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

Evading the Truth

Agung Putri

Since the fall of President Suharto in May 1998, many Indonesians have been searching for ways to address the crimes of his 32-year dictatorship. One of Suharto's legacies to the country is a long trail of mysterious atrocities and unmarked mass graves. The questions that posed themselves after his fall from power were: How can we discover the truth behind the various atrocities? How can we determine who was responsible? If we are able to determine who was responsible, what should we do then?

The answers to these questions have not been obvious. Even though there has been a widespread desire to uncover the truth and hold the officials of the Suharto regime accountable, there has been no agreement on how that should be achieved. Even now, over four years after his fall, Suharto himself has not been touched, even for cases of corruption. All of the so-called 'reform' governments (under Presidents Habibie, Wahid, and Megawati) have failed to create any viable mechanism for dealing with past crimes.

Of course, one reason for this failure is the resistance from the Suharto family, its cronies, and the military. Additionally, the fact that many of the 'reform' politicians are holdovers from the Suharto era has meant that they often do not even perceive past atrocities as state crimes. Some politicians still uphold the line that the state can not commit crimes because it is the state. But those reasons by themselves are not sufficient to explain why so little has been accomplished since Suharto's demise. The factor that I would like to highlight here is the confusion concerning the appropriate mechanisms among the very people pushing for accountability.

Fact-finding committees

The first response of the post-Suharto governments to handle past crimes has been the fact-finding committee. So far there have been five such official committees that have investigated the following incidents: the violence in Aceh during the period when the province was called a Military Operation Area (1989-1998); the Jakarta riots of 13-15 May 1998; the massacre in Tanjung Priok in 1984, the violence in East Timor during the referendum process in 1999, and the killing of students during demonstrations in Jakarta at Trisakti University and the Semanggi cloverleaf in 1998-1999. The government established the first two commissions while the latter three were formed by the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM).

The committees performed well in bringing information about these cases to the public eye. Victims and witnesses were given the chance to provide recorded testimony. Military officers came before the committees and were asked to account for the military's actions. The reports of the committees have provided careful and sometimes exhaustive descriptions on what happened and how many people were killed or injured. But none of the committees have been able to conclude why the violence occurred. Every committee had to end its report with a recommendation for further investigation.

The preoccupation of the fact-finding committees was to identify particular military officers as the ones responsible for particular acts of violence. For instance, the report on the Jakarta riots suspected that Maj. Gen. Prabowo and Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Samsuddin had some sort of hand in provoking or organising the riots. It suggested that an investigation be held into a secret meeting they held on 14 May 1998 at an army headquarters. Similarly, the committee on the crimes in East Timor listed the names of 29 officers who were thought to be responsible for particular massacres.

This identification of individual officers, while helpful in framing court cases against them, does not lead to an understanding of the systemic nature of the crimes committed by the Suharto regime and the military. Indeed, it can reinforce the idea that there are a few bad apples within the military that need to be removed.

The problem with the military is not that there are a few bad officers within it. The main problem is that it is an unaccountable institution that has far too much power. It has routinely committed atrocities both during and after the Suharto regime. Arriving at the truth in the context of the military's power requires challenging the institutional power of the military.


Members of Komnas HAM first proposed the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1998. They approached President Habibie and the military soon after Suharto resigned. Habibie welcomed the proposal but declined to follow up on it. The military rejected it outright. The upper chamber of parliament (MPR) was more supportive. The MPR passed a law called Unity and Reconciliation number V/2000 at its session in 1999 that called for the creation of a TRC. It was left up to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to draw up the guidelines and bring it into existence.


After the law was passed, there was a great deal of discussion about the TRC inside and outside of the government. There were seminars, conferences, and meetings. The non-governmental organisation that I work for, Elsam, was asked by the government to write a draft regulation that would determine the functioning of the TRC.

In my opinion, the advantage of a TRC is that it can address many cases of human rights that are already swamping Komnas HAM and have no hope of being handled by the country's ridiculously inadequate and corrupt legal system. Moreover, it can address cases that are far too complex and massive for legal remedies, such the killings of 1965-66. Perhaps the most important virtue of the TRC is that it can result in a comprehensive narrative about the systematic character of the Suharto's regime's crimes.

The TRC was a live issue for about a year. Despite the initial flurry of activity, there has been little progress in implementing the TRC. The law is on the books (and the MPR reaffirmed the law at its 2002 session) but the commission does not yet exist. By now it appears as if it will never be formed. Why has the TRC lacked a constituency that can forcefully push for its implementation? I think the reasons are manifold.

Some activists remain wary of the TRC because they think it lacks teeth, that it will not punish the military officers responsible for atrocities. Activists tend to prefer court trials. The Indonesian government's ad hoc court for the crimes against humanity in East Timor is closer to the method they would like to see used for all cases of state crimes. Moreover, they think 'reconciliation' is a pointless concept when dealing with crimes by state officials.

Many government officials and members of parliament support a vague notion of a TRC but do not fully understand it enough to push strongly for it. Some think it should just be a kind of quick 'feel good' exercise so that the past can be laid to rest. They are wary that it might actually not turn out to be that. Some think the TRC should include the Sukarno years under its purview. They do not view the Suharto regime as having a specifically criminal character of its own.

Victims organisations

Added to these problems is the lack of unity among the victims, especially in their support for a TRC. The victims have tended to organise according to the specific incident. Victims of the Tanjung Priok massacre, for instance, have an organisation of their own and have tried to find a resolution to their own particular case. Some of them have become quiet after reconciling personally with the officers suspected of ordering the massacre.

There have been numerous attempts to create a unified organisation for victims of the Suharto regime. A congress was held in Aceh in 2001 which led to the establishment of a a pan-Aceh Victims Solidarity Group. Another congress was held in Jakarta in early 2002 to consolidate all the groups of ex-political prisoners (Temu Raya Korban). A similar gathering was held in Papua in 2000. To some extent, these forums have raised the spirit of the victims and brought their plight to the attention of the public.

One problem such congresses have faced is their redirection for ulterior political ends. In Aceh and Papua, the victims' congresses were used to legitimate the demand for a referendum on independence. Meanwhile the victims' congress in Jakarta included in its resolutions the need to uphold Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution (the things the Suharto regime made sacred). The congresses have not actually been effective in insisting on a method by which the government should hold the former regime accountable for its crimes.

I think the idea of the TRC, so often misunderstood and under-appreciated, still holds great promise and should be pursued. The creation of the TRC will require building a consensus first about the need for a comprehensive approach to understanding the systemic nature of the Suharto regime's crimes.

Agung Putri ( is a staff member of Elsam, the Institute of Policy Research and Advocacy. She was a fellow at the Transitional Justice Program at the University of Capetown, South Africa, in 2002.

Inside Indonesia 73: Jan - Mar 2003

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