As a result of all these developments, and many more, the Indonesia of today has become even more highly diverse than it already was.
The present situation therefore carries all kinds of residues of earlier colonialism, even in the sphere of religion.
People in Germany may have been brought up with a perception and a political map of Asia and Oceania that differs somewhat from that of the Dutch, particularly because of our different colonial histories, Germany being more
oriented toward Oceania.
Throughout the centuries the Dutch have generally given more attention to the Asian area (because of their colonies there), even though Australia was first discovered by a Dutchman in 1606, and the whole Australian continent was called Nieuw Holland (New Holland) from 1650 till 1817.
Former German colonies in the East were particularly located in Oceania, for instance in North Eastern Papua, a fact that is hardly known in the Netherlands, even though the Dutch colonized the western part of Papua, which made Germany and the Netherlands neighbors at the time in both Europe as well as in Oceania.
Colonial backgrounds are often reflected in the art collections of the former colonizing countries. When I looked in Berlin for Indonesian treasures in the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem, I found a rich collection of most beautifully decorated boats from Oceania, but I could not detect anything of Indonesian origin.
In Dutch museums it is, obviously, the other way around. When visiting the Tropical Museum in Amsterdam with my parents as a small child, I became familiar with Indonesian gamelan music and Sumatran dances, as a result of which I have been fascinated by Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage ever since.
The colonial past is occasionally also clearly reflected in our diplomatic relations. When I started in Jakarta, the Dutch Embassy there was still our biggest diplomatic mission in the world, whereas the Belgian Embassy was among the smallest.
On the other hand, the Belgian Embassy in Kinshasa, Congo, is very important to Belgium, but ours is of minor importance.
Looking at it objectively: Indonesia is a very important country in the world, having a strategic location with respect to China, a population of over 240 million people, a stable democracy, a fast growing economy and being a serious candidate member of the BRIC countries.
We usually take the Western democratic orientation of Indonesia for granted, but just imagine how different the Asian region might have looked if the Indonesian Communist Party had succeeded in taking power in Indonesia in 1965.
For many years, the biggest number of European political visits to Indonesia used to be from the Netherlands. Whereas I hardly had to encourage or stimulate this development, the French ambassador to Jakarta, on the other hand, complained to me at the time that he had to, more or less, beg Paris to pay more political attention to Indonesia.
All of this had nothing to do with the objective importance of Indonesia, but rather with our historic pasts, whether colonial or not. For the French Algeria is, for instance, of high political relevance. For Belgium it is Congo. For Portugal, East Timor or Timor Leste is relevant, and so on. For the Netherlands it is obviously Indonesia (and Surinam).
It goes without saying that in the Dutch public mind, also China and Japan are considered to be highly relevant, particularly from an economic point of view. And it is only logical that we devote ourselves to these countries in order to best serve our economic and political interests.
Fewer people in the Netherlands are aware, however, that, when it comes to Dutch exports, the German federal states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg are much more important than China and Japan together; just like North Rhine-Westphalia, to which our exports are bigger than to the whole world outside Europe.
In fact, some countries are in our perception more important than they would perhaps deserve to be from an “objective” point of view. But objectivity is a relative concept, which cannot be based on economic factors alone.
The writer was ambassador of the Netherlands to Indonesia, Germany, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. The article is excerpted from a lecture he delivered in German on the occasion of the 112nd celebration of the East Asia Society in Bremen, Germany, recently.