Dutch-Indonesian Wars

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Dutch-Indonesian Wars

By the spring of 1947 serious concern existed among the Dutch and the Netherlands East Indies administration over whether the Indonesian government would fully implement the Linggajati agreement of March 1947, which had ceded authority over parts of Indonesia to a Republican government—but with the understanding that Dutch commercial interests would not be harmed, and that the Republic would remain part of a loose federation under Dutch control. Black marketeering thrived, particularly the Republican rubber trade with Singapore. Anti-Dutch resistance movements were in charge of commercial crop plantations in Sumatra and Java, the prime foreign currency source. These loosely organized groups had their own agendas, often conflicting with policies of the central Republican government. As far as the Dutch were concerned, the Republic had shown itself to be incapable of controlling these resistance movements. The Dutch minister of finance expressed his fears about the deteriorating foreign currency situation of the colony, predicting bankruptcy. For the Dutch, taking quick and firm control over the plantations was considered imperative for financial and economic survival.

The Dutch planters lobby suggested military intervention, a plan welcomed by the commander of the Dutch army in the Netherlands East Indies, General H. Spoor, who predicted a military success. Other considerations also pointed toward a military option. A large number of Dutch troops (around 100,000 men) had been built up in Indonesia since 1946 without ever being deployed, as the Dutch government and army staff had found it politically difficult to decommission them. Apart from the opposition of the Dutch Communist Party, parliamentary consensus existed in the Netherlands about the necessity for military action against the Republic. A point of no return had been reached.

The Dutch ultimatum to the Republican government—which called on it to stop hostilities, to respect foreign property, and to lift a food boycott in Dutch-controlled areas—expired on July 16, 1947. On July 21, 1947, a military assault was launched under the code name Product, a designation indicating the assault's main objective of securing the commercial plantations and stocks (rubber, coffee, tea, etc.) on Java and Sumatra. For external political consumption the military assault was labeled a police action, a misleading term suggesting restricted violence and a limited scope of operation. Operations were conducted on land and from the sea, with an emphasis on East Java. Dutch marines were assigned an important role in securing economic objectives, such as plantations, and made responsible for what was generally labeled "cleansing" the area of "rebel elements." The irregular resistance movements and the still weakly organized Indonesian armed forces were taken by surprise. Armed resistance was low, and Indonesian army units were geographically dispersed or literally decimated. Seventy-six Dutch soldiers died in action, while Indonesian casualties are believed to have been much higher, though figures are impossible to verify. After the First Police Action (as the Dutch assault has come to be called), 70 percent of total rubber plantation acreage in Java and around 60 percent in Sumatra came under Dutch military control.

This military intervention created a backlash in various ways, however. While the Dutch army staff claimed military success, events soon proved them wrong. Within weeks large parts of Java's countryside were again considered unsafe for colonial administrators and those supporting them. Indonesian armed resistance actually heightened in the aftermath of the operation. The First Police Action forced the Indonesian armed forces into what proved to be a successful military strategy: guerrilla warfare.

Faith in a Dutch solution among politically moderate Indonesians broke down after the First Police Action. Leading Indonesians who had formerly supported the creation of a federal state now flocked to the Republican side, eroding further Dutch-backed political initiatives. Ten days after the launching of the operation, India and Australia called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to stop the Dutch violence.

Between April and June of 1948 the United Nations again urged the Dutch government to negotiate with the Republic to halt violations of the ceasefire truce by both sides, and to settle disputes over plantations and commercial crop stocks in custody of Republican and irregular resistance movements. A stalemate resulted, paving the way for a second Dutch military intervention, known as the Second Police Action, which was launched on December 19, 1948, and lasted until January 15, 1949.

