Wiranto helms the ministry tasked to look into human rights issues, but is himself accused of human rights violations. By Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Licence for Impunity

Author: Eduard Lazarus

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.

There is no evidence for such a claim, but worries that the government would be making amends were misplaced. Then-Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, stated that “it remains a long way for the government to ever issue a formal apology [for the events of 1965]”.

In Indonesia, the military often has a vested interest in human rights issues — or to be exact, their concealment

The Indonesian military has always staunchly opposed communism, which comes as no surprise when you consider it’s key role in the the 1965 massacre — an important detail that remained missing even from the government-held symposium.

And although the 1965 massacre remains the most notorious, it’s far from the only case of severe human rights abuses stemming from military violence across the archipelago. According to social researcher Marshudi Noorsalim (link in Bahasa Indonesia), military violence was prominent during Suharto’s New Order regime from 1966 to 1998, such as the 1984 mass killing of an Islamic group in Tanjung Priok; evicting settlers living near a dam project in 1989; and shooting farmers in Madura in 1993, to name but a few. In addition, Noorsalim also points to military violence during the implementation of military operational zones in Aceh province from 1989 to 1999; in East Timor (also known as Timor-Leste) from 1975 to 1999; and in Papua from 1960 to 1998. In fact, military violence continues in Papua today.

Any attempt to bring justice to human rights victims would therefore likely be perceived by high-ranking military figures as a direct attack on not only the military institution, but also on its most prominent members; that is, themselves. This is why, in Indonesia, the military often has a vested interest in human rights issues — or to be exact, their concealment.


A problematic choice

Jokowi announced Wiranto’s appointment as the Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal and Security Affairs four months after the government symposium concluded. It was a choice ridiculed by civil society groups and human rights organisations; Wiranto himself has been plagued with allegations of involvement in numerous human rights violations during Indonesia’s turbulent reformation period in 1998, when he served as Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces. During his tenure, reformation activists were kidnapped, tortured and murdered during the months of mass protests that occurred across the nation.

When Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999, the Indonesian military under Wiranto allegedly supported armed anti-independence militia groups that killed hundreds of people and sexually assaulted women. Wiranto’s involvement in these incidents resulted in an indictment by the United Nations’ Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) in 2003, charging him with “command responsibility for murder, deportation and persecution committed in the context of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population in East Timor”.

Santa Cruz Massacre Protest - New Naratif
A 1998 re-enactment and protest against the Santa Cruz Massacre in Timor Leste, when pro-independence Timorese protesters were shot in the Santa Cruz cemetery on 12 November 1991. By Mark Rhomberg/ETAN (http://etan.org/etanphoto/schmid/die-in.jpg) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Those who wondered about the ramifications of appointing an alleged notorious human rights violator to supervise human rights issues didn’t have to wait long to find out. By late 2016, Wiranto announced his plan to form a National Harmony Board (DKN)—an organisation that will consist (link in Bahasa Indonesia) of 17 members comprising religious and societal figures—to address human rights violations via the non-judicial means of reconciliation. Little explanation was given as to what these “non-judicial means” would be. According to Wiranto (link in Bahasa Indonesia), DKN will be “a way to resolve conflicts that more accurately reflect Indonesian values of mutual understandingrather than “unnecessarily punishing people that could create even more conflict”.

Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch argues that the concept of harmony employed by Wiranto in his invoking of “Indonesian values” is essentially problematic as it’s based on differences between the majority and minority.

He illustrates this problem using the case of Indonesia’s Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB) that consists of representatives from different religions. “The problem is, members of this forum must be proportional to the religious population of each region. If 85% of Jakarta’s residents are Muslim, then 85% of the forum members in Jakarta must be Muslim as well. In any case of voting, the majority would easily win. Since FKUB was founded in 2006, more than 1000 churches in Indonesia were shut down in the name of religious harmony,” he tells New Naratif.

Harsono asserts that this notion of harmony is detrimental to the pursuit of justice. “To achieve justice, we must firstly aim to find the truth. But the notion of harmony gives the powerful majority veto power to be exercised towards the powerless minority. For example, Kalimantan Island has more than 6500 ethnic Madurese people [who] remain missing, probably killed, in the communal violence involving the Madurese minority and the bigger ethnic Malay and Dayak groups between 1997 and 2001. The Dayak and Malay groups are much more powerful. Those bigger groups might easily say, ‘Alright, you can receive two million rupiah of compensation money, and we don’t need to speak of the truth, in the name of harmony’”, says Harsono.

According to the director of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), Asfinawati, alleged human rights violators such as Wiranto have established positions of power in the current political system, making any effort to achieve justice by suing them a difficult one. “By doing this, they are able to abuse their power and create mechanisms that prevent them [from being] brought to court”, she says.

Although DKN has not yet been officially convened, there’s already been proposals to broaden its scope to not only reconcile previous human rights violations, but also mediate current “national horizontal or vertical conflicts”, and also prevent ones that may occur in the future. Such suggestions have triggered concern that DKN will be given overly broad powers to handle any conflict deemed to be of “national importance”.

