The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Indonesia admits historical rights violations — but shirks accountability

Indonesian President Joko Widodo reads vows taken by newly appointed ministers and deputy ministers during an inauguration at a presidential palace in Jakarta, in June 2022. (Willy Kurniawan/Reuters)
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Indonesian President Joko Widodo expressed regret Wednesday for egregious human rights violations in the country over the past six decades, including a U.S.-backed anti-communist purge that led to the massacre of some 500,000 Indonesians during the height of the Cold War. He promised to prevent similar violations from happening again but stopped short of explicitly admitting the government’s role in the atrocities or making any commitments to pursue accountability.

Widodo outlined 12 events in Indonesia’s history that were “regrettable,” including extrajudicial executions carried out under then-President Suharto in the 1980s and the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists in the 1990s.

“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,” Widodo said at a news conference outside the presidential palace in Jakarta. “I have sympathy and empathy for the victims and their families.”

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Widodo, who is nearing the end of his second and final term, also became only the second Indonesian president to publicly admit the wrongs of the military-led 1965 communist purge. In 2000, President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid publicly apologized to victims of the slaughter.

From 1965 to 1966, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed by army units and paramilitary groups based on allegations, often unverified, that they were associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The massacres came after the army accused the PKI of involvement in the murder of six top officers as part of a purported anti-military coup attempt by supporters of embattled President Sukarno, who had socialist sympathies, amid fears of a communist-led uprising. Indonesia had one of the largest nonruling communist parties in the world at the time.

Recently declassified documents from the State Department show that the despite having intimate knowledge of what was happening at the time, the United States largely stood by as the massacres unfolded and, in some instances, lent its support to the forces carrying out the slaughter.

While Widodo’s remarks were the clearest admission yet of Indonesia’s troubled human rights record, activists said they are still only a small step in the push for accountability, and they overlook more recent threats to human rights in the country. In December, Indonesia’s parliament adopted sweeping changes to its criminal code that, among other things, bans sex outside marriage.

“I’m not saying it’s not progress. But he could have done so much more than what he did today,” said Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher for Human Rights Watch. The advocacy group held meetings with members of Widodo’s administration in the days before he made his remarks, urging the government to announce more tangible commitments. What authorities came up with was “disappointing,” Harsono said.

“They say they want reconciliation,” he added. “But based on what? Based on what truth?”

Many of the relatives of those who were killed by the Indonesian army in the 1960s still don’t know where their loved ones are buried, he noted, and the government has done little to assist them. Rights groups have collected evidence of dozens of mass graves, though as recently as 2016, Widodo’s administration said it was not aware that any mass graves existed.

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Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International in Indonesia, said he saw Widodo’s remarks as a “formality.” The president delivered his statement after receiving a report from a task force that he set up last year to investigate rights violations. And while Widodo said the government was weighing options to “rehabilitate” the rights of victims, he did not provide details, Hamid noted

“There’s no clarity for what comes next,” he said.

Activists have called on the government to hold a human rights tribunal in the style of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which put perpetrators on the stand. But the government so far has seemed unwilling, Hamid said, perhaps because some of the accused would come from within their ranks.

Widodo’s defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, has for years faced allegations that he participated and oversaw some of the country’s worst human rights violations. In August, he said he planned to run for president in 2024.