Indonesia on trial: rights activists face backlash

Author

ARC Future Fellow University of Melbourne

Author

Dr Jemma Purdey is a Research Fellow at Monash University and Deakin University

Holding the International People's Tribunal in The Hague was a significant risk. Photo by the International People's Tribunal 1965.
Holding the International People’s Tribunal in The Hague was a calculated risk. Photo by the International People’s Tribunal 1965.

 

Last month, at the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague, the Netherlands, a panel of judges, prosecutors, witnesses and members of the public listened quietly as an indictment against the Indonesian state for crimes committed in 1965 and 1966 was read out. The registrar then called for the team representing the defendant to present itself. When no one responded, the chief judge expressed his disappointment. This was, of course, a performative gesture. There was never going to be a case presented for the defence at this International People’s Tribunal (IPT), as at others before it.

 

The Indonesian government’s response to the IPT on 1965 crimes against humanity in Indonesia, held from 10-13 November, came as no surprise. As chief prosecutor Todung Mulya Lubis described in his opening statement, the Jokowi government’s refusal to apologise for the atrocities of 1965-66 meant his team had already concluded that the government had no interest in “dealing with” this past.

 

The tribunal was established as a response to the perceived failure of the Indonesian legal system to provide justice for survivors of the violence. Despite having no legal standing, the IPT provoked extreme reactions in Indonesia, including accusations that the Indonesian activists behind the tribunal were traitors of the nation for raising the issue in an international setting.

 

The IPT 1965 has its roots in the frustration and disappointment shared by survivors and Indonesian human rights activists at the lack of concrete steps to address the legacies of the violence. Plans to hold the IPT began after the Attorney General’s Office failed to respond to the ground-breaking report into the 1965 violence completed by the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) in 2012. Komnas HAM’s extensive investigation found that gross human rights violations were committed and recommended further investigation by the AGO.

 

The AGO has instead recommended an alternative reconciliation initiative that will involve the military and police, organisations complicit in the 1965 violence. Moreover, Komnas HAM was only authorised to release an executive summary of its findings. The full report remains embargoed.

 

In their opening statements, both Mulya Lubis and IPT general coordinator Nursyabani Katjasungkana acknowledged that they owed a debt to Komnas HAM’s work and were trying to bring similar findings to the light of day, albeit in a non-binding court. Nursyahbani explained that the tribunal aimed to provide  “a public record of the mass killings and other crimes committed”. Further to this, she said they hoped the tribunal would act as “a moral instrument” to pressure the Indonesian government to take rapid action to resolve this issue.

 

Organisers explained that The Hague was chosen as the site for the tribunal because it is home to the International Criminal Court, and the city is a symbol of justice and peace. But holding the tribunal there was also a significant risk. Predictably, Vice President Jusuf Kalla condemned the tribunal and compared the 1965 events with Dutch colonisation, calling on the Dutch to instead make amends for the crimes they committed. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, meanwhile, struck a more measured tone, noting that the tribunal was not a real tribunal; rather it was “a form of freedom of expression”.

 

The decision to start the tribunal on 10 November, Heroes’ Day in Indonesia, was a deliberate provocation by the organisers. This day marks the anniversary of the 1945 Battle of Surabaya, where freedom fighters first engaged in armed conflict to defend Indonesia’s newly declared independence. By using this symbolic date, the activists behind the tribunal attempted to position themselves as nationalists. They sought to challenge the omnipotence of anti-communist discourse in Indonesia that suggests alleged communists and anyone associated with them are traitors of the nation.

 

The organisers were aware that what they were undertaking was highly sensitive. In anticipation of any backlash against the most vulnerable Indonesians who testified at the tribunal, there were extensive plans to protect survivors on their return. Representatives from Nahdlatul Ulama and Pemuda Pancasila, whose members participated in the 1965 killings in East Java and Sumatra, respectively, went so far as to call for the prosecution of those involved in the IPT. They joined members of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and others in labelling those behind the tribunal as traitors and invoked Law 25/1966 prohibiting communist ideology in Indonesia.

 

The strongest criticism from opponents of the IPT has been directed toward its general coordinator Nursyahbani, and Indonesian prosecutors Mulya Lubis and Uli Parulian Sihombing. Twelve days after the tribunal concluded, following their return to Indonesia, the lawyers received a summons from Pemuda Pancasila demanding that they apologise for “their violation of and efforts to discredit the Pancasila, the Constitution and the Indonesian legal system”. Pemuda Pancasila accused the lawyers of humiliating the Indonesian government, degrading the dignity of the Indonesian nation and of “potentially spreading collective hatred, which may lead to excommunication, discrimination, violence and in the worst case to ethnic killing or genocide of the group that is targeted in the teachings of hatred”. The three lawyers were accused of potentially inciting social unrest, an offence under articles 154 and 155 of the Indonesian Criminal Code.

 

The ironies in these alleged charges run deep. First, the activists who initiated the tribunal sought to uphold the Pancasila principle of a commitment to “a just and civilised humanity” and article 28I (2) of the Indonesian Constitution, which provides for the right “to be free from discriminative treatment based upon any grounds whatsoever and the right to protection from such discriminative treatment”.

 

Second, they sought to expose the lack of justice for survivors through a critique of the Indonesian legal system’s failure to address this case. As the foreign minister pointed out, freedom to express one’s views or thoughts is guaranteed in the constitution (article 28E 2 and 3). The constitution also declares that “the protection, advancement, upholding and fulfilment of human rights is the responsibility of the state, especially the government” (article 28I c).

 

The tribunal attributed blame for the 1965 violence to the Indonesian state but its intention was not to spread hatred of a particular group nor of the Indonesian nation. On the contrary, the activists behind the tribunal sought action to end the ongoing expression of hatred towards those labelled communists, which is almost never the subject of police reprimand or government condemnation.

 

On the last day of the tribunal, for example, the head of Pemuda Pancasila, Yapto Soelistyo Soerjosoemarno, declared that he was prepared to “crush” or “finish off” the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) if it rose again. His language was hauntingly similar to the language used during the Indonesian killings. The fact that the head of an organisation involved in the violence can continue to say such things with no consequences reflects how little has changed in the broad public framing of this violence and the extent to which impunity continues to be reproduced.

 

Nevertheless, despite threats against its organisers, the IPT process continues to push forward. The judges’ findings will be delivered on 11 March 2016 (Supersemar, the anniversary of the date President Soekarno apparently signed a decree transferring power to Soeharto) at which point the Indonesian government may be forced to more fully address its outcomes. This decision, by the international group of judges, may not be so easily rejected. There is no telling how opposition groups like Pemuda Pancasila will respond when an international spotlight is again shone brightly on this history of mass violence and the culpability of past governments and the armed forces in it. So far the signs are not good, however, and it is clear that a fundamental shift in leadership on this issue must come to pass if there is to be a change.