Monday, May 9, 2016

Symposium on Indonesia’s 1965 genocide opens Pandora’s box

Human rights organisations involved in documenting the 1965-66 killings in Indonesia have responded with excitement to Minister Luhut Panjaitan’s challenge, issued at the ‘National Symposium on the 1965 Tragedy ‘(Jakarta, 18- 19 April), to “show us where the mass graves are”.

Initially issued as a means of attempting to deny that evidence of mass graves exists, Luhut’s challenge may have unintentionally broken through the impasse that has so far stalled previous investigations. The unprecedented development has been matched by President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s instruction to Luhut on Monday 25 April, to look for evidence of mass graves and heralds the possibility of a genuine shift in Indonesia’s attempt to investigate the killings.

Last month’s symposium was the first time the Indonesian government has held an official public discussion about the 1965-66 killings with the aim of testing the ground for a national process of reconciliation. This unprecedented gathering, which included government officials, survivors and perpetrators of the genocide, and which was broadcast live around the world, should be understood as a hard-won victory for all those engaged in advocating for truth and justice for 1965.
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The Symposium’s timing suggests the Indonesian government feels under mounting pressure to demonstrate it is capable of addressing the events of 1965-66 without external assistance. The current attention on the genocide, generated in large part by the international success of Joshua Oppenheimer’s two Academy Award nominated documentary films, The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), as well as the tireless ongoing work of survivors, human rights groups and researchers both within Indonesia and around the world, has embarrassed the government.

As Luhut explained in his opening remarks to the Symposium: “we can do it ourselves”. Good faith is the process was quickly lost, however, when Luhut provocatively declared that under no circumstances would the government be issuing an apology. Luhut said:

We will not apologise. We are not that stupid. We know what we did, and it was the right thing to do for the nation.

The categorical refusal to issue an apology, regardless of the outcome of the Symposium’s findings, made a mockery of the event’s stated intention of reconciliation.

In issuing his challenge, however, it appears that Luhut may well have miss-spoke. Luhut’s challenge, initially intended as a rhetorical flourish to his proposal that the events of 1965-66 have been exaggerated, was linked to his assertion that the figure of between half a million and one million deaths agreed upon by researchers should be questioned.

As he explained at a press conference following the Symposium: “we don’t have any evidence now that a number of people got killed back in 1965, like some people say 80,000 or 400, because we don’t have any evidence of that… I challenge some of the media, if you can show us where the mass graves are, we are more than happy to have a look.” This attempt to downplay the extent of the killings has, of course, been a central component of official propaganda versions of events since they first occurred.

What is remarkable about Luhut’s challenge is that it transgresses the very heart of what keeps this propaganda version together. Beyond using intimidation and fear to maintain its official version of events, the military has been scrupulous in avoiding discussion about specific details relating to the killings. Thus, in the military’s public accounts, victims are ‘found dead’ having either been killed ‘by the people’ or by unknown assailants, with the military portrayed as stepping in to restore security.

In this regard, it is significant that official versions focus almost exclusively on the phase of public killings that occurred as a prelude to the mass killings. These, after all, were killings that could be most easily blamed on non-military actors; something that becomes so much more difficult when military jails, military trucks, military controlled killing sites, and mass graves begin to enter into descriptions of the mass killing phase of the genocide.

In calling for evidence of these mass graves, Luhut has broken this rule and in doing so, he has opened a Pandora’s box that the government will find very difficult to close again. It is one thing to refuse to investigate the events of 1965-66 on the basis that there is alleged “insufficient evidence” of the crimes alleged by victims — as the Attorney General’s Office has done to successfully stall Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission’s (Komnas HAM) official four-year initial investigation into the killings. But, it is quite another to refuse to investigate these events after openly calling for such evidence. Meanwhile, Jokowi’s endorsement of Luhut’s challenge has supplied it with official legitimacy and urgency.

The government has invited human rights organisations to assist in the search for mass graves. The response has been swift. Commission for “The Disappeared” and Victims of Violence (KontraS) spokesperson, Puri Kencana Putri, announced on Wednesday 27 April, that KontraS has evidence relating to the location of 16 mass grave sites, including in Central Java, Sulawesi, and Sumatra.

KontraS would be happy to hand this information to the government, Putri explained, as soon as the investigation is given formal legal status, such as through the issuing of a Presidential Decree, in order to ensure the safety of informants as well as to preserve the integrity of evidence uncovered as part of the investigation.

