A genocide howling for an apology gets ‘regrets’

Jul 4, 2023
Joko Widodo

Before he left for a brief trip to Sydney, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo took a stab at reconciliation. It’s unlikely to succeed.

It’s a truism of politics: Leaders whose time is up sometimes get an itch to tidy up wrongs unmentioned when pitching for power.

The Indonesian Constitution restricts presidents to two five-year terms. So Jokowi will bow off the stage after the election next February.

Suddenly he’s remembered that the unresolved violence of the past impacting millions needs attention. This is what human rights activists have been pushing him and his predecessors to recognise and repair for decades, only to be told to forget and move on.

In a speech last month Jokowi acknowledged a dozen ‘human rights violations’ since 1965. The most serious erupted that year when an estimated half-million were hacked or shot in a military-organised purge of real or imagined Communists.

Their mutilated corpses were tossed in rivers and gullies, families fearing retrieval for burial lest being painted Red.

As with the Holocaust, there have been deniers. However, a much-awarded young Australian researcher Dr Jess Melvin has conclusively proved the slaughter was a genocide orchestrated by second President and former army general Soeharto.

Seventh president Jokowi has spent the past nine years concreting his legacy with much-needed infrastructure projects like toll roads and new rail lines, all leading to the future.

The past is painful and tougher to fix. Too many festering sores for too long. Millions of families with relatives who were thought to be on the left have been affected. Even now some victims’ relatives fear talking to journalists lest the guilty seek revenge.

Jokowi has announced a ‘programme’ to examine the issues, which at first glance seems an honest bid to settle unfinished business. However close reading shows it will only please the alleged perpetrators.

These include Presidential candidate and disgraced former general Prabowo Subianto, who was allegedly involved in the persecution and disappearance of student dissidents in 1998. He’ll not be fronting any court. There’s also no talk of compensation, only memorials in parks.

Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD said ‘the victims’ rights would be fulfilled simultaneously by ministries and government agencies involved in the process.

‘In the recommendation for a non-judicial resolution, there is no apology from the government to the public because of the incidents; however, the government acknowledges that the incidents did occur, and the government regrets that the incidents occurred,’

His conditional statement screams absence of political will; it maintains the pattern of seeing the sickness but failing to cure.

In 1993 the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas-HAM) was set up by the Soeharto government to mollify the UN.

Reports on alleged abuses threatened the Republic’s international reputation as a good deal for investors. Overseas shareholders were getting sensitive and demanding social responsibility.

Since then the Commission has produced reports which have jerked awareness though not the levers of power. The Indonesian Law Review commented that Komnas HAM doesn’t have ‘the authority to resolve the problem of gross human rights violations.’ It can’t force corporations to participate in its investigations or be involved in mediation.

In a burst of post-Revolusi cleansing the government started a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (KKR) to resolve human rights cases. It ran for two years before a 2006 court ruled it unconstitutional. There’s been no replacement.

State-sanctioned brutality collides with the image of Indonesia as a progressive nation of moderates. An oft-recycled media cliche tags the people as ‘the friendliest and most cheerful in the world’.

This over-worked claim is meaningless in an archipelago of 275 million individuals. Many are indeed fine folk and a few pure evil – a reality not exclusive to Indonesia.

There have been other outrages since the 1965-66 genocide, including the 1982-85 Petrus (mysterious killings), overnight murders of thousands of alleged criminals whose bodies were left in the streets warning others against challenging authority.

In 1998 several hundred mainly ethnic Chinese were raped and murdered in the chaos following the fall of Soeharto. Student activists were allegedly arrested and tortured – at least 13 ‘disappeared’ when Prabowo was in command of the troops involved.

There were other secret killings and bashings that have never been prosecuted. One of the few Indonesian words absorbed by English reflects these terrors – to run ‘amok’.

Jokowi made his pseudo-reconciliation announcement at the site of a demolished torture centre in the province of Aceh. A guerrilla insurgency between 1976 and 2005 took the lives of 15,000 civilians and soldiers as Jakarta failed to forcibly crush the GAM (Free Aceh Movement) separatist movement.

Australian academic Dr Damien Kingsbury was closely involved in the Helsinki peace talks which eventually settled the dispute by giving Aceh a degree of autonomy.

Amnesty International Executive Director Usman Hamid reportedly stressed that a non-judicial resolution of ignored atrocities ‘must not negate the state’s obligation to fulfil the victims’ rights to reveal the truth.

‘The accountability of the perpetrators is an important part in settling cases of gross human rights abuses.’

That won’t happen. Many with blood on their khaki have died, but their descendants remain determined to hide the stains.

When announcing his latest attempted fix the President said the purpose was: ‘To heal the nation’s wounds as a consequence of past gross human rights violations that have left behind a heavy burden for the victims and the families of victims. These wounds must be healed quickly so that we can move forward’.

There have been more than 40 Truth and Reconciliation Commissions across the world in the past three decades. The most successful was in South Africa, driven by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Jokowi’s latest attempt to heal is not based on telling the truth.

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