A number of retired Army generals this week organized a symposium claiming to protect the country’s national ideology, Pancasila, from the feared revival of communism and other ideologies.

A number of retired Army generals this week organized a symposium claiming to protect the country’s national ideology, Pancasila, from the feared revival of communism and other ideologies.

By Ayu Wahyuningroem

Source : Inside Indonesia, Jul-Sep 2016

“We are committed to resolving with justice the cases of past human rights violations which until now are still socially and politically burdening the people of Indonesia, such as: the May riots, Trisakti, Semanggi I and II, forced disappearances, Talangsari Lampung, Tanjung Priok and the 1965 tragedy.”

– Joko Widodo, 2014 presidential campaign

Almost two years after the 2014 election campaign during which he made this pledge, President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, and his government are yet to resolve any of the past human rights cases mentioned during the campaign. For almost two decades, when the state has been pressured to confront cases of past abuses, the government and the accused have always come up with other ways to ‘settle’ them. Jokowi’s government has shown that it is no different.

Since the fall of the New Order, calls for justice and accountability for human rights abuses under the New Order regime have led to impunity for perpetrators and no acknowledgement of the past wrongs. Out of 137 individuals named in Komnas HAM (National Commission on Human Rights) inquiries, only 18 have been convicted in trials and 100 per cent of those were acquitted on appeal.

Other efforts to create pathways to truth and justice for such crimes have similarly failed. When the international community insisted on an international human rights court for the mass violence during and after the 1999 referendum in Timor Leste, the Indonesian government instead held bilateral talks with the Timor Leste government. It also initiated its own Commission for Truth and Friendship, aimed at reconciliation. Another body, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in 2004, was abandoned by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono before it was eventually dismissed by the Constitutional Court in 2006.

Search for justice goes global

As a part of this effort seeking transitional justice for past crimes, since the end of the New Order human rights groups and survivors have issued petition after petition to the Indonesian government calling for the perpetrators of the mass violence of 1965-66 to be held accountable. They have all failed. In an effort to find an alternative forum at which these injustices may finally be addressed, the International People’s Tribunal, an initiative by victims groups and civil society, was held in The Hague from 10 to13 November last year. At the time, appearing to lack an understanding of what the tribunal really was, Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Human Rights Luhut Panjaitan dismissed the tribunal outright, declaring that Indonesia would not be dictated to by a foreign country. He accused the Dutch of carrying out human rights abuses during the colonial era and labelled the tribunal a ‘disgrace’.

The tribunal attracted headlines in both domestic and international media. This was in large part because it was livestreamed and therefore accessible to viewers online around the world. As a consequence, many of the victims and their supporters became more confident about speaking out about the ‘hidden past’ of 1965.

Before the tribunal there were other attempts domestically and internationally to openly talk about historic human rights abuses, some of which were widely covered by media with positive impact. In regard to 1965, there have been three events of major significance. First, the Tahun Kebenaran (The Year of Truth) hearings led by the Coalition for Truth and Justice were held in 2013 in five locations in Indonesia and were focused on various cases of past human rights abuses. Second, the production and screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, which won many awards around the world and attracted large international and domestic audiences, spread new awareness about this period in Indonesia’s history. The third event was the extraordinary formal apology made by the local mayor in Palu, Central Sulawesi, in 2013, followed by a reparation program for the victims in that region.

A national counter-response

Minister Luhut was clearly growing increasingly concerned about the ‘internationalisation’ of the 1965 case. When his colleague, Agus Widjojo, a former general who was recently appointed director of the National Defence Institute, came to him with the idea of holding a public discussion on reconciliation for 1965, the ministry considered it a good forum to counter the ‘internationalised’ discourse. It funded a national symposium on the 1965 tragedy, which was held in Jakarta on 18 and 19 April.

In his opening speech to the symposium, Luhut stressed his belief that Indonesia and Indonesians should and could find their own ways to solve the historical burden that has haunted the nation for more than five decades now. From the outset, the ‘balanced approach’ to the symposium program and list of speakers, which included historians, survivors themselves and military figures, meant that the issue of ‘numbers’ – how many deaths – became a significant obstacle.

In response, Luhut invited civil society groups to provide him with detailed information on mass graves to allow for confirmation of the numbers killed during the communist purge. Human rights and survivors’ groups were immediately mobilised into action. A few weeks later, on 9 May, 2016, a group of victims and their supporters met the minister to hand over data on mass graves. Again he stated his intention to settle the case in what he refered as the ‘Indonesian way’ and made it clear that he opposed ‘western’ ways of doing justice through truth inquiries or commissions and judicial mechanisms.

This echoed his earlier response to Komnas HAM investigations into 1965 published in 2012 and to subsequent demands that a presidential committee for truth and justice look into cases of past abuses and trials. Symposiums and exhumations of mass graves are part of the Indonesian way of balancing this human rights discourse.

Designed to succeed?

Many human rights groups and victims communities felt that the April symposium was a genuine attempt from the government to settle the 1965 case. However, in an interview on national television a few days after receiving the data on mass graves, Minister Luhut revealed that its true motivation was to counter the ‘PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) human rights’ campaign typified by the International People’s Tribunal and other international efforts to call for truth about 1965.

Two people who played major roles organising the symposium were Sidarto Danubroto and the abovementioned Agus Wijoyo, who acted as coordinator and key advisor. Agus Wijoyo is the son of General Sutoyo who was killed in the incident of 1 October, 1965, which later became known as G30S (the 30 September Movement). He was also one of the commissioners for the Commission for Truth and Friendship, and a founder of the Solidarity Forum for the Nation’s Children (FSAB).

