May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Looking back to move forward

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Mary S Zurbuchen

Even seasoned observers had trouble predicting how difficult the 'post-Suharto era' would be. Yet, despite economic woes, social conflict and vacillating leadership, many Indonesians feel they have indeed embarked on a journey leading toward a more democratic society. Among the key milestones on the road, many say, are efforts to face up to Indonesia's troubled past.

The litany is familiar, from the mass violence and detentions following the 'failed coup' of 30 September 1965, through episodic suppression of dissent (Tanjung Priok, Lampung, Dili), to policies leading to systematic rights violations (Aceh, Irian Jaya, East Timor), and to student killings and mass violence in May and November of 1998. These events, and the patterns of impunity they point to, are troubling memories that to this day perpetuate dissatisfaction with government and undermine national cohesion.

In the public mind the New Order's controlling instruments - the military and police, intelligence, and bureaucracy - should account for this record. This sentiment is affirmed by a segment of the elite. Indications of commitment at the highest levels of Indonesia's new government to redress past wrongs include pending draft laws to establish a human rights court and a national truth commission. Still, the process of establishing 'truth' and 'justice' is a daunting assignment. It covers a diverse array of events including state as well as vigilante violence, sectarian conflict, detention, discrimination, disappearance, and systematic civil rights abuse. It must be dealt with at a moment when the state's relations with its citizens are undergoing profound redefinition (for example through decentralisation), while regional disaffections and separatism run high, and as an uneasy military relinquishes some of its formidable powers.

Two tough dilemmas face those who hope to shed light on matters long hidden under the New Order. One challenge is to determine whose truth needs to be told, and what definitions of victimisation and guilt are necessary to read accurately the long record of abuse. Another is to identify ways for 'truth-seeking' to create conditions for a stronger national compact, thus providing a foundation for reconciliation and social cohesion.


Previously suppressed accounts are being published for the first time. Colonel A. Latief, long jailed for his role in the events of 30 September 1965, has told his story in Tempo; Pramoedya Ananta Toer's once-banned book on Indonesia's Chinese was launched with much fanfare; and former persona non grata Benedict Anderson's commentaries are widely disseminated. Radio and television talk shows host uncensored discussion on topics such as East Timor's legacy of violence, New Order corruption, or the military's purported role in the deaths of the Trisakti University students in the Jakarta unrest of May 1998.

Once targets for official banning, book publishers are illuminating the past from new vantage points. Flower Aceh, an energetic non-governmental organisation promoting gender justice, produced a volume on women's accounts of Aceh's persistent violence (see Inside Indonesia April 2000). An important dissertation by Indonesian social scientist Hermawan Sulistyo has appeared analysing aspects of the 1965 mass killings. Garin Nugroho's semi-historical film Unburied Poem, which portrays an Acehnese 'didong' storyteller's memory of involvement with 1965 violence, even had a brief run in cineplex theatres. Despite the continued ban on the study of Marxism-Leninism, books on the left and socialism have proliferated, and were in fact best-selling items in book stalls during the August 2000 session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR). In the world of arts and culture, meanwhile, an exuberant celebration of Chinese performance traditions suppressed under the New Order has taken place in many locales.

Other Indonesians are pulling the veil from patterns of violence through grass-roots voluntary service. The Volunteer Team for Humanity (Tim Relawan Kemanusiaan)has helped many victims and collected accounts of human rights abuse. Their work has inspired other networks in East Java, Bali, Medan, West Timor, Maluku, Pontianak, and Papua, often with links to faith communities and other NGOs.

Other types of local acknowledgement have challenged official versions of history. In early July 2000 Sultan Hamengku Buwono X of Yogyakarta dedicated a monument attesting that his father, the late Hamengku Buwono IX, conceived the March 1, 1949 republican assault on Dutch-held Yogyakarta. It directly counters New Order claims that then Lieutenant-General Suharto was the sole hero of that revolutionary operation. New private foundations and activist researchers have initiated studies into the legacy of 1965, the Tanjung Priok killings, and other events. Some of these groups seek to rehabilitate Indonesians long deprived of basic rights through political imprisonment after 1965.