Indonesian Institute for the Study of the 1965/66 Massacre (YPKP) spokesperson and genocide survivor, Bejo Untung, meanwhile, announced on Monday 2 May, that YPKP is aware of 122 separate mass grave sites over 12 provinces. Fifty of these mass graves, Bejo explained, are in Central Java, 28 are in East Java, and 21 are in West Sumatra. This number, Bejo cautioned, is only a small proportion of the mass graves YPKP understands dot the country. YPKP, Bejo said, has already given this information to Komnas HAM.

International People’s Tribunal for 1965 (IPT 1965) spokesperson, Reza Muharam, also announced on Monday 2 April, that IPT 1965 has already handed its information on mass grave sites to Komnas HAM. Reza then proceeded to question why Luhut, as Indonesia’s Minister for Politics, Law and Security Affairs, was being asked to coordinate the investigation, when, according to Indonesia’s human rights legislation this task correctly belonged to Komnas HAM. Luhut, Reza urged, should immediately coordinate his investigation with Komnas HAM and the Attorney General’s Office in order that existing information be pooled.

Meanwhile, Komnas HAM’s Deputy Head Commissioner, Dianto Bachriadi, took the unprecedented step on Thursday 21 April, of accusing Jokowi of lying when the President told the media on 19 April that he had “not yet heard” from Komnas HAM. “It is not true the President has not received a report,” on Komnas HAM’s investigation into 1965, Bachriadi said.

Bachriadi explained Komnas HAM gave a copy of the executive summary of its findings directly to the President on Human Rights Day, 10 December 2014. Jokowi should have ordered the Attorney General to begin an official investigation as soon as he received this report, Bachriadi said.

Jokowi is now in an extremely delicate position. Should he back down on his instruction for an investigation to be commenced, or should he be seen to continue to ignore the findings of Komnas HAM and other human rights organisations and researchers, he risks losing credibility as a president serious about coming to terms with the country’s dark past. Meanwhile, if he does continue with the investigation, he risks alienating large sections of the Indonesian elite, including many within his own government.

Jokowi does not, however, have the luxury of doing nothing. After years of government stalling, survivors, and human rights advocates are sick of hearing excuses. Now that the taboo on speaking explicitly about the violence of the killings has been broken, newspapers have begun to fill with stories about previous mass grave exhumations and eyewitness accounts of the killings. It is simply no longer possible to credibly claim that no such evidence exists.

Luhut’s office, meanwhile, has gone into damage control and in doing so continues to unravel the official propaganda account. On 2 May, Luhut’s Assistant Deputy, Brigadier General Abdul Hafil, acknowledged Luhut is aware that mass graves from the time of the genocide exist. “It’s not that [Luhut] doesn’t know, he knows that there are mass graves,” Hadil explained, before questioning the number of victims in these graves.

The following day, Luhut issued his own statement through which he acknowledged, “there certainly are” victims, before appealing for this number to not be “exaggerated”. “Let us not allow this nation to… be called a barbaric nation. [A nation] that kills thousands of its own,” he said.

These acknowledgements by Luhut are a positive development and are evidence of the new space currently opening within Indonesia. They also point to the personal sensitivity of many in the government who maintain links to the New Order regime. Luhut is, after all, not only a government minister but also an eyewitness to the genocide.

In 1965-66, Luhut was a senior high school student. According to Indonesian online news site Antara News, Luhut was a founding member of the military-sponsored KAPI (Komando Aksi Pelajar Indonesia: Indonesian High School Students’ Action Front) student militia group in Bandung, West Java. Komnas HAM has explained KAPI was “involved in the mass arrests… and joined in the torture and… killings.”

Luhut’s alleged leadership role in KAPI was initially reported as evidence of his patriotism and sense of civic duty. If confirmed, this information shows that while Luhut’s continued involvement in the current investigation will be critical, it is not appropriate for him to coordinate this investigation. This role belongs to Komnas HAM.

The Symposium represents perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity for Indonesia to put the events of 1965-66 firmly in its past and to begin the long process of working towards the reconciliation it has set out to achieve. Such reconciliation will only be possible, however, if all parties can move beyond denials and justifications of the violence and embark on a genuine truth seeking investigation that refuses to shy away from even the most uncomfortable of truths.

