The Netherlands to return cultural treasures to Indonesia and Sri Lanka

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Jakarta, Indonesia, 05 July 2023 ; a diorama of the history of the Indonesian nation's business and economic journey at the Bank Indonesia Museum, Jakarta

The Dutch government has agreed to repatriate hundreds of cultural artefacts taken from Indonesia during its 350-year rule over the archipelago, marking a significant attempt to address the country’s colonial legacy.

The government made an announcement detailing the planned return of 478 culturally significant items to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. These objects include the ‘Lombok treasure’, a trove of 335 gold and silver items plundered by Dutch troops from the Indonesian island of Lombok in 1894. Additionally, four statues from Singasari, a Javanese Hindu kingdom in east Java from the 13th century, a sacred keris (dagger) from Klungkung in Bali, and 132 objects of modern art from the Pita Maha collection are set to return to their original homeland.

The seizure of these items was associated with the forceful extension of Dutch rule over the archipelago. The Lombok treasures, for example, were looted after colonial forces crushed an island rebellion, which led to the destruction of a royal palace and the massacre of hundreds of troops. “The objects were wrongfully brought to the Netherlands during the colonial period, acquired under duress or by looting,” the Dutch government said in its statement.

The decision to repatriate the artefacts was made by the Secretary of State for Culture and Media, Gunay Uslu, following the recommendations of the Dutch government’s Advisory Committee on the Return of Cultural Objects from Colonial Context. The committee is also reviewing further requests from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria.

A few items that were looted from Sri Lanka, such as an ornately decorated cannon once used by the king of Kandy, will also be returned. The cannon supposedly fell into Dutch hands in 1765 during the conquest of the Sri Lankan highland kingdom.

The artefacts, currently housed in the collections of the National Museum of World Cultures and the Rijksmuseum, will be transferred to Indonesian ownership in Leiden on July 10.

Secretary Uslu described the announcement as a “historic moment” for the Netherlands, highlighting it as the first time the Dutch are heeding the Committee’s recommendations to return objects illicitly brought to the country. He added that the move signals the dawn of a period of closer cooperation with Indonesia and Sri Lanka in areas like collection research, presentation, and exchanges between museums.

This repatriation is part of a broader initiative by the Netherlands to address the colonial abuses inflicted upon the Dutch East Indies. In May, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte fully acknowledged without reservation that Indonesia’s independence began on August 17, 1945, contradicting the previous Dutch recognition of Indonesian independence as December 27, 1949.

This symbolic shift recognizes the legitimacy of the brutal four-year war fought by Indonesian revolutionaries against the Dutch following World War II. The conflict resulted in an estimated 100,000 Indonesian deaths, compared to roughly 5,300 on the Dutch side.

The Netherlands first issued a broad apology for mass killings committed by its troops in Indonesia in 2013, which was followed by a report into the independence war that revealed the Dutch state’s endorsement of extrajudicial executions and torture. Rutte has since apologised to Indonesia for the “excessive violence” implemented by the Dutch.

While fully atoning for decades of exploitative colonial rule is a monumental task, the repatriation of culturally significant objects seized under duress is a progressive step towards reconciliation.

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