Statues topple as national identity and global values change. Part III: Statues in Indonesia

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Van Heutsz monument in Batavia in 1932 at the unveiling of the statue. (Photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, Cc By-Sa 3.0)

IO –  With regard to Indonesia statues have already been protested and toppled since before independence. General Van Heutsz was a Dutch general famous for bringing an end to the Aceh War which lasted nearly 40 years. He was known as the Pacifier of Aceh and later he became governor general of the Netherlands East Indies. In 1932 a statue was erected for him on the Van Heutsz Boulevard (now Jalan Teuku Umar) in front of the architectural firm De Bouwploeg (now the Cut Meutia Mosque). 

Detail of Van Heutsz monument in Batavia. (Photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, Cc By-Sa 3.0)

At around the same time in the Netherlands a monument was also raised to Van Heutsz accompanied by fierce protests because people were already aware of Van Heutsz’s ruthless decades-long counter-guerilla war which caused tens of thousands of Acehnese casualties as well as various massacres in other parts of Indonesia (including Bali and Lombok) as a consequence of his slogan of “complete surrender or complete death”. In 1935 the night after the Van Heutsz monument was unveiled in the Netherlands it was daubed with red paint and afterwards was frequently the target of protests, attempts at destruction and requests to have it removed. It was twice the target of bombs. Frits van Hall, the architect of the monument was aware of the controversy surrounding it. He therefore created a monument that depicted life in the Indian archipelago, with a large and proud female figure in the center. He added only a small portrait of Van Heutsz, in the form of a medallion on the pedestal. He said later, “If it ever comes to this, you may remove that portrait. Replace it with the words ‘Freedom’, ‘Merdeka’ or ‘Indonesia’, and you have a statue of liberty.” 

Later in 2004 the monument was changed into the Monument Indië-Nederland dedicated to the relationship between Holland and the Netherlands Indies during the colonial era and now there is talk again of removing it altogether. 

The Van Heutsz monument in Indonesia survived the Japanese Occupation. When we think of the struggle for Indonesian independence one of the most familiar scenes of that period is the Van Heutsz monument plastered with posters demanding independence and the words, “Indonesia, never again the blood line of a nation”. The statue which from an artistic standpoint alone was a magnificent work of art in the Art Deco style by Dudok and Van den Eijnde that had been beautifully executed by Indonesian craftsmen. In 1953, after independence it was torn down to the cheers of the pemudas or young freedom fighters. Beside the figure of Van Heutsz the monument had beautifully sculpted figures of Indonesians along the sides of an enormous elephant. At the time a few remnants of the statue were salvaged and brought to the United Kingdom by a Dutch couple and these have since found their way to Museum Bronbeek in the Netherlands. 

The statue of Mercury in the courtyard of the History of Jakarta Museum 20011. (Photo: Arabsalam – Own Work, Cc By-Sa 4.0)

Most of the statues from the colonial period in Indonesia were removed either during the Japanese Occupation or after independence. One that has survived in Jakarta is the statue of Mercury (or the Greek god Hermes) that not only survived the War and the revolution but also independence. It rests on the side of the Harmoni Bridge near the presidential palace. One of the things that the god Mercury represents is trade and Batavia was a city built by merchants for only one thing profit through trade and shipping monopolies. It most likely survived because the statue is relatively small in size and was simply considered a decorative ornament. In the late 1990s someone tried to mutilate the statue by hitting it with some hard object. The city of Jakarta had a replica made by the Jogjakarta artist, Arsono, and placed the original statue in the History of Jakarta Museum for safekeeping. 

In the Banda Islands in the Moluccas stands a 19th century bronze bust of King Willem III of the Netherlands (1849-1890) stands in a garden of the former governor’s mansion on the island of Neira. The statue was erected by the Dutch and Eurasian perkeniers or nutmeg planters on Banda probably because it was during his reign in 1870 that the forced cultivation system and government monopolies came to an end allowing the planters direct market excess and great prosperity. Just before the Japanese invasion the statue was buried by the Dutch and later after independence Des Alwi, the last orang kaya of Banda had Willem III’s bust dug up again for the sake of tourism and history in Banda. 

