Minister Luhut Panjaitan’s challenge to “show us where the mass graves are” breaks through the previous impasse of government minimisation of 1965-66 violence. President Jokowi must now deal directly with this evidence, writes Jess Melvin.

Human rights organisations involved in documenting the 1965-66 killings in Indonesia have responded with excitement to Minister Luhut Panjaitan’s challenge, issued at the ‘National Symposium on the 1965 Tragedy ‘(Jakarta, 18- 19 April), to “show us where the mass graves are”.

Initially issued as a means of attempting to deny that evidence of mass graves exists, Luhut’s challenge may have unintentionally broken through the impasse that has so far stalled previous investigations. The unprecedented development has been matched by President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s instruction to Luhut on Monday 25 April, to look for evidence of mass graves and heralds the possibility of a genuine shift in Indonesia’s attempt to investigate the killings.

Last month’s symposium was the first time the Indonesian government has held an official public discussion about the 1965-66 killings with the aim of testing the ground for a national process of reconciliation. This unprecedented gathering, which included government officials, survivors and perpetrators of the genocide, and which was broadcast live around the world, should be understood as a hard-won victory for all those engaged in advocating for truth and justice for 1965.

The Symposium’s timing suggests the Indonesian government feels under mounting pressure to demonstrate it is capable of addressing the events of 1965-66 without external assistance. The current attention on the genocide, generated in large part by the international success of Joshua Oppenheimer’s two Academy Award nominated documentary films, The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), as well as the tireless ongoing work of survivors, human rights groups and researchers both within Indonesia and around the world, has embarrassed the government.

As Luhut explained in his opening remarks to the Symposium: “we can do it ourselves”. Good faith is the process was quickly lost, however, when Luhut provocatively declared that under no circumstances would the government be issuing an apology. Luhut said:

We will not apologise. We are not that stupid. We know what we did, and it was the right thing to do for the nation.

The categorical refusal to issue an apology, regardless of the outcome of the Symposium’s findings, made a mockery of the event’s stated intention of reconciliation.

In issuing his challenge, however, it appears that Luhut may well have miss-spoke. Luhut’s challenge, initially intended as a rhetorical flourish to his proposal that the events of 1965-66 have been exaggerated, was linked to his assertion that the figure of between half a million and one million deaths agreed upon by researchers should be questioned.

As he explained at a press conference following the Symposium: “we don’t have any evidence now that a number of people got killed back in 1965, like some people say 80,000 or 400, because we don’t have any evidence of that… I challenge some of the media, if you can show us where the mass graves are, we are more than happy to have a look.” This attempt to downplay the extent of the killings has, of course, been a central component of official propaganda versions of events since they first occurred.

What is remarkable about Luhut’s challenge is that it transgresses the very heart of what keeps this propaganda version together. Beyond using intimidation and fear to maintain its official version of events, the military has been scrupulous in avoiding discussion about specific details relating to the killings. Thus, in the military’s public accounts, victims are ‘found dead’ having either been killed ‘by the people’ or by unknown assailants, with the military portrayed as stepping in to restore security.

In this regard, it is significant that official versions focus almost exclusively on the phase of public killings that occurred as a prelude to the mass killings. These, after all, were killings that could be most easily blamed on non-military actors; something that becomes so much more difficult when military jails, military trucks, military controlled killing sites, and mass graves begin to enter into descriptions of the mass killing phase of the genocide.


Luhut Panjaitan speaks at the symposium.

In calling for evidence of these mass graves, Luhut has broken this rule and in doing so, he has opened a Pandora’s box that the government will find very difficult to close again. It is one thing to refuse to investigate the events of 1965-66 on the basis that there is alleged “insufficient evidence” of the crimes alleged by victims — as the Attorney General’s Office has done to successfully stall Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission’s (Komnas HAM) official four-year initial investigation into the killings. But, it is quite another to refuse to investigate these events after openly calling for such evidence. Meanwhile, Jokowi’s endorsement of Luhut’s challenge has supplied it with official legitimacy and urgency.

The government has invited human rights organisations to assist in the search for mass graves. The response has been swift. Commission for “The Disappeared” and Victims of Violence (KontraS) spokesperson, Puri Kencana Putri, announced on Wednesday 27 April, that KontraS has evidence relating to the location of 16 mass grave sites, including in Central Java, Sulawesi, and Sumatra.