The main objective of this military operation was to liquidate the Republic. The Republican leaders were arrested, and the city of Yogyakarta, the geographic heart and the symbol of the Republic, was occupied by Dutch troops. The number of plantations under Dutch military control was increased, particularly in Central and East Java. Dutch military observers estimated the number of Indonesian soldiers killed at 4,389, but this might be a low guess. Around 100 Dutch soldiers died. The number of civilian casualties and refugees, particularly among the Indonesian rural population, remains unknown altogether—not to mention the material damage inflicted by both armies to towns and villages in rural Java and Sumatra. Despite the apparent Dutch military success, Indonesian political and armed resistance proved by no means broken. Belying General Spoor's assertion that the elimination of the central government in Yogyakarta would leave the Indonesian army without direction, individual units remained operational. The Indonesians were prepared this time and were able to strike back successfully on occasion, applying scorched-earth tactics. Plantations, oil fields, and vital infrastructure such as roads and bridges were destroyed. Complete Dutch control over plantations in East Java was never achieved. The Second Police Action further boomeranged on another level. Due to the limited effectiveness of both police actions, Dutch planters began to lose faith in the Dutch East Indies federal government and in the Dutch army, coming instead to believe that business had to be conducted with the Republic to safeguard their interests.

Like the First Police Action, the Second Police Action became an international political issue. The U.N. Security Council demanded the release of the Republican leaders and restoration of their government. As a reward for the Republic's anticommunist position—the Indonesian government had crushed a communist uprising in Central Java in September 1948—the United States government threatened to halt its financial aid to the Dutch government, aid intended to rehabilitate the war-devastated economy of homeland and colony.

Obsessed with achieving economic recovery after World War II, yet politically paralyzed, the Dutch government gambled on a military solution in Indonesia. Yet both police actions proved counterproductive to its political objectives. The Dutch army staff underestimated the resilience of the Indonesian armed and unarmed independence movement. Violence stimulated, rather than halted, armed resistance and spurred guerrilla warfare. The two operations evoked protests from several countries in the U.N. Security Council. By the time of the Second Police Action the Dutch Government found its interests overtaken by the U.S. government's Cold War concerns. The international political tide had turned in favor of the Republic, and the Dutch hold over the colony was in collapse. The Dutch government had no other choice but to resume negotiations with the Republican government. As a result, the Van Rooijen-Rum agreement of May 1949 blocked the possibility of a third police action and paved the way for the transfer of sovereignty.

In the decades that followed Indonesian independence several Dutch veterans published their memoirs, yet overall little discussion occurred in the Netherlands about the police actions in particular or about Indonesia's decolonization in general. Considered a deeply traumatic experience, Indonesia's decolonization was a taboo subject. In the late 1960s a few Dutch military veterans testified to having witnessed or committed war crimes in Indonesia, but they were voices crying in the wilderness. Some believe that the issue was swept under the carpet. More recently, with the "colonial generation" gradually dying out, and with memories of the colonial experience fading, sufficient "distance" has been achieved to reopen the discussion of Indonesia's decolonization. Dutch academic and nonacademic interest in the colonial period in general, and in the police actions in particular, gained momentum in the 1980s. The events meanwhile live on in the collective memory of Indonesians young and old, and in Indonesian schoolbooks, such as Agressi militer Belanda (Dutch military aggression). They are remembered both for the human and material losses on the Indonesian side, and for the heroic sacrifice and resistance of those who fought for independence.

see also Indonesian Independence, Struggle for; Linggadjati Agreement.


Cribb, R. Gangsters and Revolutionaries. The Jakarta People's Militia and the Indonesian Revolution 1945–1949. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1991.

Drooglever, P. J., M. J. B. Schouten & Mona Lohanda. Guide to the Archives on Relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia 1945–1963. The Hague, The Netherlands: ING Research Guide, 1999.

Lucas, A. One Soul One Struggle. Region and Revolution in Indonesia. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1991.

Taylor, A. M. Indonesian Independence and the United Nations. London: Stevens & Sons Ltd., 1960.

Yong Mun Cheong. The Indonesian Revolution and the Singapore Connection, 1945–1949. Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV Press, 2003.

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