Sidarto is a member of the President’s Advisory Board. He once worked as President Sukarno’s bodyguard and witnessed Sukarno’s last days in home detention. He was also head of the special committee for the law on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2001 to 2004. Both Agus and Sidarto admitted wrongdoings had taken place in 1965-66, where hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Indonesians were killed, illegally detained and tortured. Both believe that if Indonesia wants to move toward a better and more peaceful democracy, reconciliation should take place immediately. However, neither believes a judicial mechanism should be a requirement for seeking the truth.

In the beginning, the symposium was designed to accommodate the narrative of G30S/PKI, or to counter the human rights discourse on the 1965 mass violence. Some members of the initial organising committee withdrew from the process due to the military’s insistence on setting such an agenda. These include Karlina Supelli from the Driyarkara School of Philosophy who drafted the first terms of reference of the symposium, and other academics representing Jakarta National University and the University of Indonesia. However, two weeks prior to the symposium Sidarto invited some human rights activists to join the organising committee, bringing significant changes to the agenda and later the settings and outputs of the symposium. Some members of Komnas HAM and the National Press Council were also part of the organising committee.

The terms of reference were revised with the help of prominent academics and advocates who work on the 1965 mass violence and with a large numbers of victims, and also NGOs. Activists also convinced the team to allow for livestreaming and wide media access to the event so that the public would have an opportunity to watch proceedings.

As predicted, once the symposium was underway conflict quickly emerged between the two narratives of the 1965 ‘tragedy’. The symposium opened with a strong statement from Luhut and retired General Sintong Panjaitan, both denying the mass violence and demanding that proof be given. The various presenters from academia and the military also gave their accounts, and victims told their stories.

Discussions touched on wide ranging aspects including historical background, socio-cultural and psycological dimensions of the violence, the experience of victims and families of those involved, and ways for settling the past abuses. Very little discussion touched on the political dimension of the mass violence nor the role state institutions played in it. Nonetheless, significantly, Sidarto closed the event with an acknowledgement of the state’s involvement in the violence and strongly recommended rehabilitation for victims.

Some months later, we are now left to wonder: how effective was the symposium in producing pathways for resolving this historical injustice that has inflicted such deep trauma on the nation?

Whilst the symposium opened a state-sponsored space for discussing the two narratives of 1965 for the first time, and offered some hope for truth and rehabilitation for victims, it has by no means been universally accepted. Human rights organisation, such as Kontras for example, were very critical of the potential outcomes of the event. They argued that the symposium could be used to legitimise impunity, especially when truth does not seem to be the priority in any attempts at reconciliation. Moreover, some were critical of Komnas HAM for its involvement in the symposium because they believed it could potentially delegitimise the organisation’s own 2012 inquiry on the 1965 crimes against humanity.


Since the symposium in April, in a highly disturbing trend, anti-communist voices seem to be getting more airtime and their activities becoming even more extreme. Minister of Defense Ryamizard Ryacudu and retired generals including Kivlan Zein and Sintong have publicly opposed the symposium and stirred up alarmist rhetoric about the re-emergence of communism in Indonesia.

Immediately after the symposium, the army announced a collaboration with mass organisations such as the FPI (Islam Defenders Front) and Front Pancasila, as well as local police, to sweep up any items carrying the image of the hammer and sickle, a symbol universally associated with communism. More public events have been disrupted, including a screening of Rahung’s My Homeland, Buru Island organised by the Alliance of Indonesian Journalists in Yogyakarta on 3 May to mark World Press Day. Two activists in Ternate, Maluku, were detained and indicted for wearing t-shirts with the words ‘Pencinta Kopi Indonesia’ (Indonesian Coffee Lover), which were mistakenly interpreted as representing the PKI.

The sweeping up of allegedly communist material continued through May and June. In some regions this saw the confiscation of any books related to communism, Marxism, the PKI, or any other ‘leftist’ books. These measures potentially undermine freedom of information and expression in Indonesia. Since January 2015, SafeNet (Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network) has recorded 42 cases of repression of freedom of expression and association in Indonesia. Cases have increased significantly since January this year, with an average of 4 to 5 incidents every month now.

The rebalancing has not stopped there. Kivlan Zen and Kiki Syahnakri, along with other retired military generals and Ryamizard, organised an anti-PKI ‘counter symposium’ on 1 June at Balai Kartini in South Jakarta. The symposium was funded by prominent figures including Yapto Suryo Soemarno, the leader of Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth), and involved Islamic fundamentalists and nationalist fundamentalists such as Habib Rizieq, the leader of the FPI, and Sintong. It was also partly funded by Luhut’s office, as part of his rebalancing efforts after the April symposium. Minister Luhut and Agus have both been openly accused of being pro-communist, including by some from within the military.

So how should we view Jokowi’s progress on his commitment to resolving the 1965 abuses?

The president has been silent on this issue. On 16 May, he issued an order for the police and military to stop confiscating books and to respect the law and democratic principles when carrying out their work. However, as Minister Luhut firmly stated during his 9 May meeting about the graves, the 1965 settlement will not be handed over to the president for approval. Recommendations and a plan of action will be in Luhut’s hands only. This means that the symposium can only be considered the starting point of a long process towards the nation confronting its past. But unless there is stronger political leadership on this issue, there is also a real risk that it could be the final chapter before the book is closed on truth and justice in Indonesia.


Ayu Wahyuningroem (swahyuningroem@gmail.com) is a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Indonesia.