Blog: The Peristiwa of Rengat

This weekend Anne-Lot Hoek reports for NRC Handelsblad and Reporter Radio KRO-NCRV about the forgotten bloodbath in Rengat, Sumatra. The idea was to find out what happened. But what happened was not what struck her most.

Every year a memorial service takes place in the city of Rengat, mid-Sumatra. It takes place in honour of the ‘Peristiwa 5 January 1949’: a massacre performed by the Dutch army during the ‘Second Police Action.’ I went there to speak to witnesses and to compare written sources.

A vanished history
‘Wrong or not wrong’ was the endlessly repeated question in the public debate about Dutch military force during the Indonesian independence war. Recently the notion that violence was ‘structural’ seems to be gradually accepted in that debate. But what ‘structural’ violence looks like in practice and what the implications were, are still to be researched.

The Excessennota’ of 1969 states 80 people died during the Dutch attack in Rengat, while Indonesian estimations range between 1000 and 3000 casualties. However, for myself that was not the most interesting discovery during my travels. What puzzled me was why this history had vanished between the discourse of two nations like a sort of orphaned child that nobody wanted?

In Indonesia the bloodbath seems to be forgotten as well. Relatives are still fighting for recognition. “We were betrayed by the sultan” Ms Nini explains, whose father was executed by the Dutch. Yellow flags were posted on ‘pro-Belanda’ places where the bombs shouldn’t drop. Local spies had investigated the city for the Dutch prior to the attack. People categorize the Ambones soldiers as ‘cruel’. Just recently officials tried to ‘erase’ the history by lobbying to declare the 5th of January as a festive “birthday for the city”. The mayor and outraged relatives of victims blocked this attempt. It’s pivotal for the impact of collaboration that still divides Rengat society today. Indonesia wanted to be a unity after the war; hence stories about division were not welcomed.

Here, the bloodbath of Rengat seemed to have been a harsh blow, followed by a complete and utter silence. Although Dutch politicians were aware of the impact of the ‘peristiwa’ – Lovink, the High Commissioner of the Dutch Crown categorized it to the Minister of Overseas Territories as ‘gruesome’ – they kept quiet. Neither scientists nor journalists performed research later on. The question of ‘what happened’ was not politically feasible and fairly categorized as scientifically uninteresting. But not searching for the answers is morally unacceptable.

Maybe what struck me the most was the disregard for these moral implications. I stood by the grave of Wasmad Rads, eyes witness of the tragedy and tortured by the Dutch later on. He passed away in 2014. Neither the Dutch, nor his own government had given him recognition. According to his son Panca, he longed for some sort of closure. Call it historical justice, whatever. Just to say, this is what actually happened to me.

It’s great that we are finally doing research, and we have to do much more. But the moral implications of our actions are being denied if along the way we fail to show a genuine interest in the experiences of those who lived through the history. Dealing with facts of war is undeniably dealing with people. More focus on oral history is a good step. As is taking the local perspectives as a starting point for new research.

(Anne-Lot Hoek is a visiting research fellow at KITLV and freelance (research) journalist who is writing a book about the Indonesian independence struggle on Bali.  She focuses on the violence during this conflict, seen from personal perspectives on both sides and placed within the regional, political context.)

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