Indonesia’s president says ‘strongly regrets’ past rights violations in country

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said that the government would seek to restore the rights of victims “fairly and wisely without negating judicial resolving”. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

JAKARTA - Indonesian President Joko Widodo acknowledged on Wednesday a series of incidents amounting to “gross human rights violations” had taken place in his country’s past, including the bloodshed and arrests that took place in 1965 and 1966.

In one of the darkest periods of Indonesia’s history, some historians and activists have estimated at least 500,000 people were killed in violence that started in late 1965 after then-general Suharto and the military took power following an abortive communist coup. A million or more people were jailed, suspected of being communists.

“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,” Mr Widodo said. “And I strongly regret that those violations occurred.”

The president cited 11 other incidents, spanning a period between 1965 and 2003 prior to his tenure as leader, including the shooting dead and abduction of students during protests against Mr Suharto’s three-decade rule in the late 1990s.

Students leading the protests were targeted and there were also many victims during this period from the Chinese community, a minority in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country and sometimes resented for their perceived wealth.

Mr Widodo said the government would seek to restore the rights of victims “fairly and wisely without negating judicial resolving”, though he did not specify how.

The president also cited human rights violations in the restive region of Papua, noting his acknowledgment came after reading the results received from a team he formed in 2022 to investigate these violations.

Victims, their relatives and rights groups have questioned whether Mr Widodo’s government is serious about holding anyone accountable for past atrocities. 

Rights activists note that the Attorney General’s Office, tasked with investigating rights violations, has often thrown out such cases. 

“For me...what’s important is that the president gives assurances that gross rights violations don’t happen in the future by trying the suspected perpetrators in court,” said retired civil servant Maria Catarina Sumarsih, whose son Wawan was shot dead in 1998 while helping a wounded student.

Mr Usman Hamid of Amnesty International said victims should receive reparations and serious crimes of the past need to be resolved “through judicial means”. 

Mr Winarso, a coordinator of a group that cares for survivors of the 1965 bloodshed, said that while the president’s acknowledgment was insufficient it could open up room for discussion about the massacres. 

Mr Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch 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.”

Previous presidents have also acknowledged such violations. Late President Abdurrahman Wahid apologised for the 1965 bloodshed, while President B.J. Habibie formed a team to investigate the violence in 1998. REUTERS

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