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‘Tabee Toean’: Exploring Dutch Films on The East Indies’ Colonial Past

‘Tabee Toean’ the documentary featured five Dutch army veterans recalling their experiences in the late 1940s in the Netherlands East Indies, now known as Indonesia. The veterans described how they became entangled in a violent conflict as Indonesian freedom fighters launched a War of Independence, renaming the country in August 1945. At the time, a popular Dutch catchphrase was “Indië verloren, rampspoed geboren” (“If we lose the East Indies, disaster will strike us”), reflecting the nation’s anxiety. 

Dutch soldiers, thinking they were on an idealistic mission to maintain colonial rule, were taken aback by the widespread desire for independence among the local population. The ensuing bloody conflict, marked by interruptions, continued until late 1949, culminating in the Dutch withdrawing from Indonesia in disgrace.

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Image Courtesy: Sense of Cinema

The Americans were astonished to learn that ‘Tabee Toean’ could be seen as groundbreaking. The Dutch had been notably reluctant to confront the negative aspects of their colonial past in Indonesia. This reluctance was highlighted by the timing of the documentary’s release, which coincided with the Poncke Princen affair. Princen, a Dutch army deserter who joined the Indonesian resistance in 1948, was granted a visa for a family visit to the Netherlands in the mid-1990s.

This decision by the Dutch government angered many Dutch veterans, sparking widespread protests that dominated the news for weeks. These protests underscored how sensitive the topic of the violent relinquishing of the East Indies remained in the Netherlands.

The controversy surrounding ‘Tabee Toean’ and the Poncke Princen affair revealed the deep-seated issues the Dutch had with acknowledging their colonial history. For many Dutch veterans and citizens, revisiting these painful memories was difficult. The documentary forced the nation to confront the harsh realities of its actions during the Indonesian War of Independence and the subsequent impact on both Dutch soldiers and the Indonesian people.

The comparison with American films about the Vietnam War also highlighted the differences in how nations process and represent their military conflicts. While the US quickly produced critical narratives about Vietnam, the Dutch took much longer to address their colonial past in Indonesia. This delay in facing historical truths created a significant cultural gap between the experiences and perceptions of Dutch and American audiences.

-Sushmita Sarkar

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