Battling Impunity in the Indonesian Elections

The results of Indonesia’s fourth democratic elections after the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998) and the controversy surrounding presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto are reawakening discussions about how the nation conducted its post-democratic transition. Under the New Order regime, dissent was little tolerated and political opponents were imprisoned. The military dominated regime was founded in 1966, shortly following the massacre of at least half a million members and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party. In the regime’s version of history, the military was portrayed as saving the nation from inaugural Indonesian President Sukarno’s era of economic mismanagement and his rejection of Western style capitalism. Indonesian history thus became highly militarised and was crafted to shape the national political and economic agendas. The regime actively commissioned monuments, museums, films and history textbooks to assist in this process.

Since the end of the regime, Indonesians have been slowly grappling with different versions of the past. For example they have raised the previously little-discussed massacre of leftists. Members and sympathisers of the Communist Party were killed or imprisoned when the party was accused of taking part in a failed coup attempt in 1965. However Indonesia has not dealt with the crimes of the past, of which the 1965-66 killings form only a part, in any thoroughgoing way. There have been no historical truth seeking or clarification efforts as have occurred in Spain, Guatemala, Argentina and Chile. Most victim-directed and state efforts to enforce accountability at the national level have foundered along the way. Victims of the 1965 repression took five Indonesian presidents to court in a class action in 2005, arguing that these presidents failed to uphold their human rights when they were subjected to imprisonment without trial, and following their release, to curtailment of their civil rights and discrimination by the state. The lawsuit was thrown out by the Jakarta District Court. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was planned, but since 2006 has been taken off the agenda. Ad hoc human rights courts have failed to punish any members of the military for the violence it perpetrated in East Timor in 1999.

During the last few months of the regime in 1997-98, 23 activists were kidnapped as activities increased to unseat the government. Thirteen of these activists have never been found. Presidential candidate Prabowo, a former commander of the Indonesian military’s Special Forces and the former son-in-law of Suharto, is implicated in these kidnappings. He was discharged from the Army as result of his links with these kidnappings. Although Indonesia has reformed many of its political institutions and curtailed the power and influence of the Armed Forces, the lack of clear accountability for past human rights abuses has returned to haunt Indonesia as it elects its sixth president.

The legislative elections were held on 9 April 2014 with twelve parties contesting. A new president will be elected in July. The twilight of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s reign has been marred by corruption scandals involving his party officials and his perceived inaction on national issues. Perhaps as a consequence, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has displaced Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party as the highest vote winner in the legislative elections with 18.95% of the vote, followed by the old New Order ruling party Golkar with 14.75%. A relatively new political party, Gerindra, founded in 2008 and led by presidential candidate and cashiered general Prabowo came third with just under 12% of the vote.

President Yudhoyono, who has been in office since 2004, is prevented from recontesting the July election, as presidential terms are limited to two. The candidates running for president have attracted a great deal of interest, with the PDI-P nominating Joko Widodo (Jokowi), the popular Jakarta governor. Formerly the mayor of the Central Javanese city of Solo, he comes from a business background and during his two mayoral terms in Solo focused on a number of issues popular with the electorate. These included free education and health care for Solo residents and a revitalization of traditional markets alongside a reduction in the opening of large chain and franchise retail stores in the city. He has tried to introduce similar measures to Jakarta, such as building a mass transit system, however this is a very complex task in a city of 20 million people, which is in a state of disrepair due to long years of neglect. Jokowi’s candidate for vice president will be Jusuf Kalla, a Golkar politician who was Yudhoyono’s Vice President from 2004 to 2009.

Indonesia’s democratization has resulted in a range of democratic rights previously not available under President Suharto however many of those elites from the previous regime have largely remained untouched. The candidature of Prabowo Subianto is one indication of this. The question of accountability for past abuses has arisen partly as a result of Prabowo’s candidature, however Yudhoyono also failed to deal with the abuses which were committed under the New Order regime. In 2012 as Yudhoyono prepared for the final phase of his presidency, he promised to deliver a national apology to the victims. This would have included victims from a range of cases, including the 1965-66 mass killings and violence against members and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party. At the time, Yudhoyono said this was his legacy to deal with the burden of the past. Presidential Advisor and lawyer Albert Hasibuan who was tasked with drafting the apology indicated however that he faced enormous pressure not to go ahead with the apology and this pressure likely extended to Yudhoyono himself.

In response to Yudhoyono’s promise of an apology, non-government organisations swung into action to create an enabling environment for this apology. The Coalition for Truth and Justice (KKPK) declared a “year of truth telling” from March 2012. “Truth forums” were held in Solo, Central Java, in Kupang, West Timor and Palu, Central Sulawesi. In July of the same year the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) released its report into the 1965-66 violence.The Human Rights Commission argued that the case constituted gross violations of human rights for which responsibility lay with various military commanders who failed in their job of maintaining safety and security for all citizens. The report was lodged with the Attorney General for further action, but it is doubtful that there will be any action. In October 2012, the documentary The Act of Killing was released. The film featured some of the civilian perpetrators of the 1965-66 violence discussing how they murdered their victims. Despite widespread international attention, the film has failed to convince the government to respond to either the Commission’s report nor to take action against the perpetrators. With preparations for the elections soon underway, there were few opportunities to open up this issue again.

