Joko Widowo Seeks to Clean up Indonesia’s Bloody Past
Government begins a mission to rectify Suharto’s human rights violations
President Joko Widodo has set out to rectify the biggest blot in Indonesian history, seeking to resolve cases of gross human rights violations in the mass killings that began in 1965 and ended with the New Order government of the strongman Suharto that ruled for 32 years.
That includes offenses against civilians that previous governments ignored and which have been an obstacle to peace for decades. The government itself in January officially acknowledged the existence of gross human rights violations in 12 cases that occurred between 1965 and 2003, including the mass killings of members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and those affiliated with it.
Many say the policy is a bold step that should be appreciated, although in the process it reaps criticism. Suharto, who died in 2008, remains a hero to significant numbers of Indonesians and his family remains prominent in the Jakarta business and social world. Several important figures suspected of being involved in cases still hold political positions, so it is important for them that these cases are not re-investigated.
In particular, the government is tiptoeing around Prabowo Subianto, now the Defense Minister and a leading candidate for president when Joko Widodo steps down. He was Suharto’s son-in-law and was fired as commander of Indonesia’s special forces after being accused of civil rights violations in the abduction of students in 1988 who were never seen again. He was barred by three presidents from entering the United States until the ban was lifted in 2020 by the Trump administration because of an unstated need to keep the US in Indonesia’s good graces in the US-China rivalry over control of the South China Sea.
One of the examples of collateral damage is Suryo Martono, now 79 years old, who was exiled in the Czech Republic when he was only 22 years old. He was a student sent by the Sukarno government to study, but after the 1965 massacre that marked the change in power from Sukarno to Suharto, he was not allowed to return. "I and several other friends of mine at that time did not want to sign the agreement on the formation of a new government, so our passports were revoked," said Suryo in an interview broadcast by the government.
He has remained in exile in Czechia. Jokowi's policy of resolving past gross violations surprised him. "I did not think this process could happen while I was alive," he said.
Suryo is one of 134 exile victims of the 1965 incident abroad, based on preliminary data, who were declared "not traitors to the state" because they were said to be "not involved" with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). This number is far fewer than the previous total of exiles, estimated at more than 1,000 people, but the majority have died. As with Suryo, some were merely Indonesian students sent by the government to a number of countries to pursue higher education. After the bloodshed broke out in 1965, they were not allowed to return because their political choices were different from the New Order.
The killing, allegedly by the PKI, of seven generals in 1965 sparked large-scale arrests of high-ranking PKI members and their sympathizers, which devolved into mass killings in the streets. Human rights activists estimate that more than 500,000 people were killed in the savagery, with eyewitnesses actually describing rivers that ran with blood at the height of the violence.
Jokowi, who leaves office in 2024, announced the start of a mission to resolve 12 cases of past gross human rights violations on June 27 in Aceh, where three of the 12 cases occurred. Although the commitment to rectify cases of gross human rights violations was one of Jokowi's 2019 campaign promises, he has left it to the end of his term of office because of the difficulty resolving cases if he wants to maintain political harmonization and avoid chaos.
The president said the government "has a sincere intention" to resolve past gross human rights violations in accordance with recommendations from the Non-Judicial Resolution of Human Rights Violations (PPHAM) team that he formed in 2022 through a presidential decree. After conducting studies, the team determined that there had been gross human rights violations in 12 incidents.
They include the massacre of people accused of being communists in 1965-1966; covert operations to eradicate “thuggery” by the New Order government from 1982 to 1985; the killing of hundreds in the village of Talangsari, Lampung in 1989; killings by security forces of civilians at Rumoh Geudong and Sattis Post in Aceh 1998; abductions of pro-democracy activists in 1997-1998.
Those were followed by riots when Suharto fell in May 1998; the shooting incidents of students demanding Suharto's resignation in 1998-1999; a witchcraft shaman killing incident 1998-1999; the killing by security forces of residents in Aceh 1999; killings and torture of residents by security forces in Wasior Papua 2001-2002; the 2003 killing and torture of residents by security forces in Wamena Papua; and killings and torture by security forces against residents suspected of being members of the separatist group the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2003.
"In early January (2023), I decided that the government would pursue a non-judicial settlement, which focuses on restoring victims' rights, without negating the judicial mechanism," Jokowi said. "To the victims or the heirs of the victims, I thank you for your generosity in accepting this process after a very long wait. I believe that no process is in vain. Hopefully, this good start will open up efforts to heal wounds. The beginning of the creation of a just, peaceful, and prosperous life on the foundation of protection and respect for human rights and humanity."
To guarantee victims' rights, Jokowi issued a presidential instruction ordering 19 ministers to restore victims' rights. The Minister of Social Affairs, for example, was instructed to aid and/or social rehabilitation for victims or their heirs and elderly affected victims. The Minister of Health is tasked with giving priority to victims in obtaining health services. The Minister of Public Works and Public Housing was assigned to provide clean water supply, repair roads and bridges, repair irrigation, and build a memorial.
The Minister of Finance was ordered to coordinate ministry or agency budget policies to implement the PPHAM Team's recommendations, as well as to prioritize educational scholarships for the victim's children. The Commander of the Armed Forces and the Chief of Police are tasked with optimizing human rights education and training for their members to prevent incidents of human rights violations from occurring in the future.
However, this policy isn’t without criticism. The destruction of the remains of an army post which during the 1989-1998 military emergency was used as a place for torture and killing of Acehnese accused of being members or sympathizers of the rebel group the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Rumoh Geudong by the local government ahead of Jokowi's arrival in Pidie was strongly criticized by local residents and civil society organizations who used the site as a historical reminder and a place to seek justice.
The Banda Aceh Legal Aid Institute Foundation accused the government of clearly destroying an important site that could have become evidence for judicial purposes in a human rights court.
Amnesty International Indonesia (AII) questioned the government's seriousness in resolving cases of human rights violations. "The destruction of this important building raises questions regarding the seriousness of the state in efforts to rewrite Indonesian history and other efforts in the form of memorializing gross human rights violations in Aceh," Said AII Executive Director Usman Hamid.
Most of the victims or their descendants accept non-judicial settlements by the government, but they hope that “the government will set up human rights courts as soon as possible. This means that there are steps to a judicial settlement, not just non-judicial," said Samsul Bahri, the victim of the Simpang KKA incident in Aceh.
The victims of the 1965 massacre have urged the government to rewrite the history of the incident to erase the stigma and trauma attached to them for half a century. PKI members and their families were often branded as evil people with no religion and no morals.
Even though this was nothing more than propaganda by the New Order government to get rid of the PKI at that time, for the victims, the absence of historical rectification means that there is no attempt to uncover the truth. This is indeed more difficult than, for example, providing health insurance and financial assistance, they say. The government's seriousness in resolving gross violations of human rights will be truly tested by resolving these difficult issues.