With reference to the Banda Islands the most important statue toppled in Batavia was that of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. He was the so called “founder of Batavia” who has gone down in history as responsible for the notorious massacre of the inhabitants of the Banda Islands. Coen’s statue was located in front of Daendels palace in front of what is now Lapangan Banteng. In 1943 during the Japanese Occupation the statue of Coen was torn down. In the newsreel covering the toppling of Coen’s statue it was said that although the statue is a symbol of prosperity for the Netherlands, for Indonesians it is a symbol of enslavement. Never again would Indonesians be slaves to the prosperity of another nation. 

The statue of Jan Pietersz Coen at Waterloo Square in Batavia. It was removed during the Japanese Occupation in 1943. For Indonesians it symbolized their enslavement under the Dutch empire. (Photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, Cc By-Sa 3.0)

Prof Remco Raben who lectures in colonial history, culture and literature at Utrecht University and the University of Amsterdam says about the about the Black Lives Matter movement that has sprung up alongside the toppling of statues in the Netherlands, “For me, it is a very liberating movement, as these people, often from non-European backgrounds but – although not all – are holding a mirror up to European or Western societies, saying: you who have propagated equality and democracy for so long, why don’t you start to live up to your claim? Why do you allow people to be second-rate citizens? They are in a way trying to perfect the promises of equality that have been put off by the hypocritical governments that created and condoned colonialism abroad and later allowed racism in their own societies. My heart lays with these activists and I learn a lot from them.” 

In Hoorn, the birth place of Jan Pieterszoon Coen in the Netherlands Coen’s statue still stands despite years of debate and protests. The subject of what to do with Coen’s statue has come up again as the BLM movement has again ignited protest of Coen’s statue. Last week a seminar was held at Pattimura University in Ambon to participate in addressing the fate of Coen’s statue. One of the things of interest in the seminar was the suggestion by members of the audience that there is a similarity in George Floyd’s final plea for life, “I can’t breath,” and Callenbakker, one of the 40 orang kaya or chieftain of Banda’s plea for life before Coen had them all quartered and beheaded, “Gentlemen, have you no pity, then?” 

Both events in a sense tell the story of the horrendous consequences of a lack of human compassion and a suggestion was made to keep the Coen’s statue but to tell the story of the Banda massacre as well as that of George Floyd’s death and their pleas for compassion and have these placed on the statue and thereby turn Coen’s statue into a monument to the importance of compassion. Never again such a lack of human compassion! 

If the statue could be transformed in such a manner then in a sense the story of Coen would have been continued in the 21st century and turned into a story about healing. Prof Fridus Steijlen who is a professor in cultural anthropology at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam commented that this was a very interesting idea but that it would require an extremely careful and sensitive undertaking to transform Coen’s statue in such a way. As the city of Hoorn will be holding discussions with the public about the fate of Coen’s statue perhaps this suggestion from Indonesia might be taken into consideration. 

And what about the BLM movement in Indonesia? It cannot be denied that in Indonesia there is discrimination against Melanesians in particular Papuans. Viktor Mambor is Papua’s foremost journalist and one of the founders of the Melanesia Media Freedom Forum. His father was a Papuan whereas his mother was from Palembang. He says, “I believe that we very much need a BLM movement in Indonesia and Papuan students together with students from other parts of Indonesia including Universitas Indonesia, Universitas Gajah Mada, Pajajaran University, Universitas Airlangga as well as universities in Kalimantan, Ambon. Ternate and Surabaya have joined together to create a Papuan Lives Matter movement.” 

