Updated: February 07, 2023 12:01 PM GMT
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo rubs his eye during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok on Nov. 18, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
The year 2022 ended with Indonesia assuming leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). From the 32 years of the Suharto dictatorship, it has come a long way in its process of democratization.
Having visited Indonesia several times, I reckon that it is a country with a very courageous and robust civil society that I have had the opportunity to work with for more than two decades. I am grateful for the ample opportunities to integrate myself with victims of human rights violations in this country, many of whom are family members of victims of enforced disappearances.
Munir Thalib Said was the most courageous human rights defender that I was honored to work with when he was the chairman of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and I was the secretary-general for 21 years. Several others are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children of desaparecidos who were forcibly disappeared at different junctures of the country’s history.
I remember Tuti Koto, whose son, Yani Afri, disappeared in July 1997 and who I was with in our meetings with Komnas HAM and other Indonesian government agencies to seek truth and justice. Tuti, whose pretty embroidery hanging on the wall of our office amazed me, died many years ago without attaining the truth and justice she fought so hard to try and get for her disappeared son.
I fondly think of Sipon, whose husband, Wiji Thukul disappeared in 1997 because of his poetry against injustices and resistance. Indefatigably searching for the truth about her husband’s disappearance, like Tuti, Sipon closed her eyes without knowing the truth and without attaining justice. She died just a month ago, on Jan. 5.
I have had a number of opportunities to meet with Bedjo Untung, president of the 1965 victims’ association, Yayasan Penelitian Korban Pembunuhan (YPKP), and laureate of the Gwangju International Prize for Human Rights 2020. He has spent all the years of his life searching for truth and justice for victims of one of the most heinous crimes against humanity — the 1965 tragedy of Indonesia.
"I as Head of State of the Republic of Indonesia recognize that gross human rights violations have indeed occurred in various events"
These three victims of human rights violations are only a few of the innumerable victims in the country, whose victimhood occurred both during the 1965 tragedy and during the tyrannical three-decade Suharto dictatorship. There are certainly many more who, inspired by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo of Argentina — who hold weekly rallies in front of the square fronting the presidential palace, Casa Rosada — also hold rallies every Thursday afternoon, dubbed Aksi Kamisan in front of Indoesia’s presidential palace. On many occasions, I expressed words of solidarity during these events.
At the start of the year, on Jan. 13, in an important step in transitional justice, President Joko Widodo acknowledged and expressed regrets over past “gross human rights violations” over more than five decades.
“With a sincere heart, I as Head of State of the Republic of Indonesia recognize that gross human rights violations have indeed occurred in various events.”
Encompassing such regret, the president mentioned the 1965-1966 massacre of about half a million people; the 1982-1985 shootings of protesters; the Geudong House tragedy in Aceh in 1989; the enforced disappearances of 1997-1998; and the 2003 Wamena incident in Papua which was an Indonesian army-perpetrated sweeping operation and forced relocation in the town of Wamena.
The president’s statement follows the result of the findings of the Team for the Non-Judicial Resolution of Past Serious Human Rights Violations, which he commissioned in 2022 in fulfillment of an election promise six years back.
To recall, many years ago, the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, who, with my Indonesian colleagues, I had the opportunity to meet, publicly admitted the bloodshed committed and made an apology.
As a Filipino whose country has a newly elected president, Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., son of the late Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr., one of the world’s most notorious dictators who never acknowledged the atrocities of the dark past, I can only envy the development in Indonesia in as far as transitional justice is concerned.
The Philippines, Indonesia’s Southeast Asian neighbor is very far from this situation. On the contrary, the current president boasts of the Marcos-imposed martial law as the years of glory and prosperity.
Transitional justice “refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large scale or systematic human rights violations." Its four pillars include the rights to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. There are no hard and fast rules in its implementation considering the varying contexts of its applicability.
Stemming from accountability and redress for victims, transitional justice recognizes the value of the dignity of victims of human rights violations and the importance of redress and acknowledgment of violations and prevention of recurrence. It seeks to provide justice in its most meaningful ways.
"Our dignity and our soul cannot be replaced by money, by blood money"
The developments in Indonesia are definitely important steps towards transitional justice, which, obviously, is not happening in my own country. However, knowing that victims of human rights violations play a central role in the implementation of transitional justice, I inquired about victims’ perspectives by asking a couple of friends from Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
A victim of the 1965 tragedy, Bedju Untung has this to say: “Indeed, President Joko Widodo showed his regret for the gross human rights violations… I recognize that the president’s statement of acknowledgment of the mass killings and his promise to rehabilitate the victims are little steps on the long way to justice. However, he neither apologized nor took the responsibility for the tragedy.
"I urged him to clearly apologize in order not to repeat what happened. He should develop an ad-hoc Human Rights Court and facilitate the prosecution of perpetrators. We the victims are waiting for actions, not just promises. The government would like to give reparation. But we should be careful. Our dignity and our soul cannot be replaced by money, by blood money. We want truth and justice. Where are the victims murdered in 1996 buried? The government should find their remains.”
Bedjo Untung likewise urges the Indonesian president to revoke laws and regulations of the New Order that discriminate against victims, such as the Orba legacy law.
Moreover, he demands the repeal of the Presidential Degree (Kepres) No. 28/1975 on the Treatment of those Involved in the September 30 Movement (G30S) Group C.
Article 1 of said decree reads that Group C includes those suspected of being indirectly involved in the G30S rebellion, who are deprived of their rights, including the right to work. He also mentioned the Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly Decree No. 25 of 1966 which prohibits the spread of Communism and Marxism-Leninism.
He further believes in the importance of trials. “The 1965 tragedy must be opened to prevent slander, labeling, stigmatization, and discrimination against victims. We, victims, have suffered torture, detention, and forced labor. A presidential decree on general rehabilitation must be issued.”
In neighboring Timor-Leste, which was formerly occupied by Indonesia, Sisto dos Santos, also a victim of human rights violations during the occupation and the director of the HAK Association, one of the key human rights organizations in the country, said President Widodo did not mention Timor-Leste because he thinks that what happened during the years of colonization is already finished.
He further said: “More than 4,000 stolen children during the Indonesian military’s illegal occupation are still missing. This is an unfinished work of the Indonesian government. Both governments of Indonesia and Timor-Leste have not yet fulfilled their obligation to establish the Missing Persons Commission which was a recommendation of the Commission on Truth and Friendship that existed in 2005-2008.”
The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) of the United Nations welcomed this important presidential pronouncement. Liz Throssel, its spokeswoman, told the media: “The president’s gesture is a step on a long road to justice for victims and their loved ones.”
She further urged Indonesian authorities to build on “tangible steps” in order to “take forward a meaningful inclusive and participatory transitional justice process.” Full transitional justice, she said “will help to break the decades-long cycle of impunity, advance national healing and strengthen Indonesia’s democracy.”
As the international community enters the 75th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Indonesia, being the current ASEAN chair has to continue to serve as an example to other ASEAN countries in ensuring and sustaining the promotion and protection of human rights.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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