it has apologized for massacres undertaken against nationalist villages, paying compensation to survivors.
But what about the Bersiap, and its victims? For many years, they remained forgotten outside the families affected, and as the story was never told in the English-speaking world, it made no impact in film or fiction. Postcolonial guilt made the Dutch themselves fearful of being accused of racist and imperialist arrogance. How could anyone criticize the righteous anger of an oppressed colonial people rising in arms? Far better just to forget the whole affair.
That is where the situation remained until 2012, when William Frederick published a sober and well-documented account in the Journal of Genocide Research. Frederick presented the Bersiap murders frankly as a “brief genocide”—not, perhaps, genocide in a scientific or legal sense, but certainly “in a generic, common-sense fashion.” Surely, he said, a matter of that importance deserved further research.
That opinion sparked intense debate, but Frederick’s basic point remains unassailable, and it is now firmly part of serious public discourse in the Netherlands. Of course Bersiap was genocide, and yes, that term can properly be applied to acts by revolutionaries and anti-imperialists. And equally, the crimes must not be forgotten. The former colonies need their own process of truth and reconciliation, no less than the colonizers.
[Slideshow image credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0]]