Guest Post: Indonesia – SBY’s apology must only be the start

The following is a guest post kindly contributed by Vannessa Hearman from The University of Melbourne:

The Thursday actions feature pictures of victims of human rights abuses spread out on the ground on a piece of black fabric. These include a picture of novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer who was jailed for 13 years after 1965.


Each Thursday protesters attend the weekly gathering Kamisan opposite the Presidential Palace to demand justice from the Indonesian government headed by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). They carry black umbrellas, representing the various human rights abuses committed under the Suharto regime (1966-1998). The protesters are blanketed by Jakarta’s peak hour smog and their speeches almost drowned out by traffic noise in the city of twelve million people. After the 200th Thursday gathering last year, they wondered if the president was listening. However, recent news of an impending presidential apology to victims of past human rights abuses is one indication that efforts like Kamisan help keep the issue of transitional justice alive. On 25 April, Albert Hasibuan, lawyer and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council confirmed rumours of Yudhoyono’s intention to apologise, fourteen years after the resignation of President Suharto. The Presidential Advisory Council has held five meetings this year to explore the possible parameters of an apology, with input from a few non-government organisations and victims themselves. These are important signs that the apology is not merely an empty promise.

Bedjo Untung, former political prisoner holds up an umbrella reading, ‘Resolve the 65/66 case’.

Abuses include the 1965 killings and imprisonment of up to a million accused members and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party in a military coup against President Sukarno. An apology to these former political prisoners, a long stigmatised group of people, will be a significant breakthrough. Some victims remain understandably cynical given past state failures in addressing these abuses, such as aborted attempts to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. An apology would provide some closure for victims, while at the same time creating further opportunities to campaign for more victim-centred reforms and a change in community attitudes. Victims remain mired in poverty and feel angry at the lack of state recognition and help available to them. Hasibuan has indicated the apology will be followed by ‘institutional arrangements’ to work out the appropriate restitution for victims. The components of this restitution will be another important campaigning point.

As the example of Kamisan shows, civil society groups have continued independent efforts for truth-seeking and accountability through demonstrations, public forums and research uncovering patterns of Indonesian military violence. One grouping is the Coalition for Truth Seeking and Justice (Koalisi Keadilan dan Pengungkapan Kebenaran, KKPK), consisting of 18 non-government organisations. They have declared the next twelve months as the Year of Truth (Tahun Kebenaran) and will hold events such as public hearings at which victims will testify, in nine regions. They hope to spread greater public understanding of past human rights abuses and to situate these as part of national history.

What the Indonesian government does for victims of human rights abuses now will be a significant test for its democracy, particularly given recent news that former military Special Forces (Kopassus) commander Prabowo Subianto, who is tainted by allegations of involvement in human rights abuses, could become Indonesia’s president in 2014, after founding a political party in 2009.

Vannessa Hearman is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis titled “Dismantling the ‘Fortress’: East Java and the Transition to Suharto’s New Order Regime (1965-68)” examines the experiences of victims of mass violence during the transition to the New Order.  She has been involved in human rights activism related to Indonesia and East Timor for more than two decades.

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