The memoir of a former human rights commission official gives insights into handling of human rights in Indonesia in the late New Order and early reformasi period
The winner of the July 2014 Indonesian presidential election, Joko Widodo, has pledged to investigate past crimes against humanity, including the 1997-1998 disappearances of 13 pro-democracy activists. He is likely to come under pressure to investigate numerous unresolved human rights abuse cases, including crimes committed in 1965. One of the new president’s main mechanisms for conducting such investigations will be the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM).
In this context, a book by a former member of Komnas HAM, Dr Bambang W Soeharto, about his time with this organisation is potentially revelatory. The book, Menangani Konflik di Indonesia (Handling Conflict in Indonesia) provides some interesting detail about a number of post-Suharto era conflicts where human rights violations occurred. Most intriguing however, is what it reveals about Dr Bambang’s role as a senior member of Komnas HAM in the period straddling the New Order and reformasi eras.
The book suggests that at the time he was a member of Komnas HAM, the focus of Dr Bambang’s work was not on exposing human rights abuses, nor on seeking justice for victims of abuse. Rather the main focus was to promote a certain kind of peace-building ahead of exposing human rights abuses.
An example of this approach is Dr Bambang’s treatment of the East Timor conflict in a chapter titled ‘Post Referendum Conflict in East Timor’. He explains that prior to the August 1999 referendum, the Indonesian security forces commander believed the referendum results would favour Indonesia, though he pointedly notes it was unclear on what reports this belief was based. Unlike some other Indonesian officials, Dr Bambang does not question the accuracy of the referendum results, which showed only 21.5 per cent voting to remain part of Indonesia.
So far, this seems consistent with the international community’s accepted version of events. However, Dr Bambang goes on to describe the post-referendum situation as one of ‘quarrelling and conflict’ (‘pertikaian dan konflik’) between pro-integration and pro-independence supporters. He does not mention that the ‘quarrelling and conflict’ in East Timor in September 1999 produced outcomes that were one-sided and extreme: of the six biggest massacres of September 1999 (in Dili, Suai, Maliana, Passabe, Maquelab, and Lautem), all were committed by armed pro-integration groups against unarmed pro-independence supporters.
Dr Bambang’s creative even-handedness continues as he describes how a group of pro-independence supporters at Dili harbour on 4 September 1999 (most probably trying to evacuate) ‘quarrelled’ with pro-integration supporters and fled to a nearby Catholic diocesan building. This ‘angered’ the pro-integration supporters, who subsequently burned the building down. The following day, another diocesan compound in Dili was attacked by pro-integration supporters, who bashed many people taking refuge there, burned several buildings down and murdered 15 unarmed pro-independence supporters. Even this murderous event the author tries to describe in an even-handed way, referring to it as a ‘violent incident’ in which ‘many people died’. Such an unwillingness to identify ‘killers’ and ‘victims’ echoes current American references to ‘collateral damage’ from their own murderous attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
By now the reader is beginning to realise, as the book title suggests – that the writer is concerned with ‘handling conflict’ rather than with pursuing justice. Dr Bambang notes with pride that ‘establishment of the KKP HAM (the Truth and Friendship Commission) was able to water down the calls of some countries for an International Criminal Tribunal for East Timor’. The Truth and Friendship Commission emerged as a political compromise, with a mandate to find out the truth about human rights violations in East Timor but not to recommend punishments. He acknowledges the Truth and Friendship Commission therefore could not find justice for human rights victims. Justice, he suggests, was being subverted to something that was more important in a democracy: political stability.
From a different time?
Dr Bambang W. Soeharto was appointed by the New Order regime as a foundational member of Komnas HAM at its establishment in 1993 and remained in this role until 2002. At the same time, he was a senior official in KOSGORO (Kesatuan Organisasi Serbaguna Gotong Royong) a Javanese organisation which claimed grassroots affiliation but which sought seats in the New Order’s ruling Golkar party. Perhaps Dr Bambang can be viewed as a survivor from a different era in Indonesian politics, when political compromise was rewarded ahead of outspokenness.
It is revealing that among the dignitaries who attended the launch of this book in 2013, there were no fewer than three former heads of the Indonesian armed forces: Try Sutrisno, Djoko Santoso and Wiranto. In 2013 Dr Bambang served a brief period as a senior official in Wiranto’s political party, Hanura, before being ousted after one of his companies was investigated for land title forgery. This association suggests that Dr Bambang is unconcerned about being connected with former heads of the Indonesian armed forces.
In fairness, the writer does identify a solution to some of the conflicts under discussion – such as stricter law enforcement to address the conflict in Kalimantan between Dayak and Madurese in 1997. Moreover, the writer identifies specific human rights violations, including the killing of four civilians by police trying to disperse demonstrators in Palangkaraya on 8 March 2001. However, on the whole, the book on ‘handling conflict’ seems far more concerned with political trouble-shooting than with upholding human rights.
Komnas HAM today
Today, however, it is hard to imagine Komnas HAM members being on such friendly terms with former national military commanders. And whilst Dr Bambang’s account suggests his work at Komnas HAM was focused on political trouble-shooting rather than on ensuring justice for victims, more recently Komnas HAM has been concerned with justice.
Its stated goals include protection and enforcement of human rights. To develop conditions conducive to the observance of fundamental human rights in accordance with Indonesia’s Pancasila philosophy, 1945 Constitution, and the UN Charter, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And to improve protection and enforcement of human rights so each Indonesian can develop wholly and be able to participate in various aspects of life.
In pursuing these aims, it faces significant limitations. Komnas HAM is not able to prosecute or forcefully detain anyone. There are many cases of people being summoned to give evidence to the Commission and simply refusing.
But Komnas HAM does have the power to shame people through public statements and written publications, and to gather evidence that can be used by government prosecuting teams. Regarding the post-referendum violence in East Timor in 1999, the Commission was independent enough to declare that pro-integration militias had been armed, trained and even commanded by elements of Indonesia’s military. With regard to the violence in Ambon in 2000, Komnas HAM publicly declared that many local police were taking sides and joining in the conflict. More recently, it found evidence of military complicity in the massacres of alleged communists in 1965, and recommended that the Attorney General investigate further.
Moreover, the 13 current Komnas HAM members come from a different era. Whilst it is true that members are selected by politicians who no doubt consider party interests when making selections, very few members have close ties to government. For example, current members include former non-government organisation (NGO) activists in the fields of the environment, human rights, cultural research and agrarian reform (Sandrayati Moniaga, Otto Nur Abdullah, Natalius Pigai, Muhammad Nur Khoiron and Dianto Bachriadi). Others include a former school teacher (Siane Indriani) and a member of the Indonesia Ulema Council (Maneger Nasution). None were appointed as members under the New Order regime and none are ex-military, ex-police or ex-politicians.
Nonetheless, under Indonesia’s new president, human rights activists will come up against powerful vested interests, just as human rights activists have in western countries. When they do so they will probably have Komnas HAM close by their side. But in the end, the best measure of whether they succeed will not be the amount of grandiose speeches by politicians, but whether or not human rights abuses continue.
Soeharto, Bambang W., Menangani Konflik di Indonesia, Jakarta: Kata Hasta Pustaka, 2013.
Warren Doull (email@example.com) is an ex-staff member of the United Nations Transitional Administration (UNTAET) in East Timor.
Inside Indonesia 117: Jul-Sep 2014