By Michael Vatikiotis
Modern Indonesian history is a long tableau of violent struggle, first for freedom, then for power, and over much of the past 40 years, over faith and identity. Most of the victims of this long struggle have been ordinary people. Neither a true account of all their suffering, nor justice of any kind has been granted to any of them.
Yet the victims of atrocities, relatives or survivors never forget the trauma. All too often politics is blind to their suffering, or the law imposes limits on liability. So when for instance survivors of a massacre perpetrated by Dutch colonial soldiers in a Javanese village in 1947 recently brought their case to The Hague, which by coincidence is home to the International Criminal Court, Dutch public prosecutors ruled that the statute of limitations on the atrocity ran out in 1971.
Local villagers allege that 450 people were killed by Dutch colonial troops in the village of Rawagede during the war of Independence – the Dutch authorities challenge this and say at most 150 died. All the same, even though a lower court in The Hague ruled in favor of the victims, there will be no justice.
If memories of Indonesia’s trauma under Dutch colonial rule can still stir the quest for justice, what about those who went on to suffer after Indonesia gained independence? At long last there is some hope on the horizon.
A report issued at the end of July by the National Human Rights Commission of Jakarta analyses the aftermath of the attempted coup in September 1965 that unleashed a ferocious backlash against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). It recommended that the government launch a national reconciliation process and the Attorney General follow up and prosecute those found to be responsible. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono swiftly lent support to the call for justice and urged the Attorney General to follow up. Yudhoyono is reportedly considering framing a formal national apology for all human rights abuses since 1965 to be announced before he leaves office in 2014.
As many as between half a million and possibly up to one million people were killed as the army supported by local militias rampaged across the country torturing and slaughtering anyone identified as even faintly associated with the PKI. Almost half a century later, it is still hard to uncover the truth and despite the country’s democratic transition, a culture of silence prevails.
Of course, it is scarcely credible that so many souls are extinguished and no one wants justice for their murder. For more than three decades, the victims suffered in silence under an authoritarian government that was still executing alleged members of the communist party two decades after the coup. Sadly, the quest for justice has not been much easier under democratic rule.
Six years after the downfall of President Suharto, a law was passed on truth and reconciliation. The law fell well short of ensuring either truth or reconciliation because according to the bill’s provisions, only when the government grants the perpetrators an amnesty can the victims be given compensation. And amnesty is given only after the victims grant forgiveness.
It’s hard to forgive when you don’t know what happened. Democracy has made little difference to what children are taught in school about the events of 1965, which still focuses on the six generals murdered on the night of 30th September; nothing is said about the bloody aftermath. Communism may no longer be an ideological force to reckon with, but it remains officially banned in Indonesia. Attempts to honor some of the dead exhumed from mass graves have been disrupted and human rights activists intimidated.
One would think that with the military stripped of their political power, there would be little impediment to the truth about how special army units distributed weapons and encouraged militia groups and ordinary villagers to bludgeon their neighbors to death so that rivers ran red with their blood. Not so. The military may be technically relegated to the barracks, but the current president is a former general whose father-in-law, Sarwo Edhi Wibowo, led the special forces units ordered to eliminate the PKI across Java and Bali in 1966. Moves towards addressing the 1965 killings have already galvanized some groups of retired officers to lobby against any move towards prosecution.
Perhaps with more at stake in hiding the truth than the army are some of the country’s largest Muslim organizations, which lent a well-documented helping hand in the slaughter. Such is the nature of power and politics in Indonesia today that it would be a foolish politician who demands they be held accountable – especially as elections approach in 2014.
So even with this latest call for reconciliation and justice, the victims will likely have a long wait. They will most likely die before either truth or justice can be delivered. Move on, let bygones be bygones, they will be told. Nothing has been said or done for so long, why open up old wounds?
So if justice won’t be forthcoming at the national level, what are the victims to do? Perhaps they could learn from their neighbors in East Timor, where the newly independent government has been similarly reluctant to delve too far into the truth behind more than a quarter of century of violence before and during Indonesian rule. There are more than 60 million Javanese, but East Timor lost more than two hundred thousand people, as much as half of its natural population over those years.
Frustrated that a government-backed truth commission led only to whitewash and a meek and muted apology from Indonesia, Timorese communities have developed their own mechanisms for coping with their loss, drawing on local memories and building local memorials. It doesn’t compensate them very much or amount to accountability, but it does remind surviving generations of their loss, and hopefully acts as a deterrent. If only the victims of Java would be permitted even this small gesture of memory. Given prevailing political trends and realities, and recalling recent aborted attempts to recognize those who died, it doesn’t seem likely.
Mr. Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. His just published novel “The Painter of Lost Souls” dwells on the victims of the PKI killings in 1965.