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A cautionary tale on suppressing justice

Claiming the moral high ground does not necessarily mean one is ethically correct

  • Fr. Michael Kelly SJ, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • July 31, 2012
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President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia has directed the attorney-general to follow up on a commission’s findings released last week about massacres in the 1960s.

The National Human Rights Commission’s report said it had discovered evidence of severe violations and crimes in the purge, which was ordered in 1965-66 and accounted for the deaths of more than half a million people in a crackdown ordered by General Suharto as he consolidated power after he removed his predecessor Sukarno in a coup.

“We must be clear, honest and objective about what happened in the past. We’re not going to distort the history and facts,” President Yudhoyono said when giving his directive to the attorney-general.

The report said the crimes included murder, enslavement, expulsion or forcible transfer of population, deprivation of liberty or physical liberty, torture, rape and enforced disappearances.

Victims of the purge were accused of being communists plotting to take over Indonesia and link up with other communists in Southeast Asia. In a bloody episode that lasted several years, all prospect of a communist revolution was put firmly to rest.

“We want a good, just, factual and constructive settlement,” President Yudhoyono said, adding that he would also consult with legislative bodies and other institutions regarding the findings.

The commission concluded that the now defunct Operational Command for the Restoration of Security (Kopkamtib) was largely responsible for the human rights violations. The force was established in October 1965 and headed by Suharto.

Some of the key players are still alive and there is a little-remarked Catholic feature that may come to light if the investigations are thorough.

A particularly important contribution to Suharto’s efforts, after the coup that removed Sukarno, was made by Jusuf Wanandi.

Wanandi was a leading member of Indonesia’s form of Catholic Action, a small but influential group fostered by a Jesuit priest, Father Ferdinand Beek, to have Catholics play an active and coordinated role in Indonesian politics and society.

With a national membership, Wanandi and his fellow Catholic Action members were able to offer Suharto an intelligence network that provided names and places where Communists or alleged Communists lived and worked.

This approach produced conflicts among Jesuits in Indonesia – Dutch and Indonesians – during the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Critics within the Jesuits of Beek and Wanandi saw the perils of cultivating elites and being too close to power blocks, compromising the actions of other Catholics who saw an approach to human and national development better served by what later came to be called “the preferential option for the poor.” The opposing strategy favored direct engagement with poor people and their needs rather than trying to bring change through tactical alliances with powerful individuals and groups.

But Wanandi, Beek and the Indonesian Catholic Action (and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies that emerged from the same milieu by 1971) received focus and encouragement from an Asia-wide circle of leading Catholics and their Jesuit mentors. The group, the Pacific Forum, included the foreign minister of South Vietnam, the foreign minister of the Philippines and other leading political, business and academic figures.

The creator of the network and its moving force was the Australian Catholic political activist B. A. Santamaria who contributed to its journal, initially edited by an Australian Jesuit.

And the network was well informed and closely connected with those in power in the anti-communist coalitions – declared and covert – that thrived during the Cold War. For example, so well informed was he that Santamaria announced on Australian television what Indonesia was ready to do over East Timor in December 1975 a full week before the invasion.

The invasion was led by the Catholic General Benny Murdani, and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies was closely involved in advising then President Suharto on the invasion.

Today it is difficult to imagine the sense of terror in the 1960s when Cold War politics in the “Asian theater” saw every country in Asia expected to fall under the spell of Communism, from China and Korea and not stopping until Australia.

Such was the hysteria of the time and the misunderstanding of differences, even among Communists across Asia, that Catholics throughout the region felt solidarity in the face of a shared threat. As a result, they felt called to justify international cooperation that fudged moral decisions about life and death.

The period is a cautionary tale even today. When Church people band together to pick political winners in the name of religion, claiming the moral high ground for their often uninformed positions and being prepared to place expediency over justice and human life, alarm bells should ring.

This report illuminates a dark period in Indonesia’s history. It can also illuminate Indonesia’s Church about its own history. It could show the country’s Catholics something about crimes abetted by Catholics long ago that not only cry out for a just resolution but, if not addressed, can haunt generations to come.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is the executive director of ucanews.com
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