Despite not achieving as much as perhaps intended, the Year of Truth Telling achieved some modest successes at the local level. The truth forums brought together community leaders and victims of human rights abuses. For some victims it was the first sign of recognition from their own communities. In Solo, the meeting was organised by Sekretariat Bersama ’65 (Joint Secretariat for the 1965 Events). The mayor of Solo FX Hadi Rudyatmo expressed his support for the gathering, which took place at his residence on 13 December 2012, attended by 200 people and attracting media attention. In Palu, Central Sulawesi, mayor Rusdy Mastura apologised to victims of the 1965-66 violence for his personal role in the violence. Mastura was a young scout member at the time and was instructed to guard extrajudicial detainees. Along with his apology, he promised health care and scholarships to meet the needs of former detainees and their families. Truth telling meetings show that activists are taking their fight to the local level, demonstrating a level of abandonment of and lack of faith in the central government.

Suciwati, Munir's widow
Suciwati, Munir’s widow

Since 1999, Indonesia has enacted regional autonomy giving more power to local governments to enact local regulations and to conduct planning and budgeting at the local level. This has created some unexpected openings and initiatives for human rights accountability at the local level. After almost ten years of demanding justice for her late husband and human rights lawyer Munir who was murdered by poisoning aboard a 2004 Garuda flight to Amsterdam, Suciwati created a museum in his honour instead. With responsibility for his murder resting with the state’s highest intelligence bodies, obtaining justice was never going to be easy. The museum, which opened in December in Munir’s birthplace, the small town of Batu in East Java, sees its role as one of human rights education for young people and is yet another sign of the popular abandonment of the centre, of Jakarta and government institutions.


Images of Munir from the Munir Museum
Images of Munir from the Munir Museum

These activities are however overshadowed by the prospect of Prabowo becoming president. Since the April elections, attention has turned to the disappearance of activists in 1997-98 in which Prabowo was implicated. In 2009 the Indonesian parliament directed President Yudhoyono to conduct an investigation into the whereabouts of the missing activists, which he has not done. Defenders of Prabowo argue that the thirteen activists who were never found were kidnapped by other units of the military not under Prabowo’s command, as if kidnapping activists was an acceptable practice. One of those kidnapped and ‘disappeared’ was Wiji Thukul, a poet and activist who was highly critical of the New Order regime. His daughter Fitri Nganthi Wani, herself a poet who has followed in her father’s footsteps challenges Prabowo to “speak honestly about the kidnappings” rather than continue with his repeated denials of involvement.

Only six years old, Prabowo’s party Gerindra has quickly garnered a high level of electoral support. It might be reasonable to assume therefore that Indonesians are forgetting the past, especially given that some kidnap victims joined Gerindra and spoke of ‘coming to terms with the past’ in doing so. However, there are several possible explanations for the popular support for Gerindra and the Suharto era ruling party Golkar. In these elections, only 12 parties competed and the requirements for party registration are complicated. The percentage of voter participation has declined and the rate of informal voting has risen compared to the early Reform period. Vote buying in various forms is also rife.

Some left activists are also enamoured with Gerindra’s rhetoric challenging neoliberalism. Indonesia’s economic liberalisation in the post-Suharto period has hurt many local producers, farmers and manufacturers. These changes have given rise to nostalgia for the Suharto-led authoritarian period in which subsidies, economic protection and proceeds from natural resources exports (though coupled with an iron fist) created an impression of order and prosperity. The decision by some to support Gerindra has divided the activist community in Indonesia. Recently, Nezar Patria and Faisol Reza, activists who were both kidnapped in 1997-98 have repeated their testimonies about their detention and torture at the hands of their kidnappers in order to remind the activist community of Prabowo’s murky past. However activists remain divided on which parties offer the best policies for Indonesia in the future. Are Gerindra’s promises on restricting foreign ownership to be taken at face value? Are these promises sufficient to wipe the slate clean regarding Prabowo’s military past?

While the popularity of both Golkar and Gerindra may suggest that the question of human rights has become less important in these elections, the support for new candidate Jokowi indicates that voters are still motivated by some of the same concerns which led to the Suharto regime losing support in 1998. These concerns include the desire for a new type of popular-driven politics, access to basic services and a clean government (which were also the reasons for the popularity of Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party). The simple prospects of free health care and education, parks and mass transit systems, are what captures people’s imagination of what Indonesia could look like under a better government. Jokowi’s record in office in Solo and Jakarta, albeit brief, points to the possibilities of achieving these. A certain redefinition of what is important has taken place. The issues of the right to a liveable city, to clean politicians, to livelihood and to health and education have gained prominence. Perhaps this is a shift to long-term democracy. Undeniably however this shift has also occurred as a result of the lack of state accountability for the Suharto era human rights abuse cases.

The author at the Kamisan rally, a rally which takes place every Thursday outside the presidential palace calling on the government to take action on human rights abuses.

Nevertheless victims and activists continue to speak out and to demand justice by creating new initiatives with concrete results. Suciwati is heartened by the interest in the museum created in memory of her husband. Fitri Nganthi Wani writes and publishes her poems about social justice issues. Her brother Fajar Merah sets their father’s poems to song. To earn an income, their mother Sipon makes T-shirts reminding people never to forget. Another former activist, Wilson bin Nurtyas helped the radical musician John Tobing record the songs he wrote for a movement that toppled Suharto.

The pro-democracy movement was active some fifteen years ago and many younger Indonesian voters did not experience the Suharto regime. These activists and their children are therefore educating another generation about their nation’s past. On 9 July, Indonesians again go to the polls. With the prospect of Prabowo becoming president, these activists have their work cut out for them. They have until July to convince the electorate why voters should not elect a president with a record of past human rights abuses.

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