Responding to growing public awareness, some senior figures have apologised publicly. In August 1999 then-armed forces chief General Wiranto apologised for military abuses in Aceh. During an otherwise low-key television appearance in March 2000, President Abdurrahman Wahid expressed his regrets over the involvement of his own Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama in the mass killings of 1965-66 in Java. Many see apologies as inadequate, because they skirt issues of accountability and the complete revelation of the truth. But under the New Order, such gestures would have hardly been imaginable.

Popular concern has also led to formal processes. Commissions established at the national and provincial levels have submitted reports on abuses following East Timor's referendum in August 1999, on killings of civilians in Aceh, and on the fatal Tanjung Priok riots of 1984. A multi-sectoral fact-finding team that included legal experts, activists, department officials and military attempted to clarify the widespread May 12-15, 1998, violence and destruction in Jakarta. Another investigation, this one led by the national police, has attempted to fix responsibility for the violent takeover of the party headquarters of the PDI in July 1996. Each of these efforts has proved controversial. Each has been driven by the government's need to address specific political groups as well as international opinion. Public reaction has included charges of 'whitewashing', and complaints about weak prosecutorial follow-up. In the Aceh case, a trial and conviction (also much criticised) of low-ranking officers in the killings of Teungku Bantaqiah and his followers resulted from one such report.

Just as opportunities to bring perpetrators to account are opening up, the weaknesses of Indonesia's justice system appear especially glaring. Widespread judicial corruption, limited investigative capacity, and unreliable prosecutors are major constraints when 'truth and justice' are defined solely through the courts. Despite ongoing training programs for prosecutors and high court reforms, the judicial contests are slow. In frustration, some groups have called for 'people's trials' for Suharto and his family and associates.

Truth Commission

Recognising that formal legal process might not be adequate, some Indonesians have begun to look at establishing a Truth Commission to clarify the New Order record of human rights abuse. Early suggestions along this line came during the short-lived Habibie government, and highlighted the nation's need for 'national reconciliation'. The most detailed blueprint was created by Abdurrahman Wahid before he became president. His Independent Commission for National Reconciliation would have been a private effort involving prominent international advisors and a distinguished Indonesian panel of commissioners.

International donors have been willing to help Indonesians seeking to bring the past to light. In May 2000 a group of Indonesians from the government, military and police, research community and civil society groups went to South Africa for a two-week study of that country's efforts to confront its history of racial violence, including the well known Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Specialists from South Africa and other regions have visited Indonesia to share their knowledge. Senior government figures traveled to Seoul in July 2000 to learn about South Korea's prosecution of former national leaders. Human rights activists, women's advocates, and victims' groups have begun to learn about the growing record of international experience with truth commissions.

This experience shows that a society can stand to gain through the truth commission process. First, truth commissions allow individual victims to voice their own stories - and to be listened to, perhaps for the first time. Second, they promote public education through producing an official record of violations. Third, they can aid resolution by acknowledging the suffering of victims, mapping impacts of past crimes, and recommending reparations. Fourth, commissions can recommend specific reforms in public institutions such as the police and judiciary with the aim of preventing recurrence of rights violations. And finally, truth commissions can sort through issues of accountability and indicate perpetrators.

The twenty or so truth commissions that have taken place around the world have all operated in different ways, with various outcomes. There is no single model for Indonesia.

Would Indonesia benefit from a truth commission? What would be its objectives? What form would it take, and how much of the past would be included in its mandate? How would it accommodate Indonesia's great diversity, and the many 'truths' of different actors over the long New Order years? Would the commission have investigative powers? Could it establish a credible account of the past and meet the expectations of victims of rights abuse? Would it help or hinder the judicial process of bringing perpetrators to justice? Would bringing painful past events to light lead to vengeance in society? Is government committed to truth-seeking, or is a commission likely to be a weak instrument co-opted by political interests?

One of the greatest priorities is to promote public education and debate about the possible commission. Advocates believe that formal legal processes alone are not likely to provide the answers about the tragedies of the past. They are convinced that if Indonesia listens to the voices of diverse victims of rights violations, a different vision of society will begin to emerge. Both citizen commitment and consistent political will are needed. Only through looking back at such history can the country move forward to shape a better future.

Mary Zurbuchen ( directed the Jakarta office of the Ford Foundation, a private US philanthropy, between 1992 and 2000. She is now at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Inside Indonesia 65: Jan - Mar 2001

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