KontraS would be happy to hand this information to the government, Putri explained, as soon as the investigation is given formal legal status, such as through the issuing of a Presidential Decree, in order to ensure the safety of informants as well as to preserve the integrity of evidence uncovered as part of the investigation.

Indonesian Institute for the Study of the 1965/66 Massacre (YPKP) spokesperson and genocide survivor, Bejo Untung, meanwhile, announced on Monday 2 May, that YPKP is aware of 122 separate mass grave sites over 12 provinces. Fifty of these mass graves, Bejo explained, are in Central Java, 28 are in East Java, and 21 are in West Sumatra. This number, Bejo cautioned, is only a small proportion of the mass graves YPKP understands dot the country. YPKP, Bejo said, has already given this information to Komnas HAM.

International People’s Tribunal for 1965 (IPT 1965) spokesperson, Reza Muharam, also announced on Monday 2 April, that IPT 1965 has already handed its information on mass grave sites to Komnas HAM. Reza then proceeded to question why Luhut, as Indonesia’s Minister for Politics, Law and Security Affairs, was being asked to coordinate the investigation, when, according to Indonesia’s human rights legislation this task correctly belonged to Komnas HAM. Luhut, Reza urged, should immediately coordinate his investigation with Komnas HAM and the Attorney General’s Office in order that existing information be pooled.

Meanwhile, Komnas HAM’s Deputy Head Commissioner, Dianto Bachriadi, took the unprecedented step on Thursday 21 April, of accusing Jokowi of lying when the President told the media on 19 April that he had “not yet heard” from Komnas HAM. “It is not true the President has not received a report,” on Komnas HAM’s investigation into 1965, Bachriadi said.

Bachriadi explained Komnas HAM gave a copy of the executive summary of its findings directly to the President on Human Rights Day, 10 December 2014. Jokowi should have ordered the Attorney General to begin an official investigation as soon as he received this report, Bachriadi said.

Jokowi is now in an extremely delicate position. Should he back down on his instruction for an investigation to be commenced, or should he be seen to continue to ignore the findings of Komnas HAM and other human rights organisations and researchers, he risks losing credibility as a president serious about coming to terms with the country’s dark past. Meanwhile, if he does continue with the investigation, he risks alienating large sections of the Indonesian elite, including many within his own government.

Jokowi does not, however, have the luxury of doing nothing. After years of government stalling, survivors, and human rights advocates are sick of hearing excuses. Now that the taboo on speaking explicitly about the violence of the killings has been broken, newspapers have begun to fill with stories about previous mass grave exhumations and eyewitness accounts of the killings. It is simply no longer possible to credibly claim that no such evidence exists.

Luhut’s office, meanwhile, has gone into damage control and in doing so continues to unravel the official propaganda account. On 2 May, Luhut’s Assistant Deputy, Brigadier General Abdul Hafil, acknowledged Luhut is aware that mass graves from the time of the genocide exist. “It’s not that [Luhut] doesn’t know, he knows that there are mass graves,” Hadil explained, before questioning the number of victims in these graves.

The following day, Luhut issued his own statement through which he acknowledged, “there certainly are” victims, before appealing for this number to not be “exaggerated”. “Let us not allow this nation to… be called a barbaric nation. [A nation] that kills thousands of its own,” he said.

These acknowledgements by Luhut are a positive development and are evidence of the new space currently opening within Indonesia. They also point to the personal sensitivity of many in the government who maintain links to the New Order regime. Luhut is, after all, not only a government minister but also an eyewitness to the genocide.

In 1965-66, Luhut was a senior high school student. According to Indonesian online news site Antara News, Luhut was a founding member of the military-sponsored KAPI (Komando Aksi Pelajar Indonesia: Indonesian High School Students’ Action Front) student militia group in Bandung, West Java. Komnas HAM has explained KAPI was “involved in the mass arrests… and joined in the torture and… killings.”

Luhut’s alleged leadership role in KAPI was initially reported as evidence of his patriotism and sense of civic duty. If confirmed, this information shows that while Luhut’s continued involvement in the current investigation will be critical, it is not appropriate for him to coordinate this investigation. This role belongs to Komnas HAM.

The Symposium represents perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity for Indonesia to put the events of 1965-66 firmly in its past and to begin the long process of working towards the reconciliation it has set out to achieve. Such reconciliation will only be possible, however, if all parties can move beyond denials and justifications of the violence and embark on a genuine truth seeking investigation that refuses to shy away from even the most uncomfortable of truths.

Jess Melvin is a Postdoctoral Associate in Genocide Studies at Yale University.