Rory James – Last month, Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo formally acknowledged 12 episodes of historical human rights violations by government agencies between 1965 and 2003.
Chief among the atrocities acknowledged were the 1965-66 anti-communist purges, when around 500,000 suspected communists were killed by government forces and auxiliary militias, with the support of the British and U.S. governments. Others included the 1997-8 disappearances of pro-democracy activists, and the anti-Chinese violence that took place in May 1998, during the tumult accompanying the fall of President Suharto.
Stopping short of an apology, Jokowi stated that his government was "making every effort to ensure that gross human rights abuses will not occur again in Indonesia in the future."
The speech marks the culmination of a presidential campaign promise that Jokowi made in 2014 to investigate past abuses, and follows the conclusion of a formal, but non-judicial, investigation initiated last year.
The admission was a welcome surprise in a region of the world where rights violations are rarely reflected upon publicly. Jokowi is only the second Indonesian president to acknowledge the anti-communist massacres of 1965-66, after Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000, and the first to formally acknowledge the other incidents, marking a significant moment for a nation recently emerged from the authoritarian rule of Suharto's New Order.
While much of Indonesian civil society welcomed the acknowledgment as a step toward greater accountability, and applauded the government's inclusion of human rights activists in the team that conducted the investigation, some are skeptical about the government's true motives, given that its process does not envision bringing any perpetrators to justice.
"It's not justice, but a pragmatic approach to provide some kind of so-called reconciliation with the victims, because Jokowi feels the judicial mechanism is not adequate," said Andreas Harsono of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch Indonesia.
He said that the omission of many prominent rights abuses from the president's acknowledgement, such as those committed during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the 1967 anti-Chinese massacres in Kalimantan, and the countless unresolved rights violations in Papua, suggests that it was a political maneuver rather than a signal of a genuine commitment to reform and justice.
As evidence of continued military impunity, Harsono pointed to the acquittal in December 2022 of Isak Sattu, an Indonesian soldier who allegedly took part in the Bloody Paniai massacre in Papua on December 8, 2014. Four Papuans were killed and 17 injured when soldiers from Nabire 753 Arpita Military Battalion opened fire on civilians protesting the torture of 14-year-old Yulianus Yeimo and three friends by soldiers the previous night. Yeimo died due to complications from his injuries in 2018.
Yones Douw, a prominent West Papuan human rights defender, denied any sincerity on the part of the government, telling The Diplomat that the state was "protecting the perpetrators."
"Jokowi's words hide the fact that gross human rights violations are still happening, and they are not just one or two cases, but hundreds, still unresolved by the government," he said.
The 12 human rights issues acknowledged by Jokowi did include two incidents from Papua: the 2001 Wasior incident, when 27 Papuans were extrajudicially executed and 140 people detained, tortured, or abused by the Indonesian Mobile Police Brigade, and the 2003 Wasior incident, when around 50 civilians were killed, and thousands displaced in sweeping operations by military and police following an armory raid by independence fighters.
But for Douw and others, countless other Papuan rights abuses have been glossed over, and the current government policy toward Papua contradicts Jokowi's recent message of redress and contrition. Since 2021, increased Indonesian military operations in Papua, a response to growing separatist attacks, have displaced more than 60,000 civilians, while Papuan representatives calling for self-determination, like Victor Yeimo, have been arrested and detained indeterminately, often in poor conditions.
Benny Wenda, interim Papuan president in exile in the U.K. and leader of the Free West Papua Campaign, told The Diplomat that "in Indonesia, business and military are deeply connected. Their military operations are not about 'sovereignty,' but business." He referenced the recent discovery of the Wabu Block gold deposits in the central highlands of Papua as an example of the financial interests that have shaped Jakarta's current Papuan policy.
"Powerful Indonesian leaders like Luhut Pandjaitan (the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment) hold interests in the Wabu Block gold mine in Intan Jaya," Wenda said. "Indonesian military are directly involved and the government are involved. So they cannot bring criminals to justice when they're all invested in making money from West Papua."
Following increased conflict over the discovery of the Wabu Block, the government declared armed Papuan rebel groups "terrorists" in April 2021. That unlocked the legal mechanism for the deployment of special forces and increased military operations, such as the Nemangkawi Task Force, who have swept through the highlands, claiming countless civilian lives. Meanwhile, in July of that year, the government extended Papua's controversial Special Autonomy Status, which has been rejected by many Papuans for its failure to tackle systemic racism and improve living standards for Indigenous communities, prompting large protests across the region.
