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Palmolive plantation on the road from Bukit Lawang to Medan

Balancing a very long pole he cuts the fruit loose

Palmolive fruit: oil price dropped from Rp 1.400/liter to 700/liter recently

Not in honour of Indonesia's most popular means of transport, as I...

Lonsum factory where palmolive oil is extracted (note the Mushuolla for the...

Lonsum (London Sumatra Indonesia Ltd) HQ on Merdeka square in Medan

Medan from a motorised Betjak taking a shortcut to Lapangan Merdeka

Betjak driver - 'van Nistelrooij Real Madrid' is now the international currency...

Money is short, so filling up goes by the liter: Rp 5.000...

Lapangan Merdeka, Medan's central square

Merdeka Walk with loads of fancy restaurants on one side of the...

And the Pasar Buku, the 2nd hand book market, on the railway...

Preparing for festivities on Muslim Idul Adha 1430 H tomorrow

How it was one day later

Some nice buildings remain in an otherwise unappealing city: Old city hall,...

Bank Indonesia

Even some Art Deco

Plaque remembering the declaration of independence in 1945

Captain Raymond Westerling whose airborne troops...

...landed on Medan's airport Polonia, probably looked a lot like it does...

Indonesian forces defending Medan

Special Forces capture Soekarno and Hatta in Yogjakarta during 2nd military campaign

Medan Railway Station circa 1895

Medan Railway Station 2009

Pretty busy on the eve of Idul Adha 1430 H

To get there I need ...

...this, 'perron kaartje', platform ticket: have not seen one like this since...

1915 Locomotive UAP 038 built by 'SAEGHS Mesin Pabrik Amsterdam'

On Jalan Ahmad Yani, old colonial grandeur but...

...all gutted inside

Tjon A Fie Mansion

Tjon A Fie, from poor chinese peasant to mogul; appointed by the...

Tjon A Fie's office building around 1900 and...

...still in good shape today

Jalan Ahmad Yani around 1900 (across from Tjon A Fie Mansion) and...

...2009

Maimoon Palace buit by Sultan of Deli in 1888

Sultan's throne today occupied by...

...11 years old Sultan,...

...after his father died aged 37 in a plane crash during Tsunami...

Main Medan mosque, Mesjid Raya with uncommon black domes

Could easily hear muezzin the whole day of Idul Adha 1430 H...


“I give you an idea: I could drive you around Medan tomorrow to see all the sights”. We’re entering the outskirts of Medan, with 2 million inhabitants the sprawling and rather unappealing 3rd city of Indonesia. Time for the driver of the private car, the same that brought me to Bukit Lawang three days ago, to makes his pitch. On the way we have talked about the religious composition of the population in Aceh, North Sumatra, and Medan itself and what that means. When we passed the extensive Lonsum (London Sumatra Indonesia Ltd) palm olive plantations and factory halfway, we got out of the car and in his limited but understandable English he gave me the short version of how the production process works and how the financial crisis has almost halved the revenue of palm olive oil.

So he has earned his tip for doubling up as my tour guide, but I had already spent two days in town before I went to Bukit Lawang and visited the Maimoon Palace (where the 11 year old Sultan was due to arrive for the festivities of Muslim holy days of Idul Adha 1430 H); saw the black-domed Raya Mosque (with the frequent calls for prayers of the muezzin within earshot of my hotel); visited the mansion of Chinese mogul Tjon A Fie (recently opened to the public by his great grand-daughter who welcomed me at the entrance); saw the gutted colonial buildings along Jalan Ahmed Yani; recalled a scene of my railway past when I walked into Medan’s Main Railway station, and had lunch on Merdeka Walk (row of fancy restaurants) on one side of Merdeka Square (where a monument and a plaque commemorate the declaration of independence in 1945). The only thing I missed (on the first day of Idul Adha everything was closed and Medan at a virtual standstill) was a visit to the Museum of North Sumatra.

As it turns out the Museum of North Sumatra has a comprehensive presentation of the Dutch colonial period and the Japanese occupation, much better than the sad collection of dioramas in the National History Museum in Jakarta, but still from a solidly Indonesian perspective of course.

The occupation of the Dutch East Indies by the Japanese in 1942 effectively ended 350 years of colonial rule and was hailed by many Indonesians as their liberation, a feeling that gradually evaporated however under the harsh Japanese rule. At the height of WWII, then Queen Wilhelmina, aiming to further the growing resistance, had held out the prospect of greater Indonesian independence after the war. But the Dutch East Indies were so much part of the Dutch national identity, not to mention its economy, that the complete independence that Soekarno, with Hatta leader of Indonesia’s independence movement, declared two days after the Japanese surrender, was simply impossible for the Dutch to contemplate. Military confrontation became inevitable. Two major military campaigns (dubbed ‘Politionele Acties’, police actions, to try and avert international criticism) were fought. The first from July 21st until August 5th 1947 and the second from December 19th 1948 until January 5th 1949. Campaigns by which the Dutch aimed to restore colonial rule. In the end that effort failed due to the guerrilla tactics of the Indonesians and growing international pressure, in particular from the Americans who threatened to halt the Marshall aid that the Netherlands badly needed to recover from the WWII devastation at home.

Looking out over the deserted runway and the buildings beyond of Polonia, Medan’s airport, it is not too difficult to imagine how 64 years ago Dutch Captain Raymond Westerling and his troops were parachuted in, captured the airport and went on to occupy Medan to prepare for the return of Dutch civilian rule. This action was Westerling’s first for the KNIL (Royal Dutch Indian Army). He went on to acquire notoriety in 1946 when he led the (anti-)terror campaign to restore order on South-Celebes. Indiscriminate actions and summary executions cost the lives of 4,000 people, including innocent civilians.

