Indonesia President Regrets Country's Bloody Past, Apologises for Human Rights Abuses

Joko Widodo apologised for 12 events that occurred in the past, starting from the mass killings of communists and suspected sympathisers in the 1960s.

New Delhi: Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Wednesday, January 11, apologised for “gross human rights violations” that occurred in his country in various events in the past, starting from the mass killings of communists and suspected sympathisers in the 1960s.

The president apologised for 12 events in which gross human rights violations occurred after he received a report from the ‘Non-Judicial Settlement Team for Serious Human Rights Violations’ on Wednesday. He had promised to investigate rights abuses in the world’s biggest Muslim country when he first came to power in 2014.

“With a clear mind and a sincere heart, I as the Head of State of the Republic of Indonesia recognise that gross human rights violations did occur in various events,” Widodo said, according to the translation of a statement published on his official website.

According to the news agency Reuters, some 500,000 people died in “violence that began in late 1965 when the military launched a purge of communists who they said were planning a coup”. At least one million people were jailed on suspicion of being communists during the crackdown.

The 11 other rights incidents, which occurred between 1982 and 2003, included the “killing and abduction of students blamed on security forces” during protests against military dictator General Suharto’s rule in the late 1990s. Suharto came to power by ousting President Sukarno, Indonesia’s independence leader, in 1967 and ruled for three decades.

According to the Washington Post, “Widodo also acknowledged a shooting campaign against criminals in Jakarta and other big cities between 1982-1985, the torture of suspected rebels in Aceh in 1988-1989, a deadly raid on an Islamic community in Lampung in 1989, the killing of students and anti-government protesters in 1998, anti-Chinese attacks and alleged mass rapes in Jakarta and other big cities in 1998, and deadly raids against civilians in Wasior and Wamena in Papua province between 2001-2003.”

In the statement, Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi – expressed “deep sympathy and empathy” for the victims and their families, adding that the government will “try to restore the rights of victims fairly and wisely”.

“I and the government are trying to restore the rights of victims fairly and wisely, without emphasising judicial resolution,” he said.

The government will also “work seriously” to prevent serious human rights violations in the future.

“Hopefully this effort will be a meaningful step for the recovery of the wounds of fellow children of the nation to strengthen national harmony” of Indonesia, Widodo said.

According to WaPo, human rights groups said Widodo’s move should not pave the way to “close these cases or give impunity to their perpetrators”.

“The protracted settlement of cases of past serious human rights violations has not only caused prolonged suffering for the victims, but has also become a stumbling block for national political reconciliation for the government,” the Asian Human Rights Commission said, adding that Widodo was urged to continue to pursue truth and justice.

These concerns are valid as Widodo’s defence minister Prabowo Subianto, a former military officer, oversaw the Army’s Special Force Command when it was accused of kidnapping and disappearing anti-government activists between 1997-1998. Widodo acknowledged this incident also on Wednesday.

Usman Hamid of Amnesty International told Reuters that victims should receive reparations and serious crimes should be resolved “through judicial means”.

“If President Jokowi is serious about past human rights violations, he should first order a government effort to investigate these mass killings, to document mass graves, and to find their families, to match the graves and their families, as well as to set up a commission to decide what to do next,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

For some, Widodo’s acknowledgement was significant. “For me…what’s important is that the president gives assurances that gross rights violations don’t happen in the future by trying the suspected perpetrators in court,” retired civil servant Maria Catarina Sumarsih, whose son was shot dead in 1998 while helping a wounded student, told Reuters.

Widodo is two years away from the end of his two five-year terms as president and has been “busy trying to secure his legacy”, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “At the heart of his priorities is his $US34 billion relocation of the national capital from Jakarta to Borneo, but addressing rights violations is among the other items on the agenda,” the newspaper said.