During his first ever Independence Day speech as President of Indonesia in 2015, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced (link in Bahasa Indonesia) his administration’s commitment to solve human rights cases in the hopes that “future generations do not carry the burden of the past. He then proceeded, the very next year, to undermine this bold statement by appointing ex-Major General Wiranto—himself accused of human rights violations—to helm the coordinating ministry that oversees human rights issues.  

To understand how military figures exert their influence over human rights discourse in Indonesia, one can look to an event in 2016. In April that year, the Indonesian government held a symposium to unravel the details behind the massacre of alleged communists in 1965 that resulted in the deaths of an estimated half a million people. The symposium brought together survivors, academics and officials, and concluded with an acknowledgement of state involvement as Sidarto Danusubroto, member of the Presidential Advisory Council (Wantimpres), stated that “[t]here were vertical conflicts in 1965, but we must admit state involvement in the tragedy”. Following long years of silence, such a rare statement appeared to be the first step towards reconciliation and transitional justice.

Yet the ideal follow-up to Sidarto’s statement—such as the convening of a human rights trial—has not materialised. Instead, the symposium was quickly met with a hostile response from military officials who retaliated with aggressive anti-communist propaganda. Anti-communist figures—mostly from military or religious backgrounds—held a rival symposium a month later decrying the “latent dangers of communist insurgence”. It was  a formulaic yet effective tactic in Indonesia, resonating with a vague yet deep-rooted fear of communism within the populace. Kivlan Zen, a retired major general, wildly stated (link in Bahasa Indonesia) at the event that there are 60 million people— nearly a quarter of the entire country’s population —who remain followers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) even though the party was dissolved in 1966.

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Eduard Lazarus

Eduard Lazarus is a writer and editor living in Jakarta covering media and political movements. His past work encompasses editing for Remotivi, a Jakarta-based independent media studies publication, and writing on cultural policy for Indonesia Arts Coalition.