In June of last year, the government took an additional step, splitting the two Papuan provinces of West Papua and Papua into five new provinces, in a move widely criticized as a plot to further divide Papuan communities and justify the establishment of new military and police bases.
Papuan pastor Dr. Socratez Yoman alleged that the "new provinces are only for political and military purposes" and to advance the government's transmigration program, which has made Indigenous Papuans a minority in many areas of their homeland and kept them almost entirely excluded from the region's business and politics.
"Jokowi's acknowledgment and regret only convinced the U.N. and international community that the government has an intention to uphold human rights," Douw said. "There is zero implementation of this in Papua. What we have is increased troop deployments, military operations, and continued violations against Papuan civilians."
Others have pointed to Jokowi's failure to keep an election promise to revoke the 1997 Law on Military Courts, which prevents the civilian judiciary from investigating and prosecuting military personnel. The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) said in a press release that Jokowi's admission "omits institutional reforms that have enabled serious violations of human rights" and stated that the president had "not followed through on his promises."
KontraS expressed concern the admission would "lead to undue attention on non-judicial mechanisms while overlooking bad practices of the human rights court system."
Not all have dismissed Jokowi's move as insincere. Baskara Wardaya, director of the Center for History and Political Ethics at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta, who works with victims of the anti-communist massacres of 1965-66, said that the admission, while "not comprehensive," was nonetheless "ground-breaking."
He said that discussing rights violations by the military was a "political taboo" but there are "signs that Jokowi wants to make necessary reforms in Indonesian society in general, including the military. But he also knows the military is a very strong entity that cannot be dealt with carelessly. Any miscalculation could create disastrous repercussion."
There have been four official trials in court for gross human rights violations committed by Indonesian forces – the 1984 Tanjung Priok massacre, the 1999 East Timor atrocities, the 2000 Abepura incident in Papua, and the 2022 Bloody Paniai trial – none of which were mentioned in Jokowi's announcement. In each case, the defendants were acquitted of all charges. However, last month, Maj. Helmanto Fransiskus Dakhi was sentenced to life in prison by a military court for the mutilation and murder of four civilians in August 2022 in Mimika regency, in the newly created province of Central Papua, a move that has been welcomed as a rare instance of justice for abuses committed in Papua.
Regarding the 1965 massacres, the most serious and large-scale of the 12 cases acknowledged by the president, Jokowi "wants people to be able to address it more openly, at the same time avoid provoking any backlash from the military," said Baskara.
Indeed, Jokowi must walk a fine line in addressing rights violations by security forces given the strong military presence in government. Several senior politicians are ex-military officers directly implicated in some of the 12 incidents acknowledged by Jokowi.
In the 2014 presidential election, when Jokowi beat his rival Prabowo Subianto – an ex-special forces commander responsible for orchestrating the disappearances of pro-democracy activists in 1997-8 and implicated in the anti-Chinese May 1998 riots – he promised the investigation and an end to military impunity.
However, after once again defeating Prabowo at the 2019 election, Jokowi made the ex-general (and former son-in-law of President Suharto) his defense minister – a profile that allowed Prabowo to travel to the United States despite a previous ban over his history of human rights violations. He also promoted several other controversial ex-military figures, while only initiating the investigation into past military violations in 2022, eight years after his election promises and just one year before he leaves office.
The Indonesian-Chinese human rights lawyer, Veronica Koman, who lived through the anti-Chinese riots of May 1998, took to Twitter to express her disappointment over the "small win," saying "many of the perpetrators are part of (Jokowi's) administration" and "still leaders of this country."
The next election is scheduled for February 2024 and is likely to see Prabowo run for president for the third time, facing off against a number of civilian politicians, including Ganjar Pranowo, governor of Central Java and Jokowi's preferred successor, and Puan Maharani, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
During his last two presidential campaigns Prabowo promised to use military efficiency to speed up infrastructure and agricultural projects. Among them were the controversial Food Estates Program, which has escalated rights violations in West Papua and Borneo – a contract he awarded in 2020 to PT Agrinas, a company run by members of his own inner circle. According to the latest opinion poll from December, Prabowo enjoys a 10 percent lead as preferred presidential candidate.
Harsono of Human Rights Watch said that if Prabowo won the presidency, it would represent "another landmark for impunity in Indonesia. Another landmark for how human rights is ignored by successive Indonesian governments."
[Rory James is an investigative journalist based in Vietnam, focusing on human rights, environment, Indigenous peoples, resource extraction, and conflict.]