Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks to a press conference after receiving officials who are tasked with Non-judicial Settlements of Human Rights Violations (PPHAM) at the State Palace in Jakarta on Wednesday, January 11, 2023. (Photo: Duta Nugroho / Twitter)

Widodo Government Acknowledges Gross Human Rights Violations Happened: The Unstoppable Erosion of a Fundamental Taboo

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President Joko Widodo’s recent acknowledgement of certain human rights violations in Indonesia took many by surprise. It may prove to kickstart a true national reckoning with one of the darkest periods of the country’s history.

On 11 January 2023 at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, the Indonesian government officially acknowledged that gross violations of human rights had taken place in Indonesia between 1965 and 2003, and expressed its regret. Prior to President Joko Widodo’s brief statement, Coordinating Minister for Security, Politics and Legal Affairs Mahfud MD explained the main points of the report from the Team for the Non-Judicial Resolution of Past Gross Human Rights Violations (PPHAM). The PPHAM has issued its Executive Summary and recommendations.

Brief as it was, Widodo’s statement identified 12 such violations, including euphemistically worded “1965-66 events”. For yet unexplained reasons, the list does not include the 1984 Tanjung Priok killings or anything concerning alleged human rights violations in Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor, a province of Indonesia) during Indonesia’s occupation, especially following the Timorese referendum for national independence in 1999.

The 12 events include some violations in Aceh, Lampung, East Java, Papua and Jakarta. Of these, it is the government’s acknowledgement of gross violations in 1965-66 that has the potential for the biggest political consequences, although they are likely to emerge only gradually. While Widodo’s statement did not make it explicit, the reference can refer only to the nationwide mass killings of left-wing supporters of then President Sukarno and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Widodo’s statement, televised nationally, must be seen as an important erosion of one of the country’s fundamental taboos: publicly debating the violent events of 1965-66.

That President Widodo’s statement did not indicate the nature of these violations nor the perpetrators’ identities was an omission strongly criticised by civil society organisations. The statement thus fell short of an apology, which rights groups have long demanded.

Minister Mahfud explained with regard to 1965-66 that an apology was impossible, as it would mean apologising to PKI members when (in the government’s view) it was the PKI who was “in the wrong” in 1965-66. This latest statement was not an attempt to revive the PKI, Mahfud stated. He emphasised that the 12 cases included those where Muslim preachers were the victims, such as with the santet killings of 1998-99. He added that the PPHAM report was not anti-Muslim: this emphasis is likely aimed at appeasing conservative Muslims, which have so far not reacted to the statement.

Mahfud’s defensiveness underlines the contradiction underpinning the government’s formal acknowledgement of past wrongs. Recognising the mass killings of 1965-66 as gross violations of human rights without mentioning any perpetrator, while denying the innocence of the victims through the refrain that “PKI was in the wrong” leaves important questions unanswered.

It is probable that, with about a year to go in Widodo’s second and final term as president, he is hoping that an official acknowledgement and some form of restoration of rights or compensation will be enough to quiet his critics.

The summary from the PPHAM team also left key questions hanging. Somewhat opaquely, it listed three factors as causes: state action by commission; state action by omission; and interaction between the first and second factors. The summary also described the rights violations as being caused by an “interaction of a number of factors”, with “no single factor…identified as a cause”.

The ambiguities will provoke many Indonesians to demand further elucidation. Already there have been many critiques and statements of frustration in response to Widodo and the PPHAM’s statements. While there are numerous calls for the government to deepen the process of addressing human rights violations, there appears to be little formal opposition to Widodo’s statement.

The PPHAM’s summary gave ten recommendations to the government. Some relate to the writing of an official history of the violations, including collecting documentation and data on the victims. Others focus on steps to ensure greater awareness of the violations and implementing measures to ensure that similar violations would not happen again. A key recommendation relates to the restoration of the rights of victims “as citizens” – although what this means is not explained. There is a recommendation that the state “complete its responsibilities” to victims, which is also not explained. There is some speculation that this latter point may refer to material compensation to the families of the victims.

The fall of Suharto in 1998 from mass pressure for democratic reform is what helped to set in motion the erosion of the taboo around public discussion of the events of 1965-66. This erosion promises to open new narratives on Indonesian history but also threatens the impunity which the perpetrators of these 12 and other significant cases of rights violations have so far enjoyed.

Spokespersons for the Widodo government since 2014 have regularly stated that they are seeking a “completion” (penyelesaian) of this issue, implying that once there is “resolution”, there will correspondingly be no further need for public debate. It is probable that, with about a year to go in Widodo’s second and final term as president, he is hoping that an official acknowledgement and some form of restoration of rights or compensation will be enough to quiet his critics.

However, this erosion of one of Indonesia’s fundamental historical taboos is unlikely to be so easily stopped. The numerous critiques of the government from civil society, including at least one calling for the lifting of the ban on Marxism-Leninism, shows that the pressure for change will not abate.

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Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.