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Indonesia’s Acknowledgement Of Human Rights Violations Insufficient, Rights Activists Say

Indonesian President Joko Widodo acknowledged a series of incidents amounting to the "gross human rights violations" of his country's past. Still, rights activists call for greater accountability and justice to ensure these past atrocities do not occur in the future.

At least 500,000 people died, according to some historians and activists, in violence that started in late 1965 after then-general Suharto and the military took power after an abortive communist coup. An estimated one million or more were jailed during the crackdown and suspected of being communists. In 1967 General Suharto ousted President Sukarno, Indonesia's independence leader, and went on to rule the world's biggest Muslim-majority country for three decades.

President Widodo cited 11 other incidents between 1965 and 2003 including the fatal shooting and abduction of students during protests against Suharto's three-decade rule in the late 1990s. Some of the student protesters who were targeted belonged to the Chinese community, a minority in the world's biggest Muslim-majority country, and some of whom regularly criticized the country’s corruption levels that created a significant disparity between the wealthy and the poor. 

"With a clear, genuine mind and conscience, I as a head of state acknowledge that there were gross human rights violations that did happen in many events,” Widodo said, "And I strongly regret that those violations occurred.”

Mr Widodo, also known as Jokowi, recently received the report from a team he had commissioned last year to investigate Indonesia's bloody history and promised to address the issue when he first came to power in 2014. He said the government would seek to restore victims’ rights "fairly and wisely without negating judicial resolving", though did not specify how.

However, victims of the violence, relatives, and rights groups have questioned whether Jokowi’s government is serious about holding anyone accountable for these historical atrocities. Rights activists note the Attorney General's Office, tasked with investigating rights violations, often has thrown out such cases. Retired civil servant Maria Catarina Sumarsih, whose son Wawan was shot dead in 1998 while helping a wounded student, said the President needs to do more to ensure this does not happen in the future.  

"For me ... what's important is that the president assures that gross rights violations don't happen in the future by trying the suspected perpetrators in court,” she said.

Amnesty International Executive Director Usman Hamid said any expression of regret must also include a reaffirmation that “serious crimes of the past need to be resolved rightly and justly through judicial means.”


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Winsaro, a group coordinator caring for survivors of the 1965 bloodshed, said that while the President's acknowledgement was insufficient, there is still an opening to discuss the massacres.

Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch Andreas Harsono said: 

"If President Jokowi is serious about past human rights violations, he should first order a government effort to investigate these mass killings, to document mass graves and to find their families, to match the graves and their families, as well as to set up a commission to decide what to do next.”

Jokowi's administration has faced criticism about its commitment to human rights after parliament ratified a controversial criminal code last month that critics say undermines civil liberties.

Since the beginning of his leadership in 2014, Jokowi has not adequately addressed the grievances and events of Indonesia’s past. But human rights activists and victims and relatives of the violence are putting pressure on the President to take actionable steps towards accountability and justice to ensure past atrocities do not occur among future generations.

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