Jhoe Andre’s family has lived 7 generations in Papua. His ancestor an Ambonese arrived with the KNIL (Dutch colonial army) in 1902 whereas his mother is Papuan. He himself was born and raised in Papua and he says that there is still a lot of discrimination against Papuans. Much of it is cultural. Many non-Melanesians look down upon Papuans. He comments, “Papuans are frequently told that they are monkeys, blackies and that they have bad body odor but it’s not only that. In Miranda Joseph’s book Debt to Society he explains how there is systematic racism in the amount of interest that differs in loans to Papuans and non-Papuans. Meanwhile, the most recent case of discrimination was the Surabaya incident last year where a number of Papuan students were shouted at by the security forces and members of the Surabaya public calling them monkeys and a host of other insulting names. The incident set off a series of demonstrations, rioting and burning in Fak-Fak, Manokwari, Jayapura, Sorong and Waimena. It was only after government and security forces officials came down to negotiate and speak with the students and demonstrators and explain that those responsible during the Surabaya incident would be dealt with in accordance with the law that the situation quietened down.” 

Viktor Mambor agrees citing the way he is not given the same information by government and security officials as non-Papuan journalists. “In a plane if a Papuan child cries her mother will get a scolding from the non-Melanesian stewardess instead of help as with non-Papuan mothers.” 

They both agree that the government needs to fight such discrimination with education programs for school children as well as for government officials and the security forces. The government must also be prepared to apply legal sanctions against those acting in a discriminatory way. 

Viktor Mambor further explains that for Papuans this is an important year as Papua’s 20 year special autonomy status comes to an end and parliament must debate what steps are to be taken. Should the special autonomy status be renewed or a new arrangement be created? Some are even asking for a referendum. Viktor Mambor explains that after the Soeharto government fell 100 Papuans met with President Habibie and asked for independence. Habibie offered them instead special autonomy status for 20 years during which time Indonesia would have the opportunity to try to build a feeling of Indonesian nationalism in Papua. Papuans created a special autonomy law bill which was then sent to Jakarta where many amendments were made. The special Autonomy Law was then created and it included a special fund (Otsus Fund) to be used exclusively for native Papuans which is 2% of the general budget allocated. It is to protect and empower native Papuans and their culture. 

There are voices calling for an end to the Otsus Funds as well as the Special Autonomy Law but Viktor Mambor is of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with the funds themselves. “It is not the funds or the law that is wrong but the enforcement of the law. If there is misuse of the funds for example then there should be investigations by the police and the public prosecutor’s office. Too many people have impunity against the law. If the government of Indonesia wants to win the hearts of the Papuans they need to show that Papuans are equal before the law and provide them with legal protection and justice. Take the Surabaya case last year. Those calling the Papuan students abusive names received 7 months prison sentences. Later there were demonstrations against discrimination by Papuan students in Jayapura and the public prosecutor demanded 17 years imprisonment for the students. They received 10 months imprisonment for demonstrating which is supposed to be their legal right!” 

West Irian Liberation monument erected by Sukarno in 1963 after Indonesia received West New Guinea from the Netherlands. The sculptor was Edhi Sunarso.(Photo: Davidelit – Own Work, Public Domain)

What about statues such as the West Irian Liberation Monument in Jakarta? Both Viktor Mambor and Jhoe Andre see the statue as not representing Papua or the Papuan people and that includes other such monuments in Papua like the Jos Soedarso statue, the Military Landing in Papua monument and the Martin Indey statue. 

Jhoe Andre remarks, “All these statues should be discussed in a comprehensive way. They now simply symbolize the superiority of Indonesia. If Indonesia was so great in freeing Papua from the Dutch sacrificing life and property to do so then they should also be prepared to fight for the people of Papua in the same way. Why do Papuans to this day feel that they are treated differently and that they are not really a part of the unitary state of Indonesia? There has been no sincerity in developing Papua and its people. Twenty years of special autonomy has not brought welfare and prosperity to Papuans…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)