Jess Melvin is a Postdoctoral Associate in Genocide Studies at Yale University


  1. Indonesia could be on the brink of a human rights breakthrough, with hearings on notorious massacres.
    The National Symposium on 1965, a ‘Historical Approach’ was held in Jakarta on 18-19 April 2016.
    The Indonesian government’s agreement for this symposium to go ahead was in itself somewhat of a breakthrough, in the increasingly narrow political space to discuss 1965 and the anti-communist violence in Indonesia.
    The symposium, being government sponsored, was not the target of protests like other 1965-related events that have been disrupted, harassed, and canceled. These past events include the Ubud Writers’ Festival in 2015 and screenings of the new film on the Buru island prison, Buru Tanah Air Beta (Buru, My Homeland).
    The involvement of the Ministry for Political and Security Affairs and the National Human Rights Commission ensured that the symposium was able to go ahead. The fact that one of the key protagonists of the hearing was Agus Widjojo, son of murdered Army Prosecutor General, Lieutenant General Sutojo, also conferred legitimacy. Widjojo was recently appointed a head of Lemhanas (Lembaga Ketahanan Nasional, National Resilience Institute), a state agency responsible to the President.

  2. Widjojo is involved in the group FSAB (Forum Solidaritas Anak Bangsa, Solidarity Forum for the Nations’ Children). The group brings together children of communist leaders, such as Ilham Aidit, son of Indonesian Communist Party chairperson Aidit, and those of the Army officers murdered at Lubang Buaya by the Thirtieth September Movement in October 1965. The latter include Amelia Yani, daughter of General Ahmad Yani, former head of the Army in 1965, and Agus Widjojo himself. Widjojo’s position is that reconciliation, accompanied by truth-telling, is vital if Indonesia is to move forward.
    Media and commentators seized upon statements by two former military officers as showing that nothing has changed in Indonesia and that impunity continues. Unsurprisingly, those from military backgrounds such as Minister Luhut Panjaitan, a former Kopassus (Special Forces) officer and his former superior, retired general Sintong Panjaitan maintained the military’s line that there was hardly any killing of leftists in 1965.
    Luhut Panjaitan queried where the mass graves were if as many as half a million people had been killed while Sintong said he was aware of only one person killed in Central Java. These are familiar refrains of denial that government and military representatives had made before. The promotion of these views yet again at the symposium was nothing extraordinary. But in reality, the symposium was more than that.

  3. The more surprising aspects were the inclusion of views of academics and intellectuals who earlier had opposed the government version of events, particularly that the slaughter of leftists after the murder of the Army officers at Lubang Buaya in October 1965 was the result of a horizontal conflict within society.
    The indefatigable historian Asvi Warman Adam, from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, and who has spoken out consistently in favour of documenting the anti-communist violence and for historical truth-telling, spoke at the symposium. Historian Dr Baskara Wardaya from Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta encouraged Indonesia to move towards reconciliation accompanied by truth-telling.
    Renowned women’s activist Kamala Chandrakirana from the Coalition of Truth and Justice and Galuh Wandita from Asia Justice and Rights both urged the government to address the needs of victims and outlined ways the state could pursue those aims.
    A presentation by the National Commission on Violence against Women highlighted the plight of women victims and urged for immediate measures for them, such as meeting their basic needs. Former political prisoner and leftist writer Putu Oka Sukanta also spoke at the symposium about his experiences.
    Therefore, while some views expressed at the symposium denied that the state ought to bear any responsibility for the violence, it was also a forum in which organisations working with victims, as well as victims themselves and intellectuals were able to urge the Indonesian state to commit to reparative measures.

  4. Closing comments by Sidarto Danusubroto from the Presidential Advisory Council showed that the belligerence shown by Minister Panjaitan in his opening remarks were not necessarily the view of all government figures. Danusubroto enumerated the abuses suffered by the victims, many of which went beyond immediate violence and detention, but extended to discrimination and stigmatisation against the Left under the New Order regime.
    This naming of the abuses would have been very gratifying for former political prisoners and their families. It showed us a glimmer of what state accountability could look like for Indonesia and how the burden of history, built on lies and deception, could be lifted.
    The Advisory Council is not a powerful body in the bureaucracy, but it has a track record in attempting to address past human rights abuses when in 2012, Council member Albert Hasibuan drafted the text of an apology to victims of human rights abuses for then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. As a result of opposition received from certain powerful quarters, that apology was never delivered.
    From here, a team will draft recommendations on the basis of the material presented at the symposium for Joko Widodo’s follow up. Indonesia could be on the brink of something significant in terms of human rights accountability, depending on the recommendations of the symposium and Joko Widodo’s response.
    What actions the government will take remains to be seen.
    Dr Vannessa Hearman is lecturer in Indonesian studies at the University of Sydney.