Blog: 'I would have preferred sitting in the back'

2 July 2024

On the fourth day of the IRTI Conference, we were invited to experience some of the culture in Yogyakarta. We visited a protestant church, the sultan's palace and the Borobudur temple. For me, this cultural exposure was the highlight of the Conference. It made me ask myself an important question. Who am I as a Dutch person to delve into Indonesian culture, with colonial history in mind?

Blog by Judith van den Heuvel


In the pre-symposium of the IRTI Conference 2024 we talked about decolonisation. Dr Kor Grit, who is currently researching the reactions of Dutch students on the colonial past in Indonesia, stated that the option of distancing from the Dutch colonial past or the feelings of guilt and shame can be criticised from a decolonial perspective. Guilt and shame are feelings that turn inward, requiring the other party to free you from this position. That does not seem fair. Distancing is also problematic. After all, it is Dutch history. The system you are part of has been a colonial power in the past.

So, what can be done? Grit argues for a position of moral confusion. Do you dare to feel uncomfortable with what you see, without losing interest in the other? Can you explore the local culture in an open-minded way? Experiencing moral confusion might be the best possible option. During the day I discovered the merging and coexisting of colonial heritage and local culture. The practice of decolonisation appeared to be a very complex one.

The church service

The church service started at 9 am on Sunday morning at the Margo Mulyo Protestant Church. The church had agreed that the service would be led in English, alternating with Bahasa Indonesia, since there were many participants of the IRTI Conference. When we entered the church, a guide led us to the front row. It gave me mixed feelings. We were kindly received, but why would you let some Dutch people sit in front? I would have preferred sitting in the back. And yet I ended up in the front row.

Three choirs were present during the service: a male choir from Bali, Sumatra and North Sulawesi, the Gita Wildu Choir and a specially established singing group with IRTI participants. The singing in the service was passionate. The music was accompanied by a keyboard. When the church was built in 1857, the Dutch had built in an organ, but the local population removed it.

On the wall of the church there was a large Dutch text, translated as: 'He who believes in me has eternal life'. Next to it, there was a Bahasa Indonesia translation in smaller font. It made me wonder how on earth it was possible to end up like that? And on the other hand, it made me feel at home amidst the many cultural differences. It is a strange thing to notice both aspects.

Kraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat

After the church service we left for the sultan's palace in Yogyakarta. Here, I became acquainted with Javanese beauty. A guide showed us around and told us about the local rituals in the course of a human life, from pregnant women to circumcision and from menstrual rituals to the rituals of a sultan's wedding. The sultan’s wedding is still celebrated at the Kraton. During the tour I noticed a striking detail: the current, tenth sultan has five daughters. There is discussion about his succession. It is likely that one of his daughters will succeed him as sultana.

All these local customs were new and impressive. The Javanese cultural reality opened up to me. However, it is still a strange thought that Java knows more about Dutch culture than I, as a Dutch person, know about the Javanese one.


We continued our exposure with a visit to the Buddhist temple Borobudur. With our shoes exchanged for sandals and with a temperature of around 35 degrees, we were allowed to climb the 42 meter high temple. Nowadays, Buddhist monks only use the Borobudur temple on special occasions. It is mainly a tourist attraction.

The temple has been well preserved due to ash of the volcanic eruptions from the Merapi. England claims to have rediscovered the temple in 1814. Java claims that they have always known that the temple existed. In order to restore Borobudur, UNESCO has made big investments. It is now considered a world heritage site. The guide told us: 'The temple is now as much yours as it is ours.' In my conviction, these transactions of UNESCO are morally questionable. Among others, the West has donated money to the preservation of cultural heritage that is not our own, which creates dubious power relations. Who profits of this investment? It seems tourism flourishes. Following this logic, does UNESCO preserve culture or tourism?

Moral confusion

At the end of the day my head was full of impressions and ethical questions. Interest in Java and confrontation of colonial sites had been present all day. How can I behave ethically as a Dutch person in Java? What is a just relationship between former suppressor and victim? These questions have become more relevant for me.