BersiapFeaturedNewsRijksmuseum Exhibit Revolusi - Bersiap

The Back Story

In light of the upcoming REVOLUSI exhibit at the Rijksmuseum which deals with the independence struggle of Indonesia, one of the Indonesian curators, Bonnie Triyana, publicly announced that the word “bersiap” should be (and was going to be) omitted from the exhibit. He argued that the term, when used by Dutch people, is racist in nature since it stereotypes the freedom fighters and their cause in a primitive way. After a public furor, the Rijksmuseum has backtracked and is now allowing the word bersiap to be included in the upcoming REVOLUSI exhibit. Because The Indo Project recognizes the importance in stating facts and educating others on the core issues whenever they relate to an attempt of historical revisionism of Indo history, we want to keep you updated on this controversy and any possible new developments.  

The Context

At The Indo Project we recognize and respect the Rijksmuseum’s initiative to organize an exhibit on the Indonesian independence struggle. The Indonesian Revolution was an important statement and start of the Indonesian independence struggle which led to Indonesia’s autonomy after the Dutch, mistakenly, thought they could take back the colony after Japan’s surrender in 1945. Indonesia would not gain independence, as recognized by the Dutch government, until 1949 after the failed police actions of Dutch troops and a bitterly fought guerrilla war.

There are very few revolutions in history that are bloodless. The Indonesian revolution is no exception. It coincided with extremist violence in which the Dutch, Indos and anyone who was associated with the Dutch regime was targeted, harassed, tortured, maimed and killed. 

Thousands of civilians, some of whom had just left the grueling Japanese internment camps, fell into the hands of bloodthirsty freedom fighters, who may have fought for freedom but did so in ways that grossly violated the Geneva Convention. The American historian William Frederick who is one of the world’s foremost experts on this period has called it a form of genocide as people were singled out because they were Dutch or associated with the colonial regime. This period of excessive violence is known and described by many historians as the bersiap, an Indonesian word that the fighters used themselves, and was, as such, a battle cry for standing ready and being prepared.

For years, the topic of the bersiap has been a touchy subject among Dutch historians. To go there would be to open a can of worms, for if the Dutch were to raise the topic of Dutch people being killed by Indonesians, the Indonesians could demand justice for the many Indonesian victims that were killed or worked under slave labor conditions during Dutch colonial rule. 

As a result, the victims of the bersiap were written off as the kind of collateral damage that simply happens during these conflicts. Even in the Netherlands, a country that prides itself on freedom of expression and human rights, historians self-censored to avoid giving this period of lawless violence and killings too much attention. Maybe it is for this reason also that the Rijksmuseum signed off on not using the word bersiap at first, because after years of silencing this topic it becomes very easy to leave it out and, as a result, forget about it altogether. What we don’t realize is that, in the process, the truth gets censored and history, historical facts get compromised.

Our Stance

As an international organization with supporters whose family members have been killed during the bersiap, we feel that taking out the word bersiap may have been another attempt to silence and negate the death and suffering of the victims. If the word is objectionable to Indonesians, why could the curators not have come up with another word or term to acknowledge the suffering and deaths of the victims during this period of the Revolusi? We want to emphasize that we do not get hysterical about the mere use of a word, but we are extremely saddened and concerned that omitting this particular word might have been a symbolical and political act of omitting and trivializing the senseless suffering of the victims as well.

A good historian documents ALL the facts, and writes about the historical forces of good and evil, without being concerned about diplomacy between countries. A historian who is selective with the facts or certain words does not write history but engages in censorship and historical revisionism. Every nation has its skeletons buried in the closets of our ancestors’ lives. A historian’s obligation is to open those closets with the cold eye of objectivity. We are aware that a full opening of the colonial closets is an impossible task for some Dutch historians. After all, the hand that feeds them through national subsidies and grants, is a Dutch government that doesn’t want to rock the boat with Indonesia. 

In this context, The Indo Project feels that some sort of truth commission between Indonesia and the Netherlands is long overdue. We need to start a dialogue and an independent fact finding mission (and not something like the recently executed Dekolonisatieonderzoek, which just covers the decolonization as seen by Dutch and Indonesian historians, but which is subsidized, once again, by the Dutch government). The Indo Project would rather like to see a comprehensive record by an international council of scholars and experts in which the entire colonial period is discussed and assessed from the day the first Dutchman set foot in Indonesia. Some form of transitional justice (for both sides) in an international court setting could also bring closure on our colonial and postcolonial history, which is still an open and festering wound for most victims and their families worldwide. If these historical injustices do not get addressed, we cannot move on and heal as victims from our shared past. 

