Evereld Menteng Pulo — Dutch multiculturalism remembered

Where do you find Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus sharing space in perfect peace and harmony? In a South Jakarta cemetery, of course.

They perished amid the hostilities of 1942-45 and lie buried here at Evereld Menteng Pulo, about 10 minutes from the Sharehouse as well as Barack Obama’s  old neighborhood. Each year on 4 May (Dutch National Rememberance Day) people with connections to this history visit Menteng Pulo.

Dutch war cemetary Indonesia

I’m not a golfer, but I think this is one of the loveliest greens in Jakarta. If you have loved ones buried here – or live in the adjacent Casa Blanca apartment complex – I guess you may feel differently.

Cemeteries in Jakarta  help space and pace the cramped, hectic way folks carry on.  Pressed for room, the living sometimes encroach on the dead, graveyards thus becoming places for free storage, parking and dumping. Other brave souls  — still alive – go further, building shelters or shacks among the mud and weeds. The punks enter at night with boom box and bottle and everyone has a hell of a time.

I must admit I enjoy these types of Indonesian cemeteries. But Ereveld Menteng Pulo isn’t one of them. It’s an immaculate Dutch war cemetery. If you’re interested in history or you’ve been in Indonesia so long you can’t remember what design is, it may be worth a visit. You may feel like you’ve stepped into Europe. There’s an almost eerie sense  of planning– not that someone’s seeing you, perhaps, but that they saw you — they knew you’d come by.

Humanism at the Heart of Jakarta

If you do have family connections to World War II Java, then come today at 17:00. My grandpa was a B-17 tail gunner and shot down by Japanese zero’s several times over Java and Bali, flying out of Malang. But the reason I’d like to participate  is because I’ve been invited by a group of Indonesians of Dutch descent who say the best — maybe only — way to connect with your relatives in Holland is to show up on 4 May. I’d like to see that.

Here you won’t find the same profusion of fragrant Cambodia trees that figure prominently at other nearby cemeteries. There is, however, a massive shady pergola with plenty of benches where you can get out of the sun and admire the surreal view of white crosses superimposed on pink apartment buildings. The crosses, it seems, symbolize the history of a nation which ultimately tired of both the East Indies and religion.

The prominent display of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Taoist symbols — atop what many Indonesians at first assume must be a mosque — is perhaps one of the most interesting features of this war cemetery. It is one of 22 such places established by the Royal Netherlands Indies Army (KNIL) throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

The finishing touches, added in 1950, include a lovely Christian chapel – the Simultaankerk. It is decorated with a cross made of steel from the Burma railroad, in addition to the other symbols mentioned. The chapel connects to a peaceful columbarium that opens onto a courtyard with water gardens. And it’s all connected to the structure that looks like a mosque.

The Dutch — it is said — are among those most convinced that “multiculturalism has failed” and that Islam is the enemy. The sight of Muslim boys dancing in the streets of Holland just after the World Trade Center in New York City was attacked is said to have had a major impact in the Netherlands, whose ties to the US have never been stronger.  However, it’s interesting to ask, what the Dutch were thinking as they designed  this cemetery in 1947, at a time when the Christian KNIL counted among its allies in the fight against the Japanese colonized Muslim subjects (soon to become Indonesians) and troops from India. The details are mostly available only in Dutch, but this afternoon I’ll be able to ask questions.

For that matter, what is Dutch caveman/politician Geert Wilders thinking when he attacks the religious symbols of others? He has written a scarcely coherent piece, perhaps wilder than his hair, and published it on his website. He terms it a “message to Muslims.” Rather embarrassingly for him I would think, it suggests that his understanding of Islam (and perhaps religion in general) may derive from negative backpacking experiences he had as a teenager in Egypt. At least he’s upfront:

“My friend and I were amazed that such a poor and filthy place could be a neighbor of Israel, which was so clean. . . . There are people who say that I hate Muslims. I do not hate Muslims. It saddens me how Islam has robbed them of their dignity.What Islam does to Muslims is visible in the way they treat their daughters.

It’s hard to take anyone seriously who thinks in such an imprecise way, but perhaps we ought to try our best as he has a very large following, including in USA. Does he have any photographs to help us visualize whatever he’s trying to say about stolen dignity and visible daughters? He makes regular trips to New Amsterdam, especially lower Manhattan. Has he ever made a trip out to old Batavia? Of course, I guess it’s quite likely he’d only notice the weeds and mud.

While there is a good argument that “Dutch tolerance” — a supposed national characteristic of the Dutch nation — is a myth, I’ll post some clearly visible photos below of a church that looks like a mosque. It was built by a nation with perhaps more experience in managing multiculturalism than it cares to remember sometimes. And it’s located today in a city with enormous cultural heterogeneity and — I believe — vast remaining reserves of religious tolerance. It might be harder than you’d think to find anyone around here interested in finishing (or beginning) a clunky sentence like “What Islam does . . . ”

If you really want to see what Islam does, come to Jakarta and have a look. There are plenty of examples of intolerance in Indonesia, though not so many here in the heart of Jakarta. If you have a particular one in mind, please comment.

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8 responses »

  1. Thanks for your comment Firman. All I know is what I read in the paper, but I think FPI is out to lunch. But is it gangsterism/politics or religion. No one really writes about them in English. Maybe not in Indonesian either. I found myself face to face with the great white mob a couple times. Bad news.


    A few more examples were provided by my Dutch-Indonesian friends who I caught up with on 4 May. Old guy said he had two names, a Dutch and and Indonesian one. But he used only the Indonesian name because he was “scared” [of Muslims]. He said it was the Hadromi Arabs we had to thank for the state of things and how could Indonesia possibly have anything against the US after what they’d done for us in WWII. In other words, even though he looked very much like an Indonesian (and was) he identified as Dutch. His dad, he said, was buried in a Dutch war cemetery in Kalimantan which “they” turned into a football pitch. “I had to kick and scream” to get that taken care of he, said. His dad always wanted to be taken back to Holland. But there he is, stuck in Pontianak or wherever. Developing . . .

  2. Every religious stated in their holy books that there is only ONE God. I believe there is only one God also, this God is called by different names depending on what or which religion you believe in. I surely hope that in the end it will turn out that we have the very same God we worship all this time. For now, I surely hope that everyone worship peacefully, proudly and freely regardless of what you believe or whether you worship in church, mosque, temple, forest, jungle or in your own dwelling. Just because others worship in a different way than you do, it does not mean they are wrong and it is not your obligation to change them. Peace!

  3. Hi Everyone,I visit this beautifull cemetery not long ago and to my surprise i notice ashes of an solider who could be possible be an realative of my as the name is quite rare in Holland.
    Could any one tell me who i can email to find out more about this person as im sure they would have records on him.

    • It will be a little difficult. Only some of the pictures are mine. The slideshow format doesn’t lend itself to preserving the info about where the pics came from. I will edit so as to reflect that info. Thanks for the comment.

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