Is reconciliation possible without an apology?


Dr Ken Setiawan is a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne's Asia Institute.

Many activists hoped that the election of President Jokowi would bring justice for victims of human rights violations. Photo by Ucu Agustin
Many activists hoped that the election of President Jokowi would bring justice for victims of human rights violations. Photo by Ucu Agustin.


Wednesday will mark 50 years since the Indonesian military took control of the government and instigated a violent campaign against members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and their alleged sympathisers. Indonesia continues to grapple with this bloody chapter of its history, and the government narrative that the killings were justified is still dominant among the public and state officials alike.


Recent years have seen increasing attention – both in Indonesia and abroad – to the events of 1965 and their aftermath, as well as the emergence of alternative narratives of the violence. This development has been influenced by the publication of survivor testimonies and the work of human rights activists. Nevertheless, formal justice for victims and survivors remains elusive.


Many human rights activists and observers hoped that last year’s election of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo would bring justice for victims of human rights violations. Jokowi certainly did not shun the issue and included human rights in his Nawa Cita, a nine-point priority agenda. The fourth priority, law enforcement, explicitly stated that “respect for human rights and the just finalisation of past human rights violations” were of utmost importance, as they were a “political and social burden” on the country. Nawa Cita also included the 1965 tragedy in a list of specific cases that must be finalised.


These were not empty words. In May, the government announced the establishment of a Reconciliation Committee to resolve past human rights violations.


This is not the first attempt to address human rights violations. The Law on Human Rights Courts (Law No. 26/2000) mandates the formation of ad hoc human rights courts to address gross human rights violations of the past. This has been difficult to achieve in practice, however, with the Attorney General’s Office repeatedly refusing to follow-up on preliminary investigations by the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), including the Commission’s 2012 report on the 1965 events. Similarly, when the House of Representatives passed a Law in 2004 to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it was revoked by the Constitutional Court. These developments illustrate that resistance to human rights remains strong among the political elite.


Crucially, the new Reconciliation Committee will promote a non-judicial approach. Many have argued that this is necessary given the difficulties there have been in addressing human rights cases through judicial processes or a truth commission. The fact that any progress was possible at all was likely influenced by the presence of Jokowi – a president who, unlike his predecessors, has no direct ties to the Soeharto regime. Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, the father-in-law of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was, for example, the commander of the Army’s Para Commando Regiment, which was heavily involved in the persecution of communists in Java and Bali.


The Jokowi government’s Reconciliation Committee consists of representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, the National Police, the Coordinating Ministry of Political, Legal and Security Affairs, the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and Komnas HAM. When it announced the Committee, the government said where gross violations of human rights were found, the president would express regret, and offer an apology to victims and their families.


Human rights organisations and observers in Indonesia have been critical of the government’s plans, dismissing the non-judicial approach as an attempt by the government to evade responsibility. Franz Magnis-Suseno, a prominent Jesuit priest and former head of the Driyarkara School of Philosophy, has argued that reconciliation should be initiated by victims, rather than the state. Daud Beureuh, from the Association of Families of the Disappeared (IKOHI), argued that Nawa Cita promised a judicial approach rather than a non-judicial one. Similarly, prominent lawyer and former member of the Presidential Advisory Committee, Albert Hasibuan, has said that “the wounds of the past can only be healed through law”, arguing that the government must focus on the effective implementation of existing human rights mechanisms.


Attorney General Prasetyo has said, however, that dealing with past violations of human rights in ad hoc human rights courts will be difficult because of the length of time that has passed since the violence occurred and the lack of available evidence. He argues that a legal process could result in “sub-optimal outcomes”, and the nation would be far better off opting for the quicker option of reconciliation, which he claims is also supported by a majority of victims and their families. Prasetyo’s support for reconciliation reflects the fact that the AGO has ignored Komnas HAM recommendations, making it one of the main stumbling blocks in bringing human rights cases to trial.


Jokowi does, however, appear genuine in his attempts to promote reconciliation. In his recent State of the Nation address, he again reiterated the government’s commitment to solving past human rights violations, so that “generations of the future are not burdened by the past”. Before the address there were rumours that Jokowi would even extend an apology to the victims of 1965 but this did not eventuate. While it appears senior political elites can stomach the idea of reconciliation (especially in its watered-down form), an apology is far more contested.


Vice President Jusuf Kalla commented that offering an apology was problematic as it was “not clear who wants to ask for an apology, and for what”. Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, went further by claiming that an apology was unnecessary as “the communists were the perpetrators”. Instead, he argued for the government and victims to “throw away the past”, reconcile, and “unite to face the challenges of the future”. Kivlan Zen, former chief of staff of Kostrad, the Army Strategic Reserve Command, has warned that an apology will allow the rise of a new communist party, as well as large claims for compensation.


These objections to an apology are unsurprising given that the organisations with which these men are involved all had a role in the killings and their aftermath. Kalla, for example, led the Indonesian Students Action Front (KAMI) in Makassar in 1965, which supported Soeharto’s efforts to gain power. Ryamizard, meanwhile, was previously the head of Kostrad, which played a central part in the obliteration of the PKI. An apology has also been rejected by mass Islamic organisations NU and Muhammadiyah – both of which are recorded as having supported the killings – as well as the more hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), with Muhammadiyah claiming that Jokowi has guaranteed an apology is not on the agenda.


Jokowi has argued that reconciliation is important because Indonesia needs to address past abuses to be able to look toward the future. An apology, however, requires looking back, to acknowledge the past and admit the truth. This is a very important process, particularly considering the deeply painful experiences of victims and survivors. But acknowledging the past and the role played by the state in serious violations of human rights challenges dominant historical and political narratives, and that guarantees resistance.


It remains to be seen how the Jokowi government will navigate these challenges and how it will give meaning to its promise to establish justice. The government needs to understand, however, that demands for justice will never stop until the suffering of victims and their families is finally acknowledged by the state.


Ken’s father was held as a political prisoner on Buru Island from 1971 to 1978. Listen to her discussion with Dave McRae about her recent trip to the island in Talking Indonesia.