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Can a ‘sorry’ right Jakarta’s wrongs?

July 17, 2012

SINGAPORE: Never a risk taker, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may paradoxically be engaged in the biggest gamble of his presidency by going ahead with a public apology over the human rights violations the state has committed over four decades.

Chief legal adviser Albert Hasibuan has said it will be issued before Dr Yudhoyono steps down in 2014. At this point at least, the apology will cover every event going back to the mid-1960s, when an estimated 500,000 people died during the purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

While these are early days, it is understood the Presidential Advisory Council and the Political Coordinating Ministry, working in the President’s favoured two-track approach, will form a working group to examine the implications of an apology, and then establish a high- level task force to handle its preparation.

The President hopes it will act as a starting point to resolve past human rights abuses and also lead to a compensation mechanism for the families of the victims that some sources say could be built into the country’s social welfare system.

What is not so clear is how far-reaching the implications of the initiative will be. Relatives and non-governmental organisations are unlikely to accept any cleaning of the slate without a searching examination of the facts in each case.

After all, an apology will mean acknowledging the government was in the wrong — an admission that is opposed by army generals and other nationalist leaders, who have always claimed they were defending the interests of the state. The failure of many Southeast Asian governments to come clean about certain murky events is the reason autobiographies invariably disclose little that is new and why books on contentious historical issues are mostly written by foreigners.

Look no further than American Ben Anderson's work on the 1965 Indonesian coup and Rayne Kruger’s “The Devil’s Discus”, the only book to examine the 1946 shooting death of young Thai king Ananda Mahidol, which remains a taboo subject in Thailand even today.

Then compare those, for example, with the less-than-revealing biography of the late Indonesian military strongman Benny Murdani, some of whose personal papers were destroyed after his death and whose daughter is now said to be the keeper of his many secrets.

Any apology would focus most attention on the purge by the PKI, which was led by Dr Yudhoyono's own father-in- law, late special forces commander Sarwo Edhie Wibowo.

While the president almost certainly consulted Wibowo’s widow, army chief Pramono Edhie Wibowo and the rest of First Lady Kristiani’s family, he reportedly told Coordinating Ministry officials he had reservations on including 1965 because he had no “personal attachment”.

If true, it is a curious remark to make when an apology would be on behalf of the state. It would also degrade the whole process, particularly when he has still not acted on promises to delve into the fate of pro-democracy activists who disappeared in 1997 to 1998.

Official histories and school textbooks make little or no mention of the horrific 1965 killings, and with many of the perpetrators still alive today, victims’ families are reluctant to break the silence that envelops the darkest chapter in the country's history.

There are some parallels with Cambodia.

The ageing leaders of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror of the late 1970s may now be on trial, but a lot of cadres responsible for the murders still live in their home villages where the crimes took place.

Indonesian attitudes are slowly changing. Last year, Jakarta's Goethe Institute braved a noisy crowd of Islamist demonstrators to hold a conference on 1965 in which Indonesian and foreign academics presented papers on different aspects of the period. One of the speakers was retired general Agus Widjojo, whose father was among the six generals murdered in an alleged communist coup on Sept 30, 1965, the event that precipitated the nationwide crackdown against the PKI.

“We are failing to settle the task of dealing with our history, and we are leaving it behind for our grandchildren,” he said. “The readiness to enter into reconciliation requires the destruction of the myth that victims were the monopoly of one side and the perpetrators of the violence were the other side.”

The effects of the trauma may be wearing off in the hinterland too. Only last month, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) claimed that it had located 17 mass graves in Central Java where the bodies of suspected communist members are buried.

But the country is still far from coming to terms with events from its past, including the brutal repression of insurgencies in Aceh, Timor Leste and Papua, and the murders and abductions of political activists in the dying days of former president Suharto’s 32-year rule.

Legislation mandating the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission was dropped in 2004, soon after Dr Yudhoyono took office, because it was seen to have too many constitutional loopholes.

Commentators like former Jakarta Post editor Endy Bayuni are convinced that a simple blanket apology will achieve little, and deprive Indonesians of a valuable lesson in trying to stop the seemingly endless cycle of violence that plagues the country.”

They still have to do a lot of fact finding and figure out what the parameters should be,” acknowledges one source involved in the early preparatory work. "But this is no small thing, which is why they need a process that is both realistic and inclusive.”

By arrangement with The Straits Times/ANN