Indonesia seeks to address legacy of 1965-66


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Bojana Djokanovic examines the genesis of a new effort to address the legacy of hundreds of thousands of disappearances as a result of the events of 1965-66 in Indonesia.

In May 2016, at a meeting between the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) and Asian ambassadors in The Hague, speakers stressed that armed conflict, migration, natural and manmade disasters and crime have all contributed to the missing persons challenge in Asia – the causes of the problem are diverse. The numbers of the missing are calculated in the hundreds of thousands, and in addition to families of the victims, the issue affects society as a whole.

In Indonesia the long process of consolidating democratic institutions and fostering open debate on social and political issues has until recently circumvented the question of mass killings that took place in 1965-66, when the Indonesian military spearheaded an anti-communist purge. The Indonesian Communist Party was at the time the largest outside the Soviet Union and China, with 3 million members.

During his election campaign, President Joko Widodo, who began a five-year term in October 2014, promised to investigate past human abuses. However, in office he has not gone beyond a somewhat vague promise to establish a “reconciliation commission”. Even this has proved too much for that section of Indonesian society that believes the 1965-66 killings were a necessary means of preventing a communist takeover or that investigating the issue after half a century will simply open old wounds. In late 2015, the President said he supports an approach to past human rights violations “that fits the Indonesian way”.

Some traction was given to the issue on 25 April 2016, when the President instructed his security minister, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, to start documenting the location of mass graves of the more than 500,000 victims of the 1965-66 massacres. Also in April, the government held a two-day National Symposium that brought together government officials, survivors, families of victims, former military officers, academics and human rights activists.

Reaction to these initiatives has been mixed.  In the wake of the National Symposium, security officials arrested people suspected of selling books or T-shirts with leftist symbols, and discussions and film screenings related to the events of 1965-66 were closed down.

The Symposium team finalized their recommendations and submitted them to the government. Declining to provide further details, Symposium chairman Agus Widjojo said the recommendations involved a non-judicial process in accordance with the Human Rights Tribunals Law,[1] and that this would be based on a reconciliation concept.

Symposium documentation encompasses academic research and input from different stakeholder groups.  However, Mr. Pandjaitan has already made it clear that the government will not include an apology to the victims as part of a settlement related to the events of 1965-66.

On 9 May, activists handed the government a list of mass gravesites that need to be excavated.  The list contains 122 mass graves located in Sumatra and Java, which are believed to contain 1,999 bodies. On the same day, the Indonesian government announced that it would form a team to investigate these gravesites.  Mr. Pandjaitan later indicated that he would supervise exhumations at a selection of the gravesites, but he did not provide any details about the composition of the exhumation team or whether it would include forensic experts with experience in mass grave exhumations. [2]

Human rights groups have cautioned that “…hasty exhumations done without requisite expert skills and experience may well destroy crucial evidence and seriously obstruct efforts to bring justice for the victims of 1965-66.”[3] Human Rights Watch warned that without forensic experts, exhumations can destroy critical evidence and greatly complicate the eventual identification of bodies. Human Rights Watch also called on the government to arrange for security at these sites to prevent unauthorized exhumations.[4]

Mr Pandjaitan had previously said that the government would settle at least six past rights abuse cases; the 1965-66 purge; the 1989 Talangsari incident in Central Lampung; the 2001 and 2003 Wamena and Wasior incidents in Papua; and various kidnappings and unresolved shootings that took place in the 1980s, including the May 1998 riots and the disappearance of several prominent activists. The original target for dealing with these issues was the end of May 2016, but the government later stated that this framework was too ambitious and that cases would probably be concluded by the end of 2016.

The Victims Solidarity Network for Justice (JSKK) and the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras)[5] hold a weekly Kamisan – a protest opposite the Presidential Palace. Participants have expressed disappointment that the government’s final effort on past human rights abuse cases seems to be skewed in favor of a process of reconciliation rather than having a corresponding focus on bringing perpetrators to court.[6] To date, none of the perpetrators has been held accountable for these crimes. Activists argue that an approach with no legal settlement would result in even greater impunity, with little justice for the victims groups and an erosion of the rule of law.

In contrast to the government symposium, on 1 June 2016, former military leaders and Islamist groups organized an event in Jakarta to discuss what they believe has been a communist resurgence in Indonesia.  The generals warned that the communist party is on the rise and that “the government should never apologize” for 1965-66. They insisted that no reconciliation is necessary.  “If we apologize, we endorse the treason,” said Try Sutrisno, who served as vice president to former President Suharto from 1993 to 1998.[7]

Human rights groups reacted negatively to this anti-communist event and presented it as evidence that some groups are not yet ready for reconciliation.

The government has indicated that it will take into consideration both the recommendations of the National Symposium and the proposals that emerged from the 1 June Jakarta meeting, suggesting that “the Indonesian way” may involve a complex effort to square a particularly contentious and painful historical circle .