Immediately after the declaration of independence on August 17th 1945 rogue Indonesian gangs went after the Dutch, who were mostly still held in Japanese concentration camps, Indo-Europeans (Indos) who had worked for the Dutch and Chinese (but for different reasons) and in an orgy of blood (known as ‘Bersiap’, after the rallying cry ‘Be ready’), some 5,000 thousand are thought to have been killed.

The fact that Captain Westerling was never tried for war crimes is still difficult to digest for some Indonesians (who also maintain that not 4,000 but 40,000 were killed on Celebes), just as the Bersiap period is one that some Dutch and Indos still feel the Indonesian government has never properly taken responsibility for. These are just two instances of the war crimes committed by both sides that were never really accounted for. Debate over Dutch war crimes erupted in 1969 and a report, the ’Excessennota’ (‘Report on Transgressions‘) compiled by the Dutch government concluded that a series of ‘wandaden’ (‘misdeeds‘) had resulted in almost 4,000 thousand casualties. However nobody was tried, neither side made apologies or paid reparations, nor were they officially requested.

That layer of unresolved recriminations still lies beneath the officially harmonious, but in practice slightly uneasy, relationship between Indonesia and its former coloniser. The official ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of independence in 2005 for example, was the first where the Netherlands was officially represented, but still only at ministerial level, and the date of August 17th 1945 itself, was only recognized by the Dutch as the date of Indonesian independence shortly before the ceremony.

Interestingly, as we speak, a debate has flared up in the Netherlands about the possible involvement of Prince Bernhard (prince escort of then reigning Queen Juliana; both deceased) in an attempt by Captain Westerling in 1950 to overthrow the fledgling Soekarno government. The coup failed, but Prince Bernard is now accused in a book published this week (‘HRH, High Stake Games at the Court of His Royal Highness’) to have supported the coup and intended to become the ‘Viceroy’ of Indonesia. Another historian rejects the findings as unfounded (and in his stead is accused of being in the pocket of present Queen Beatrix, Bernhard's daughter), but knowing Prince Bernhard’s uncanny capability to consistently choose the wrong friends and support the wrong causes (not to mention to line his own pockets), the theory has a very plausible ring to it. If Dutch royal involvement in the coup attempt proves to be true, relations may remain ‘slightly uneasy’ for a little while longer.

“You should come to Indonesia and advise the board of ‘PT Kerete Api’ (Indonesian Railways) on how to manage the company”. It is towards the end of the 1980s and I am talking to Hans Kartman, or rather he is talking to me, trying to convince me to come to Jakarta for a few months and explain the way the Dutch railway’s planning and control system works. Hans was lucky enough, or was it wily enough, to land the perfect job for himself. He was born in Indonesia, in Surabaya if I remember correctly, shortly before the war, had spent his first years in the country, partly in a Japanese concentration camp with his mother (women and young children were separated from the men) and as most Dutch and Indo families who survived the Bersiap, was repatriated after the war.

However he still was very much in love with the country and had convinced then NS (Dutch Railways) CEO Ploeger, that NS needed an official representative with Indonesian Railways (which after all was founded by the Dutch) and, lo and behold, he became that representative. Every year Hans would return for a month or so and rustle up new NS colleagues to come and lecture PT Kereti Api staff on subjects of interest and at the same time enjoy a pleasant everything-paid-for stay in the tropics. Since I was in charge of NS’s corporate planning at the time, he had already tried on earlier occasions to lure me over, but I had always kept him at bay.


The scene of us discussing his proposal in my office, Hans had that special complexion that Europeans tend to get when they stay for a long time in the tropics and he was a genial guy with whom it was a pleasure to argue, that scene comes back to me again while I contemplate the ‘Karcis Peron’ sign (a ticket to enter the station platform, long abolished by NS) in the hall of Medan Main Railway station and watch the hustle and bustle of people buying a ticket ahead of the 3-day Idul Adha 1430 H festivities.

‘Maybe I should have come at the time’, I think, trying to recall why I didn’t: had I been that conceited to think that I could not be missed for a few months? (Or worse, that I could?); or was it that I was all too aware that NS’s rather contrived planning process had serious shortcomings. (Basically only the CEO had bottom line responsibility, lower echelons were only responsible for either revenue or cost, free to invent inflated expectations at the proposal stage and come up with excuses at the accountability stage; but don’t get me wrong, I loved that job and thoroughly enjoyed those five years at the heart of NS policy-making [Think Josh, the senior policy advisor to President Bartlet in the ‘West Wing‘]). Simply trying to ‘sell’ the NS approach to the Indonesians, I argued, would be a waste of time; really advising them would have to take their style of management and culture into account and take a lot more effort. I didn’t go, I stuck to my point on the latter, Hans may have thought there was a bit of the former in there too.

A bit of a pity in hindsight, if I had not been so bloody serious.... I even remember my surprise when I learned a few weeks later that another colleague of mine, Adriaan Pothuizen, responsible for labour relations and union negotiations, with whom I had worked closely before and whose opinions I valued, did agree to go. If he felt he could make a contribution... But anyway, now that I am catching up twenty years later, I might keep an eye out when Olive and I are traveling in Java next, Hans Kartman is retired of course and sure to live on that island somewhere.

Ten-Hut. Now that I have your attention. If you have not seen the ‘West Wing’, the series that dramatises policy-making at the White House, you probably should. Olive’s brother Declan copied all 7 seasons and 155 episodes for us (good man) and on a diet of two episodes per night (sometimes we even splurged with three) we have been riveted for weeks and I can‘t wait to continue when I get back; that’s how fantastic it is. At-Ease.



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