Where to Go from Here

This story is not over. After the general uproar and complaints in the Netherlands, Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbits may have done his own form of damage control in public statements, but will this be enough? We do not know what the angle of the exhibit will be. Likewise, we don’t know the findings and narratives of the Dekolonisatieonderzoek, which won’t become public until February of 2022. Because many of our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents engaged in the so-called ‘Indies silence’ (het Indische zwijgen) due to the trauma they endured, their silence may have been interpreted as a carte blanche to rewrite this history in a way that is less nuanced and/or more biased. As a watchdog of our shared history The Indo Project will continue to follow these developments and inform you when necessary.

We Need your Help

Besides following us and our content, we ask you to donate and volunteer for The Indo Project. Also, to break our long-lasting silence, we encourage you to speak up, but be respectful and civil to others in your dialogues and protests. Above all: Don’t let them mistake your silence for acquiescence. The time has come to stand with our oma’s and opa’s. Their silence can’t be ours when the legacy of their suffering and trauma is at stake.

Inez Hollander, Ph.D., Author of Silenced Voices: Uncovering a Family’s Colonial History in Indonesia (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008)

TIP Director Emeritus

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  1. “History is only written by the victors,” said Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Do not let historical facts be rewritten just because the Main actors have the power to clean their hands.

    These facts and traces must remain and be reported, not as part of an attempt to take revenge, but as a record for the future successors of Indonesia.

    So that they no longer use violence to gain power.

    Thanks very much to Drs. Inez Hollander and others, for defending the millions of people who were victims of Indonesian Genocides, and as a result now live dispersed over the World or worse are still being silenced in Indonesia.

    Let the Truth prevail.
    Make an end to Indonesian Nationalist propaganda and victim silencing/stigmatization.


  2. Dear Dr Inez Hollander, thank you for your important words of wisdom. Base in Australia, I have also been following the controversy in the Netherlands during the past several years with interest. What I find most concerning, though not entirely surprising, is the public absence of organized Indo community in Indonesia itself. When returning to Indonesia, I spoke with young Indo people there and encourage them to start making small steps towards of a pubic recognition and celebration of past Indo cultures for public enlightenment. But I have not succeeded.

    Kompas (Indonesia’s largest daily) invites me to write monthly on anything of public interest for their page. From time to time I write on Indo. In one column (link below), I pointed to the fact that fellow minorities of other ethnic descents (Chinese, Arabs, Indian) have public presence in Indonesia, and beyond. Likewise the Indo communities in America, Europe and Australia. But none in Indonesia. So sad. I hope things will change for the better.

  3. Hey y’all,

    Grew up in Bandoeng op de Jalan Tjihampelas 103. Hitched a ride on Johan van Oldenbarneveld from Jakarta when I just turned 8 years old in 1956. After four years in Enschede, family hitched another ride via SS America. Just joined TIP en finally learning from others. Love your stories. Terimah kasih banjak to all who shared.

  4. quote: ” Bonnie Triyana, publicly announced that the word “bersiap” should be (and was going to be) omitted from the exhibit.”

    The director Taco Dibbets said the word bersiap wasnt banned. It is used at the exposition.
    They cant changed in 3 days the setting. So, I assume the word was already present before december last year in the planning.
    I suppose Triyana refered to not using the word bersiap as synonym for the end of 1945, begin of the indonesian revolution.

    Boeroeng Biroe, moderator indisch4ever-websites

    • Someone I know who went to the exhibit could not see the word Bersiap used, nor could it be found in the exhibit catalog. This, even though the Museum Director said the word would be used – after the uprising of outrage from Indischen.

  5. Thanks for this. This cancel culture is so depressing.

    Times has an article also, if you can get behind the paywall

    Maybe if the Indo Project stopped referring to the victims of these atrocities as Dutch or Dutch-Indo and recognised they were victims with roots outside the Netherlands there would be more interest internationally

    • Dear Ally,

      Thank you for taking the time to provide your support and opinion of this article. The suggestion in your last sentence we will seriously consider in the future as The Indo Project has always tried to be inclusive rather than exclusive. We will try to do so without diluting the core mission of the organization. Thank you again for responding. It is a sign of your genuine interest in and knowledge of this subject.

    • Thank you Ally, I agree with your point of naming all the victims. As you know, Indies society was an extremely multicultural society: besides Indonesians, Indos and Dutch people, there were many other Europeans, Chinese people, Arabs and others. To name and include them all would take a long list, but in the article, I referred to them also as the people who were associated with the Dutch regime. In effect, this also meant that very few distinctions were made and that ‘simply’ lots of non-Indonesians were targeted as well. Of these groups, the Chinese is probably the largest (and most under-researched) group that also suffered from these attacks.

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