Blog: After Jokowi’s visit: Indonesia and the Netherlands back on track

At the end of his brief European tour (Germany, Belgium, the UK), President Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) last Friday paid a one day visit to the Netherlands. He had breakfast with the prime minister, and visited a large scale extension project of the Rotterdam harbour after which he attended a business seminar in order to mobilise investments to create a maritime highway from west to east Indonesia. After a brief courtesy call to the Dutch king and queen, the visit was over. There had been no disturbances and that in itself was perhaps the biggest success of the whole visit. Finally the trauma of president Yudhoyono’s failed visit to the Netherlands in 2010 was healed. Previously Yudhoyono had decided to cancel the visit to the Netherlands despite his presidential plane being ready for take-off and part of his staff having already landed. Moluccan activists in the Netherlands had sued him for violating human rights and he really feared an arrest upon arrival in Amsterdam. Jokowi claims that he has something else to offer the Moluccas: better access to the Indonesian economy.

Meanwhile Dutch media focused almost exclusively on human rights issues – local activists from the Moluccas and Papua raised their somewhat folkloristic demands for independence – while the killings of 1965 and the recent public razzias against LGBTs (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders) were foregrounded as well. In Indonesia many people are disappointed by ‘Jokowi’ because of his low profile in human rights issues. Apparently he does not have a strong and reliable political constituency to act firmly on this. Within his own party, former president Megawati is still reluctant to give him full support while he has experienced outright obstruction by the police. But, when Jokowi visited Europe, for the first time a government sponsored meeting was held in Jakarta where victims of the atrocities of 1965 could tell their story.

Few people seemed to be interested in Jokowi’s no-nonsense mission to improve the fragile infrastructure and muddy governance of Indonesia for the benefit of millions of ordinary Indonesians. Much of Jokowi’s hard work to improve this is hardly visible, while his successor will probably claim the successes when the results become visible. So, despite underperformance in human rights issues he still deserves support.

At the very last moment, and thanks to a strong lobby of its old boys network and friends in Indonesia, Leiden University managed to invite Jokowi for a surprise visit to Leiden last Friday. In less than 45 minutes the president was flooded with handshakes, speeches, a speedy overview of a small exhibition of items from the university’s library collection on Indonesia. But the best thing came at the end: hundreds of selfies were taken by a cheering crowd of Indonesian MA and PhD students from Leiden University who suddenly had a relaxed and smiling president in their midst. The subtext of this short visit, which was also attended by the Dutch minister of education Bussemaker, was that Indonesia and the Netherlands take scientific cooperation seriously. This implies of course that the Dutch government should continue its financial support. For, you can’t get this sort of cooperation for free minister Bussemaker!

(Henk Schulte Nordholt is head of research at KITLV and KITLV professor of Indonesian History at Leiden University. His main fields of research include Southeast Asian history, contemporary politics in Indonesia, political violence, and the anthropology of colonialism.)

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