The Trisakti incident in 1998 was among the human rights abuses Jokowi promised to address. Photo by the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Indonesia.

The Trisakti incident in 1998 was among the human rights abuses Jokowi promised to address. Photo by the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Indonesia.


When President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo came to power one year ago many were hopeful that his lack of ties to the military and political elite would allow a break with the indecisiveness and weak law enforcement of the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono years.


Although human rights issues were not a major feature of the 2014 election campaign, Jokowi’s campaign statement did set out a comprehensive list of human rights campaign commitments, including combating impunity for past human rights violations, safeguarding freedom of religion and opening Papua to foreign journalists and improving welfare in the province. Imagine how he feels now, in meetings with members of his coalition or cabinet, knowing that some of the people sitting across the table have been implicated in the very human rights atrocities he promised to settle.


As this suggests, after one year in the job, the Jokowi administration’s progress in human rights issues is patchy at best. Jokowi’s failures can be put down to a combination of weak leadership, a limited understanding of the key issues, insubordination from some of his ministers, and the fact that he has been held hostage to interests in his party.

Religious freedom

Until last week, there were no major religious conflicts resulting in loss of life during Jokowi’s first year in power. It is questionable how much this progress can be put down to Jokowi and how much can be credited to Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, who has engaged minority communities and avoided the divisive language and policies of his predecessor. While hate speech has still occurred, law enforcement officials have shown that they will no longer tolerate violence committed by hard-line groups.


These positive developments were tarnished when on 13 October a group of up to 750 Islamic vigilantes burned down three churches in Aceh Singkil district, Aceh, resulting in the death of one man. The situation remains tense, and the government has deployed 1,300 police and military personnel to the area to prevent further violence.


A number of unresolved conflicts also continue to cast a shadow over the Jokowi administration. The Shi’a community from Sampang, East Java, for example, are still not able to return home since they were attacked and evicted from their homes in 2012. The GKI Yasmin congregation in Bogor has likewise still not been able to build its church, despite a Supreme Court ruling in its favour, and the Ahmadiyah community continue to face threats and restrictions on their right to practice their faith, particularly in West Java.

Papua: a plan unexecuted

Jokowi appears genuinely committed to the resolution of conflict in Papua. He campaigned in the province and has visited it twice since assuming office. His good intentions have come up against some harsh political realities, however.


Jokowi reportedly planned to release the more than 90 political prisoners (including at least 38 Papuans) incarcerated around the country by offering them clemency or amnesty. Clemency implicitly requires the recipient to acknowledge his or her guilt, something that Papuan leaders and activists have not been prepared to do. They have instead demanded amnesty, which would not require an admission of guilt but would require the support of the House of Representatives, which remains firmly opposed to the idea. The Papuans remain in prison.


Jokowi’s plan to open Papua to foreign journalists also quickly ran into obstacles. Within days of announcing the change in policy, senior ministers were pushing back against the plan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has since claimed that the so-called “clearing house” requiring foreign journalists to apply for a permit to enter the province has been dismantled. In the field, however, difficulties continue and multiple layers of permits are still required.


The president’s commitment to peace in the province also suffered a major setback in December 2014, when five teenage boys were killed and more than a dozen people injured after military and police allegedly fired into a crowd of protesters in Paniai district. Approaching a year since the incident, the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity and Jokowi’s achievements in the province seem lacklustre at best.

Resolving past abuses: derailed and aborted

In May, the government announced the formation of a Reconciliation Committee to resolve past violations of human rights, including the 1965-1966 massacre, the Petrus killings of 1982-1985, the Talangsari case, the 1997-1998 activist disappearances, the May 1998 riots, and the Trisakti and Semanggi shootings. The Committee is led by the Attorney General M Prasetyo, a Nasdem Party politician, and consists of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), the National Police, the Indonesian Military (TNI), the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and the Coordinating Ministry of Politics, Justice and Security.


Undermining Jokowi’s promises to deliver justice to victims, the Attorney General’s Office has promoted a non-judicial approach to reconciliation. The AGO has said that if it can establish that human rights violations have occurred, it will prepare a formal statement, holding institutions – not individual perpetrators – to account. The president would then express regret and offer an apology to the public.


By allowing perpetrators to escape accountability this “reconciliation” process will only sustain the deeply rooted culture of impunity that has tainted Indonesia in the democratic era. The AGO has in fact been the main impediment to prosecution of past abuses, and has repeatedly failed to act on investigations into gross violations of rights conducted by Komnas HAM.


Approaching the 50th anniversary of the events that triggered the anti-communist killings of 1965-1966 there were rumours from the Presidential Palace that Jokowi had planned to deliver an apology to victims and their families. It didn’t take long for senior government officials, such as Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu (who has been implicated in human rights abuses himself) to speak out against the plan. Mass-based Islamic organisations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah also rejected the idea of an apology.


Another past human rights violation that looks like it will remain unresolved is the murder of human rights defender Munir Said Thalib in 2004. Disappointingly – but predictably – Vice President Jusuf Kalla said that the case was considered closed with the sentencing of Garuda pilot Pollycarpus Budihari Prijanto, despite a presidential fact-finding team linking the crime to senior figures in the State Intelligence Agency (BIN). This statement comes from the same man who, in The Act of Killing, praised the role of “thugs” in getting things done.

Death penalty

A major stain on Jokowi’s human rights record has been his approach to capital punishment. In the face of intense international pressure Indonesia executed 14 narcotics offenders in January and April. Jokowi genuinely believes the country is in the grip of a drugs crisis, and sees the death penalty as a crucial element in the eradication of narcotics.


The death penalty is inconsistent with Indonesia’s status as a democratic country that recognises and values human rights. Further, applying the death penalty at home severely undermines Indonesia’s efforts to advocate for the rights of the more than 200 Indonesians facing the death penalty abroad. While many of the Indonesians on death row abroad are migrant workers, the majority are also narcotics offenders.


It was never going to be easy for Jokowi to live up to his human rights promises. He is a weak president in a coalition that includes perpetrators of human rights abuses. Further still, human rights issues have never enjoyed the broad popular support that anti-corruption campaigns have received. He has nonetheless made firm commitments to the Indonesian people to improve human rights that he has failed to implement. Jokowi’s popularity is already declining. Can he really afford to let this situation continue for another year?



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