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Time for truth

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Will victims of human rights abuses at last have their say?

Priyambudi Sulistiyanto

In 2003, I attended the launch of a documentary film entitled Bunga dan Tembok (Flowers and Walls) made by ELSAM, a human rights organisation in Jakarta. The documentary is a rich and moving compilation of stories from the victims of human rights abuses during the Suharto period. The film includes stories from victims of the 1965-66 killings, the Tanjung Priok (1984), Talangsari (1989) and Trisakti (1998) massacres, and abuses in Papua and Aceh. It also included Sipon, a poet in her own right and wife of the poet Wiji Thukul who ‘disappeared’ during the months leading to the fall of Suharto in 1998.

The film documents the stories of just some of the many thousands of Indonesians who lost their lives at the hands of the military during the long period of authoritarian rule under Suharto between 1966 and 1998. In the film, the victims share their stories with each other and ask the Indonesian government to recognise their suffering and rehabilitate their basic rights.

On 7 September 2004, Indonesia’s national parliament perhaps gave its answer. It enacted a new law to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Komisi Kebenaran dan Rekonsiliasi, KKR). Is this the step that these victims have been waiting for? Some see this step as too little, too late. Others think it is better than nothing.

Reconciliation (rekonsiliasi) has become a buzzword among political elites, intellectuals, religious leaders, human rights activists, lawyers, and students in post-Suharto Indonesia. However, there is no consensus about what it means, how it can be achieved or who will initiate it.

Indonesia began by using two strategies for dealing with past human rights abuses. The first, criminal prosecutions, has not fared well. There have been trials of military officers in the East Timor and Tanjung Priok cases, but the results were disappointing. A combination of military recalcitrance, political cowardice and legal conservatism has meant, for instance, that none of the military officers accused of human rights violations after the 1999 referendum in East Timor have been convicted.

Few people are optimistic now that the courts will provide justice for victims of past human rights abuses. Now all hopes are centred on the second strategy: the Truth Commission. This strategy avoids the courts, and instead relies on truth-telling, which allows for broader processes of rehabilitation, restitution, forgiveness and meeting the needs of the victims.

The idea of establishing a truth commission emerged during a meeting between the Indonesian Human Rights Commission and then President BJ Habibie in 1998. But it took a long time to get it off the ground. President Abdurrahman Wahid gave it a boost when he visited South Africa in April 2000 to meet with members of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many members of human rights organisations in Indonesia were enthusiastic supporters, as were some bureaucrats and academics. But it often seemed that truth and reconciliation was a low priority for Indonesia’s politicians. At times, the idea seemed to have all but disappeared. Six years later, however, human rights advocates finally have a law that at least some are pleased with.

The new Commission will be divided into three sub-commissions: one will investigate gross human rights crimes; the second will focus on compensation, restitution and rehabilitation; while the third will consider amnesties for perpetrators. The Commission has the power to accept reports from both victims and perpetrators of past gross human rights crimes. It is also required to give opinions to the president regarding the granting or withholding of amnesty for perpetrators.

The members of the Commission, up to 20 persons, will be selected and appointed by the president with agreement of the parliament. It will be funded through the national budget and will be established for a five year period with a possible two year extension. It will cease its existence after submitting a final report about its activities and findings to the public.

Soon, it seems, victims of gross human rights abuses will have the opportunity to come forward, tell their stories, and seek reparation. But what are their prospects for justice, when the court strategy has already failed?

Some human rights advocates aren’t optimistic. Some say that Indonesia has too many commissions, and not enough solutions. There’s every reason to believe that the military and their allies will resist, just as they have resisted human rights prosecutions through the courts. But a truth commission is not meant to be an alternative to human rights trials. Both can go together. And at least with the Commission, we can hope that the victims’ views and stories will be aired in public.

Priyambudi Sulistiyanto ( teaches Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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