News & Updates 30 June 2023

Indonesia: Rushing for a Remedy without Recognition

This article was published in the paper edition of The Jakarta Post with the title ”Rushing for a remedy without recognition”. Click to read:

“I never expected this to happen in my lifetime,” said a gracious Suryomartono, an 80-year-old Indonesian exile from the Czech Republic, who lost his citizenship in 1965 amid the 1965-66 communist purge.

Standing next to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at a ceremony in a former torture center, Rumoh Geudong, in Pidie, Aceh, on Tuesday, Suryomartono represented a group of people often referred to as “victims of the 1965 violence”.

In the purge, hundreds of thousands of citizens were detained without trial, and up to a million were killed by groups organized and supported by the military. An inquiry by the National Commission on Human Rights in 2008 found that crimes against humanity had occurred and recommended that the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) launch a full investigation into the atrocities.

However, the AGO has never taken that recommendation into account, and a human rights tribunal to settle the tragedy has never been established.

Taking a closer look at the ceremony in Pidie, there is a fundamental gap between Jokowi’s human rights commitment and its realization, which is evident in several ways. First, it comes too late, as Jokowi is taking action to fulfill his 2014 campaign promise only during his last year in power. Second, his decision to cherry-pick 12 “cold cases” is too little to convince the domestic audience, let alone the international community, of the state’s respect for human rights.

Third, the presidential decree signed in August 2022 to form an ad hoc team, known as the PPHAM team, to review past crimes against humanity created a rushed approach that has sparked doubt and distrust in the government, especially among the victims and civil society groups. One of their reservations about the government’s initiative is the selection of the team members, who include a retired military officer with a link to past human rights abuses.

After a series of “focus group discussions” with victims, the team handed over its report to the President in January of this year. Its contents have never been made public.

When receiving the report, President Jokowi expressed regret over the past human rights violations, but there was no mention of an apology. Later, Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD, who is in charge of overseeing the PPHAM team, said the government would never apologize for the state-sponsored human rights violations.

Those with access to the PPHAM report have said the team’s findings do not include any discussion of responsibility. Neither does it mention any suspected perpetrators of the atrocities. The recommendations of the team focus only on the rehabilitation of victims and the provision of services and assistance to the victims, which mostly have been in place in the form of poverty alleviation measures.

The ceremony in Pidie on Tuesday marked a start of the implementation of the rehabilitative measures. However, the ruins of Rumoh Geudong were cleared to create a space for a giant tent, where the ceremony was held.

Many survivors of the Aceh atrocities and their advocates had worked hard to keep this memorable site unchanged with dignity, preserving painful memories of the past to ensure the abuses would never happen again. Unsurprisingly, they were shocked by the government’s act of negligence.

An elderly victim of torture at Rumoh Geudong, Tengku Abdul Wahab, expressed his frustration.

“They should have apologized and the perpetrators must face justice. I don’t want Rumoh Geudong to be destroyed. My blood was spilled here,” he said. During the ceremony, eight victims were selected to symbolically receive their “rehabilitation” in the form of a card from the President. However, they had little opportunity to speak in length about the violations they experienced, the impact of the abuses on their lives or their aspirations for change. Instead, the ceremony felt like an “award presentation ceremony” for winners of a lottery, in which people are selected by chance to win a prize.

A PowerPoint presentation showed examples of what the victims would receive, ranging from cash and medical services to scholarships and agricultural tools.

The rushed policy did not result in a definitive list of victims, causing confusion among other people who also suffered from past atrocities and their families. Civil society and community groups who have been closely working with them have been flooded with queries and questions but do not know the answers.

Indonesia has the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. We must understand the process to do this job: consulting victims and their advocates and creating an inclusive mechanism to create a registry of victims. Civil society groups can contribute to this work. The registry of victims is expected to provide a holistic picture of the truth: What happened, who did what to whom and why.

Looking at the practice in other countries, listening to victims and putting them at the center of designing, implementing and monitoring these measures are key.

“Top-down approaches fail,” Prof. Clara Sandoval-Villalba, a human rights advocate from Colombia said, as she shared her experience in developing sustainable and effective reparations programs in a recent workshop. 

Many data collection processes can confuse victims. It is important to create an inclusive process, which in the case of Indonesia can take form in plural truth-seeking efforts, from official to civil society led-processes, with an aim to collect victims’ stories.

Resources need to be put aside from the state budget, as pledging services from the existing programs will provide little security in the long run. Human rights victims have suffered and been forgotten for decades, if not years. Rehabilitating their rights will also take decades.

We must accept that the non-judicial settlement to the 12 past human rights abuses is just a first step that must be corrected based on victims’ feedback and the lessons we learn. Victims’ rights are holistic and interconnected. We must stand by the struggle for truth, justice and reparation, and the promise to not let human rights violations happen again.  

Galuh Wandita is director of Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR).