Indonesian president launches program to remedy past human rights abuses

Uzair Thamrin and Tria Dianti
Banda Aceh, Indonesia and Jakarta
Indonesian president launches program to remedy past human rights abuses Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo speaks to reporters in Pidie regency, Aceh province, during a visit to launch a program to address cases of human rights violations, June 27, 2023.
Courtesy of Ilham Cut Ngoeh/Government of Aceh province

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo launched a program on Tuesday to provide remedies to victims of human rights violations during some of the darkest chapters in the nation’s history.

The cases include some of the most notorious past episodes of state violence in Indonesia, such as the mass killings of suspected communists in 1965-66, the kidnapping and disappearance of pro-democracy activists in 1997-98, and the torture and murder of civilians by security forces during a decades-long separatist conflict in Aceh province.

“These wounds must be healed immediately so that we are able to move forward,” Jokowi said during the launch ceremony at the remnants of a building in Aceh known as Rumoh Geudong. At the site, some of the worst human rights abuses occurred during the military’s past counter-insurgency operations, but the building was razed last week on orders from local authorities.

“I decided that the government pursue a non-judicial settlement that would focus on restoring victims’ rights without negating a judicial settlement,” the president said at the event, which was live streamed on YouTube.

The conflict in Aceh ended with the signing of a peace pact between the government and the Free Aceh Movement in 2005.

Last year, a team appointed by the government identified 12 events between 1965 and 2003 as “serious human rights violations” committed by security forces across the country’s flashpoints.

Jokowi’s government has favored reconciliation and compensation measures to address the abuses. But activists and victims’ groups have criticized the government for failing to bring perpetrators to justice or providing adequate compensation to the survivors. 

Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International in Indonesia, called the so-called nonjudicial remedy a “half-hearted process.”

“This clearly does not absolve the state from its duty to uphold the victims’ right to truth and their right to receive full and effective compensation for their ordeal,” he said in a statement.

Some of the cases have been investigated by the National Commission on Human Rights, but none have been prosecuted by the attorney general’s office.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo meets local residents in Pidie regency, Aceh, province, June 27, 2023. [Courtesy of Ilham Cut Ngoeh/Government of Aceh province]

At the ceremony in Aceh, eight people, including victims of rights abuses and the relatives of victims, received symbolic certificates of remedy from the president.

They included Akbar Maulana, a high school student whose father was shot and wounded by security forces during unrest in Aceh in 1999.

“My father went out because he was curious, then he was shot,” Akbar told Jokowi while collecting a certificate on stage.

He said he was grateful for the government’s support, which included scholarships from vocational to university levels and health insurance.

Another recipient was Yaroni Suryo Martono, an 80-year-old man who lost his Indonesian citizenship while studying abroad after a failed coup in 1965 blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. 

An estimated 500,000 people were killed in an ensuing anti-communist purge and supporters of then-President Sukarno were exiled following his ousting by Gen. Suharto.

Yaroni, who was 22 years old at the time, was enrolled at a high school in Czechoslovakia on a scholarship from the Indonesian government that required him to work for the state for three years after graduating.

“I couldn’t go back because they revoked the passports of me and 16 other friends who refused to sign papers endorsing the new government,” Yaroni recounted to Jokowi.

Another man, Sudaryanto, who goes by one name, had a similar experience.

He was studying at a cooperative institute in Moscow on a scholarship from the Indonesian Department of Cooperatives and Transmigration. But he failed a screening test that required him to denounce Sukarno.

“A week later, they took away my passport, and I was stuck there,” he said.

He stayed in Moscow and received support from the Russian government to finish his education and work. He became a lecturer and dean at the Russian Cooperative University. He said he could visit Indonesia only after 2000.

Sudaryanto said he planned to become an Indonesian citizen again. “I have grandchildren now, and my wife is Russian, but I’m sure I want it if they convince me,” he said.

Though he was astonished by the offer of citizenship, Yaroni said he had no intention of accepting it.

“I never thought this would happen in my lifetime because it was historic,” he said. “I’m too old now, but maybe it will matter for the younger generations.”

Ahead of Jokowi’s visit to Aceh, human rights groups and Acehnese condemned authorities for demolishing Rumoh Geudong.

Acehnese saw Rumoh Geudong, located in Pidie regency, as a symbol of the Indonesian military’s brutality during its counter-insurgency operations.

A local official said the house was razed to erase painful memories and a mosque would be built on the site at the request of the victims and their relatives.

Aceh is the only Indonesian province where Islamic law is practiced and that has its own local political parties, due to an autonomy scheme granted in 2002 to pacify the clamor for independence.


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