Indonesia Confronts Half a Century of Silence on the Missing

Bali x

Bojana Dzokanovic and Kevin Sullivan explore the campaign to account for hundreds of thousands of victims buried in mass graves in Indonesia 50 years ago.

In early October, 77-year old Tom Iljas, an Indonesian who has spent decades living in Sweden, visited a site in Western Sumatra where he believed his father may have been buried. His father was one of the victims of the violent 1965-66 campaign against communists and communist sympathizers that is generally reckoned to have resulted in the killing of a least 500,000 people.

Mr Iljas was unable to explore the site, as he was arrested by police and then deported from Indonesia. His only offense was to look for his father’s grave.

In a related incident, also in October, editors of a student magazine at a well-known university in Central Java were questioned by police after they published an investigative report on the 1965-66 killings. Copies of the magazine were withdrawn from circulation.

Half a century has passed since the massacres in Indonesia, and almost 20 years have gone by since the fall of President Suharto, who came to power on the back of the anti-communist purge. There have been several initiatives to address the killings, as well as human rights violations that occurred in the decades of Suharto’s rule, but so far none of these has been effective. Nor has there been a comprehensive or coordinated effort to account for those who disappeared in 1965-66 and whose bodies have never been found.

During his campaign for the Presidency, Joko Widodo, who was elected in July 2014 and began his five-year term in October, promised to investigate past human rights abuses; however, in office he has not yet gone beyond a somewhat vague promise to establish a “reconciliation commission”. Even this proved too much for that section of Indonesian society that believes the 1965-6 pogrom was necessary or at the very least that investigating the issue after half a century will simply open old wounds.  In his latest comment on addressing human rights violations, President Joko said he supports an approach “that fits the Indonesian way”.

Individuals believed to have started a rumor that the President would apologize for the 1965-66 killings on 30 September, the 50th anniversary of the abortive coup that was the pretext for the massacres, were investigated by police.

The 1965-66 killings began in Jakarta and spread to Central and East Java and later to Bali. These places had all been strong centers of support for the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Landlords in Bali took advantage of the unrest to end agitation for land reform. It is estimated that as many as 80,000 people were killed on the island in 1965-66, making it proportionately the worst affected part of the country.

A CIA report found that the Indonesian massacres “rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century,” yet they have been curiously underreported. Part of the reason is that the Western-backed regime that orchestrated the violence remained in power for more than three decades, and, using school textbooks and control of the media, it successfully imposed its own historical narrative. New textbooks that took a slightly more critical view of the events that brought Suharto to power were introduced in 2004, but withdrawn two years later after protests from conservatives.

Today, there is more public debate about the 1965-66 killings, and other more recent human rights violations, but it continues to be subject to legal, social and political restraint.  The presence of deeply rooted obstacles to open discussion of a major historical event may be said to reflect the fact that human rights violations, if they are not subject to prompt and effective legal redress, perpetuate conditions that make legal redress increasingly difficult.

In a country where half a million people have been murdered in the space of a few months and no one has been held to account, a prevailing assumption will be that the rule of law is so severely compromised that it cannot be expected to offer effective or consistent protection to citizens.

However, activists continue to wage a “struggle against forgetting”, and some citizens, like Tom Iljas, have begun to move ahead on their own initiative with attempts to locate clandestine graves from 1965-66.

On 30 September 2015, the anniversary of the failed 1965 coup, media reported that the government will gather input on a human rights strategy from a range of NGOs that are active in the field, and that cases to be investigated will not be limited to those that occurred in 1965-66. Other incidents to be examined include the shooting and killing of four students in front of Trisakti University in West Jakarta on 12 May 1998 during the demonstrations that ousted Suharto, and the killing of 16 students in a clash with the military near Atma Jaya University in Jakarta on 13 October 1998, and another ten students at the same spot on 24 September 1999. [1]

Another case that activists would like to see investigated is the 1984 massacre in Tanjung Priok, also in Jakarta, which President Joko specifically alluded to during his campaign.

At a press conference in September a relative of victims from this incident urged President Joko to “issue a decree or a policy to support the recovery of the victims” and to “issue a presidential decree or policy to push the Attorney General to investigate past gross human rights incidents or cases that have previously been investigated by the National Commission on Human Rights [Komnas HAM].” [2]

According to official reports from Komnas, 24 people lost their lives in the Tanjung Priok incident.

Komnas was established by Presidential Decree in the final years of the Suharto era in response to a UN resolution expressing concern about the human rights situation in Indonesia. After Suharto’s fall, a newly-constituted Commission was given a fresh mandate and funding. The Human Rights Law of 2000 gave Komnas the power to investigate abuses, if necessary by forming ad hoc investigative teams bringing in outside expertise. It issued two reports on the Tanjung Priok killings, and in 2008, it reopened an investigation into the 1998 killings at Trisakti University.[3]

The scale of Indonesia’s legacy of missing persons is enormous. Some will argue that in view of this, setting in motion a process to account for the missing from 1965-66 and afterwards is bound to foment social and political instability. The counter argument is persuasive – not addressing such a major issue makes long-term stability impossible, and the very fact that the issue is being discussed half a century after the events suggests that trying to conceal the truth simply doesn’t work. Contested narratives will come to the surface eventually, and when they do, the only practical approach is to support a process designed to establish the facts, and at the same time, where this is still possible, to afford families of victims a measure of justice.