“To achieve justice, we must firstly aim to find the truth. But the notion of harmony gives the powerful majority veto power to be exercised towards the powerless minority”

According to Asfinawati, the mechanism of mediation employed by DKN may potentially be threatening when applied to conflicts created by injustice rather than misunderstandings. While mediation might be essential to dealing with conflicts between religious and ethnic groups, it’s obvious that this isn’t the case in agrarian conflicts such as land-grabbing, where people are stripped of their homes and land, and will therefore continue to fight for their rights. According to Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA), there has been 659 cases (link in Bahasa Indonesia) of agrarian conflict in 2017 alone; out of these, there were 21 cases of violence committed by members of the police force, while military personnel were directly involved in 11 violent incidents.

“In cases of conflicts created by injustice, the only proper solution is to deliver justice to the victims,” says Asfinawati.


Stuck In bureaucratic purgatory

Since the nationwide reformation after 1998 that curbed the excessive military power used to exert influence over the populace, several investigations of past human rights abuses have been conducted by the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and civil society organisations. However, most of these investigations did not end up with the prosecution of any perpetrator.

“Thus far, there have been several scenarios involving different state institutions that hampers the judicial process for cases of human rights violations”, says Asfinawati. “A typical scenario is that the Attorney General would reject a case submitted by the National Commission for Human Rights, citing the lack of suspect names listed in the case files. This is clearly fallacious reasoning, as it is the task of the Attorney General to determine suspects, not the Commission for Human Rights.”

Stuck in this pattern, a case can pinball back and forth between the Attorney General and Komnas HAM for years, even as officials in both institutions are replaced with new faces.

Taufan Damanik, the current chair of Komnas HAM, confirms this problem, explaining that nine Komnas HAM investigations of human rights violations have been dismissed by the Attorney General’s office. These cases involve the massacre of 1965, forced disappearances and murders of activists, two cases of extrajudicial killing by the military in Aceh province, the massacre of an Islamic group in Lampung province, and human rights violations in Papua.

“With our limited authority, it is understandable that there will be data and evidence that the National Commission for Human Rights cannot fulfil. [For example], we do not have the warrant to search for documents stored in restricted areas nor forcefully summon witness or suspects related to a case. The Attorney General does have that authority. They even have the authority to delegate their authority to the National Commision for Human Rights, although they haven’t done so,” says Damanik.

The authorities have historically abused the bureaucratic process to avoid conducting rightful trials, but activists and experts have pointed out (link in Bahasa Indonesia) that the ongoing yet speedy process of forming DKN is anything but constitutional, as Indonesian law states that the Coordinating Ministry of Law holds no mandate to form a body to solve human rights issues. Asfinawati adds that the Ministry can only coordinate respective institutions and ensure their smooth functioning in addressing human rights issues. Ending the perpetual dispute between the Attorney General and Komnas HAM falls perfectly into this jurisdiction, as a trial remains the only lawful mechanism to solve human rights conflicts.

“Our children are gone, and they are not coming back. What we are doing is for [their deaths] to have meaning”

Survivors of human rights abuse and their families have also been vehemently rejecting DKN. Sumarsih, the mother of student activist Bernardinus Realino Norma Irawan (Wawan) who was shot dead in a mass protest against the Suharto government in 1998, insists that a judicial process is the only mechanism that fits Indonesia’s reformation ideals.

“Our children are gone, and they are not coming back. What we are doing is for [their deaths] to have meaning. As Wawan’s mother, I am fighting for the third reformation agenda of upholding the rule of law. The Indonesian law governing human rights trials requires investigations to be held by Komnas HAM and accessed by the Attorney General. If it there is evidence of severe human rights abuse, the President should issue a decree for a human rights tribunal to be convened. This very process, this mechanism is what we are fighting for,” Sumarsih tells New Naratif.

Tuba Abdurrahim was forcefully detained by the government in 1965 and made to work in labour camps for 23 years. He, too, demands that the nation fulfil the rights of its citizens. “[These include] the right for truth, which requires us to revisit our country’s history; the right for justice, which means solving these cases through court; the right for reparation of [the survivors’] mental and physical state; and finally, the right to be ensured that the same thing will not happen again,” he explains.

Jokowi and Ma'ruf - New Naratif
Incumbent Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his running mate for the 2019 presidential election, Ma’ruf Amin.

Will the government finally heed such a  call for justice, or will Tuba’s demands fall on deaf ears? The impending Indonesian elections in April 2019, which will pit incumbent Jokowi alongside cleric Ma’ruf Amin (renowned for his discriminatory fatwa against religious and sexual minorities) against longtime candidate Prabowo Subianto (notorious for his own share of human rights abuses during his military career), provides little hope that concern for human rights will be a priority of the next administration.

At the moment, the future looks very bleak indeed.


Eduard Lazarus

Eduard Lazarus is a writer living in Jakarta. Previously, he was an editor for Remotivi, an independent publication for media studies in Indonesia. He currently campaigns cultural policy with Indonesia Arts Coalition.

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