May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

No ‘magic bullet’

Published: Jan 27, 2016

 Vannessa Hearman

It has been a strange year for human rights under the Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, administration. Human rights activists were among those who invested a great deal of energy in Jokowi’s election campaign. They volunteered individually, as well as setting up campaign groups to prevent the election of his rival, former Army Special Forces (Kopassus) commander, Prabowo Subianto. Unlike previous presidents, Jokowi is not part of the military or civilian power elite. 

Successive presidents from Habibie to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) have proven unable to address human rights abuses dating back to the Suharto regime. These abuses include the 1965–66 mass violence against members and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party, the disappearance of political activists in 1997–98 and human rights abuses in West Papua, Aceh and East Timor. 

It would be reasonable to expect that Jokowi’s administration would be better able to address these abuses, as he has no direct connection to any of these events. But the last year has revealed that Jokowi is not the ‘magic bullet’ for resolving human rights abuses in Indonesia. Instead, he has cultivated strong links with former and current military figures and has maintained the status quo with regards to the 1965 violence and human rights issues in Papua. 

Optimism in the face of ambiguity 

Activists welcomed Jokowi’s campaign pledge of Nawa Cita, nine points which included a commitment to upholding the rule of law and implementing clean government. Jokowi’s action program, unveiled during the campaign, pledged respect for human rights and to deliver justice for past human rights abuses. Those activists who threw their support behind Jokowi relied on these specific promises, as well as the fact that the alternative, Prabowo Subianto, was too unsavoury to contemplate.

The loyalty of activists was nevertheless divided during the presidential campaign. Jokowi supporters saw Prabowo as unpalatable. It was under his leadership that Kopassus was implicated in the 1997–98 disappearance of activists. Some of these activists developed techniques to try to influence the vote. For example, the Coalition Against Forgetting, which involved 25 human rights and civil society groups, urged voters not to support candidates with a problematic human rights record. Activists opposed to Jokowi pointed out on social media such as Twitter that his campaign involved generals with problematic pasts including the former head of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), AM Hendropriyono, who was implicated in human rights activist Munir’s murder in 2004.

A year of no gains

In office, Jokowi has shown himself to be a politically weak president. He does not enjoy clear support in parliament. Even within his own party, he does not hold a strong position. In particular, he is bound to satisfying the interests of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the party leader, who is close to certain military officers. 

Since becoming president, Jokowi has made appointments aimed to keep the military on side. These appointments have attracted criticism. For example, he appointed former military officers Ryamizard Ryacudu as defence minister and Sutiyoso as head of the National Intelligence Agency. Ryacudu has expressed some hardline anti-separatist sentiments and is the first defence minister to have come from a military background since 2001. Sutiyoso is under a cloud for his role as the Jakarta military commander in 1996 during the violent invasion of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) headquarters in the 27 July incident . His coordinating minister for legal, political and security affairs is Luhut Panjaitan, a former Kopassus officer. 

In many ways the Jokowi era has not represented a definitive break from the previous SBY presidency in terms of human rights. One example is the delivery of an apology to human rights abuse victims. In 2012, SBY promised to deliver such an apology but failed to do so. Similarly, the Jokowi administration in October 2015 rejected rumours that the president intended to deliver an apology to the 1965–66 abuse victims. The Jokowi adminstration’s approach to other human rights issues shows similar ties with the past.

Special challenges: anti-communist violence and Papua

Two of the most sensitive human rights issues in Indonesia are the 1965–66 violence and Papua. The 1965¬–66 violence involves powerful perpetrators such as the military and members of the religious organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Papuans continue to suffer human rights abuses, despite the introduction of regional autonomy after the fall of Suharto. These cases, while difficult, are important to resolve if Indonesia is to make a break with the past. 

Jokowi’s position on the 1965–66 violence is contradictory. While he has promised to provide an apology to victims, he led the ceremony at the Lubang Buaya monument to the seven slain army officers on ‘Sacred Pancasila Day’ on 1 October last year, just as his predecessors had. The monument is premised on the New Order regime’s misrepresentation of history. It does not mention the half a million people slaughtered as part of the anti-communist pogroms in 1965–66. To conduct an official ceremony on 1 October without commenting on the lies upon which it was founded simply reinforces that New Order’s version of history at a time when Indonesia desperately needs a national consensus on the 1965 events rather than the usual moral panic about the reawakening of communism.

The question of Papua also highlights Jokowi’s quandary. He is aware of the serious problems that exist in Papua and shows a level of sympathy with indigenous Papuans. Jokowi has visited Papua more than once, including during the election campaign, and has pledged to stop transmigration to Papua. In May 2015, he released five Papuan political prisoners under an amnesty program and has declared Papua open for international journalists to cover news there. He has, however, stopped short of discussing the drawdown of troops from the two provinces. Human Rights Watch in a report released in November 2015 has shown that, in reality, foreign journalists continue to have difficulties accessing Papua. In effect, Jokowi is caught in a bind as he cannot be seen to be giving too much green light to those questioning Indonesia’s repressive Papua policies.

A disappointing start

Jokowi in office has proven to be a disappointment when it comes to human rights. For a start, he has not involved activist and survivor groups or NGOs in his efforts to deal with past human rights abuses, even though he embraced them prior to his election While some well-known former activists are part of his administration, such as his chief of staff, Teten Masduki, at the same time more former military officers have joined the cabinet. 

To break with the past, Jokowi has to confront two of the most sensitive issues in Indonesian history – the anti-communist killings of 1965–66 and decades of violence in Papua. He has shown on both fronts to be reluctant to break new ground. Without sufficient pressure from below and internationally, Jokowi’s reign does not promise any great achievements for human rights for which he will be remembered. 

Vannessa Hearman ( is lecturer in Indonesian Studies at The University of Sydney. She is a historian and her research interests include the 1965–66 mass violence and the history of human rights campaigning in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 123: Jan-Mar 2016{jcomments on}

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