Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies, Singapore/Jakarta – President Joko Widodo says he deeply regrets gross human rights violations committed in Indonesia in the past, among them an anti-communist purge in 1965 and 1966 in which 500,000 people were murdered, indicating his government would issue compensation to families to achieve reconciliation.
Having begun his final full year in office, Widodo, known as Jokowi, addressed the darkest chapter in his country's history on Wednesday, listing 12 atrocities between the 1960s and 2003 including the forced disappearances of protesters against the Suharto government and the shooting of civilians by the military in incidents in Aceh and Papua.
"With a clear mind and earnest heart, I, as Indonesia's head of state, admit that gross human rights violations did happen in many occurrences, and I deeply regret these human rights abuses," he said.
"I have deep sympathy and empathy for the victims and victims' families. Therefore, first of all, the government and I are trying to restore the victims' rights in a fair and wise manner without negating the judicial settlement. Second, the government and I hope that serious human rights will no longer occur in Indonesia in the future."
Indonesia has long been grappling with the brutality of its past, most notably with the mass killings of 1965-66 and the circumstances in which they took place.
More than half a million people are estimated to have been massacred in a matter of months and a million others imprisoned in a campaign triggered by the kidnapping and execution of six army officers that was wrongly blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (the PKI) and branded an attempted coup.
Australia, the United States and Britain were found by a civil tribunal in The Hague in 2016 to have been complicit in the attacks by repeating the false propaganda of the Indonesian armed forces. The military was led by Suharto then. He would go on to rule for 32 years.
Widodo was speaking after receiving a report from a government-led taskforce on human rights abuses he commissioned last year.
He had pledged to resolve the greatest stains on his country's human rights record during his successful presidential runs in 2014 and 2019. In 2016 arranged a symposium on the 1965-66 slaughter that was seen as a significant step in recognising crimes against humanity.
But he has been criticised for not properly confronting the systemic butchery of six decades ago, in particular the involvement of the armed forces, who academics have said were behind it.
"A real reconciliation should be based on the truth, at least, a serious effort to document, to study, to investigate what happened in all of those mass killings," Human Rights Watch Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono said on Wednesday.
"If President Jokowi is serious about past human rights violations, he should first order a government effort to investigate these mass killings, to document mass graves, and to find their families, to match the graves and their families, as well as to set up a commission to decide what to do next.
"He needs to do more than just airing his positions but makes sure to appoint the right persons to lead the national police and the Attorney-General office."
Widodo is approaching the end of his two five-year terms as president and has been busy trying to secure his legacy. Voters are to elect his successor in February 2024.
At the heart of his priorities is his $US34 billion ($49 billion) relocation of the national capital from Jakarta to Borneo, but addressing rights violations is among the other items on the agenda.
He did not specify exactly how victims' rights would be restored.
But Max Lane, a visiting senior fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Indonesia, said he suspected a compensation fund may be established for victims of rights abuses as a way for Widodo to try to draw a line under the past.