President Joko Widodo on Wednesday expressed deep regret for gross human rights abuses during Indonesia’s tumultuous postcolonial past, dating back to the massacre of suspected communists and sympathizers in the mid-1960s.
At least half a million people died, some historians and activists say, in the violence that began in late 1965 when the military launched a purge of communists they said were plotting a coup.
A million or more people were imprisoned on suspicion of being communists during the crackdown, and in 1967 General Suharto overthrew President Sukarno, Indonesia’s independence leader, and led the largest Muslim-majority country in the world for three decades.
Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, recently received a report from a team he appointed last year to investigate Indonesia’s bloody history, after promising to look into the matter when he came to power in 2014.
He cited 11 other rights-related incidents, covering a period between 1965 and 2003, including the murder and abduction of students blamed on security forces during protests against Suharto’s autocratic rule in the late 1990s.
“As head of state, I recognize that there have been gross human rights violations that have occurred in many events,” Widodo said.
“And I deeply regret that these violations have occurred.”
Around 1,200 people were also killed in 1998 riots often targeting the Chinese community, a minority sometimes resented for their perceived wealth.
Jokowi said the government would seek to restore victims’ rights “fairly and wisely without denying judicial resolution”, although he did not specify how.
He also cited rights abuses in the restive Papua region and during an insurgency in Aceh province.
Victims, their relatives and rights groups questioned whether Jokowi’s government was serious about holding anyone accountable for past atrocities.
Rights activists note that the attorney general’s office, charged with investigating rights abuses, has often dismissed such cases.
“For me… what is important is that the president gives assurances that gross rights violations will not happen again by trying the alleged perpetrators in court,” said retired civil servant Maria Catarina. Sumarsih, whose son Wawan was shot dead in 1998 while helping an injured student.
Usman Hamid of Amnesty International said victims should receive reparations and that serious past crimes should be resolved “through judicial means”.
Winarso, coordinator of a group that cares for survivors of the 1965 bloodshed, said that even if the president’s recognition was insufficient, it could open a space for discussion of the massacres.
“If President Jokowi is serious about past human rights violations, he should first order the government to investigate these massacres, document the mass graves and trace their families, match the graves and their families, and to set up a commission to decide what to do next,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Jokowi’s administration has come under fire for its commitment to human rights after parliament last month ratified a controversial penal code that critics say undermines civil liberties.