‘Truth is one of our rights’: victims of Indonesia’s bloody past want more than regret from their president

Ita Nadia is an Indonesian activist who lost her uncle, aunt and a nephew in the mass killings of 1965-66. Her husband, Hersri Setiawan, an 86-year-old writer, was imprisoned without trial for more than a decade. Hearing loss and damaged lungs are the consequences of the hard labour and torture he was forced to endure.

On Wednesday, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, often referred to as Jokowi, acknowledged the communist purge alongside 11 other “gross human rights violations” that took place in the country between 1965 and 2003. Activists and those affected say they need more than an acknowledgment.

“The statement is not enough for us as victims of the genocide of 1965,” says Nadia.

The violence began when the military set out to quash what it said was a communist coup sparked by the deaths of six generals. This has since been identified as a government pretext to launch a large-scale pursuit of communists and sympathisers. About 500,000 people were murdered in six months and 1 million more imprisoned.

While an International People’s Tribunal identified the slaughter as a crime against humanity in 2015, there has been no official investigation and no prosecution of those responsible.

“We need more,” says Putu Oka Sukanta, an 83-year-old author who told of how militants came to his home in the middle of the night and took him to a military camp to begin what would be a decade of detention. “They interrogated me. They tortured me because the military wanted to know who my friends were who came to my house.”

In 2021, the Observer revealed that the UK Foreign Office had contributed to inciting the violence by vocally calling for all communist organisations to “be eliminated”.

In the hopes of preventing such atrocities from happening again, Jokowi commissioned a report last year on the country’s history of human rights violations. He said he acknowledged the “gross human rights violations” and “strongly regret[s] that those violations occurred”.

Other events he referenced include the kidnapping and killings of activists during protests in the 1990s and rights violations in the Papua region.

For Soe Tjen Marching, a university lecturer in London whose father was tortured and detained in 1965, the acknowledgment is a positive step for a president who has historically “avoided talking about it”. But it must be followed by action, she says.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo talking at a microphone
President Joko Widodo has acknowledged the ‘gross human rights violations’ in Indonesia’s past. Photograph: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

“Without the judicial process, without the truth, without the concrete steps, it is just rhetoric … it’s just lip service,” agrees Muhamad Isnur, chairperson of the Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation. “We suggest Jokowi and the government take concrete actions, for example, in the judicial process and investigation process … [and] bring the perpetrators to the court.”

Jokowi says the government seeks to restore the rights of victims but didn’t specify how.

The next step, according to Marching, would be an apology on behalf of the government. From there, a more formal and public acknowledgment of the atrocities in the form of a museum or monument should be considered alongside a form of compensation – scholarships or free health care – for the survivors.

“Some say we don’t need compensation because it feels like we’re being bought and we don’t want it … but those living below the poverty line are desperate for compensation,” she says, adding that many still struggle economically because of the atrocities that took place decades ago.

“Those who had parents who were imprisoned, their property was confiscated by the government … and after they were released from prison, life was still hard for them because their ID card was marked with a sign that shows they were an ex-political prisoner,” she says. That stigma was passed down to the children and affected their ability to find work, she adds.

“We’ve lived for a long time in the dark stigma,” Nadia says. To tackle this, she wants the official recounting to be told from the victims’ perspective rather than the state. “The truth of why genocide 1965 and 1966 happened … is one of our rights. Truth is part of what we fight.”

The Guardian