Unexpected Understanding

11 October 2017


For centuries, if not millennia, all the various people have been struggling to live together on this planet. Unfortunately, this has often result in violent conflicts, with different ideological, ethnic or religious groups clashing over power, resources or territory. A quick look at the news sadly reveals that this still continues today. Sometimes, one cannot help but wonder whether a peaceful world, with all the people living in harmony together, is indeed a utopia, forever beyond our reach.

At times like these, it can be surprisingly helpful to delve into the adventures of expats in the past. They moved to far-away countries, thereby often coming into contact with societies and cultures completely different from their own. As the documents of the EAC demonstrate, this can result in multicultural friendships, creating some understanding, and even appreciation, for the other. A cynical person might describe this as a drop in the ocean: touching but insignificant. While the experiences of expats alone are of course insufficient to end century-old conflicts, at the very least their stories can add nuance to some of the more pessimistic conclusions regarding both the past and the future.

While going through the materials of the EAC, a particularly interesting letter regarding this topic popped up. It is written by a Dutchman in the mid-2000s, who looks back on his stay in Indonesia fifty years earlier. Although the large time gap may have affected his recollection of his experiences, it nevertheless offers an interesting perspective on this part of our history. This is because he moved to the country during unusually hectic times. The political unrest of this period did, however, not prevent him from having (in his own words) a ‘pleasant time’ abroad.

In this specific case, it was perhaps the Dutch expat’s own past which influenced his attitude towards the Indonesians. Being in his mid-twenties when Germany invaded The Netherlands in 1940, he firsthand experienced what it was like to be occupied by a foreign power. After the war ended, he was selected for an assignment in Indonesia, to where he moved in 1948. During this period, the Indonesian War of Independence was still raging through the country, as the result of the Indonesian proclamation of independence and the subsequent attempt by the Dutch government to reclaim its former colony.

Predictably, this situation also had a great impact on this expat’s stay abroad. For example, and his coworkers nevertheless had to patrol their neighbourhood armed with rifles each night, because of the occurring violence. This was not only between the Dutch and the Indonesians, but also between Buginese and Timorese workers, whose clashes often resulted in fatalities. Fortunately, these tensions relaxed when the war ended, allowing him to stay for another ten years. His leave was, however, not on a voluntary base. It was namely the result of the policy of economic nationalism from President Sukarno, which included the nationalisation of hundreds of Dutch companies and the expulsion of thousands of Dutch citizens.

One might expect that all of this have left a negative and bitter impression of Indonesia in the mind of this expat. In fact, it is quite the contrary. In his letter, his tone is rather conciliatory, expressing understanding and sympathy for the Indonesians, and applauding the fact that the Dutch-Indonesian relations have improved since the 1950s. While he does acknowledge some anti-Dutch sentiments among the local population during this period, this has not withheld him from developing good relationships with a number of Indonesians. For example, he emphasises the pleasant cooperation with his Indonesian colleagues in the local church council and his close bond with his domestic workers.

Despite the violent situation and the political tensions, this expat managed to have a ‘good time’ in Indonesia, even developing sympathy and understanding for the local population in the process. If there is a lesson to be learnt from this document, it is that even in times of conflict, it is possible to empathise with the ‘other.’ This does not necessarily have to result in sympathy, but understanding another’s point of view is the first step in reaching a truly sustainable solution. Another reason to delve into other people’s life stories.

Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)

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