Sunday, 19 February 2017

Forgotten colonial wars don't go away

This is a very nice book on a forgotten colonial war that the Netherlands started without good reason and only ended with the arrival of a new colonial power, Japan, in 1942.*

From the first unsuccessful invasion in 1873, through the bitter decades of guerilla warfare to the anticlimax in 1942, Dutch colonial administrators and military struggled to bring an end to the costly occupation of a region that just would not submit, even when all hope seemed gone.

As the Dutch brought more power to bear, the resistance dwindled from a full fledged army defending the sultanate to desperate attacks on individual soldiers and bureaucrats. And as the Dutch sent their columns deeper into the hinterland, all of Aceh was marked with destroyed villages and hasty graves for freedom fighters and their pursuers.

The coming of the Japanese didn’t improve the lives of the inhabitants of Aceh, nor did their struggle end with Indonesian independence. And even though peace has reigned since almost a decade, Aceh is still a poor and neglected part of Indonesia.

Stolwijk, who lived in Aceh for 18 months between 2009 and 2015, gives a sympathetic view of a society trying to overcome the painful present, while keeping alive the ghosts from the past. His anecdotes of interactions with former guerillas and collaborators, students and officials (who seem genuinely pleased that somebody takes an interest in the history of their building or train line) both provide comic relief and perspective.

*full disclosure: I’ve played a few games of football with the author and I think he’s a nice guy.

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