Indonesia: Human Rights Violations

1998

Professor Gavin Jones

Those who follow events in Indonesia closely have long been aware of a pattern of systematic violation of human rights by the government and the armed forces. Specific cases can easily be cited: East Timor since the Indonesian invasion in 1975; the Tanjung Priok incident in 1984; the "mysterious killings" in 1982-3; Aceh since 1990; the kidnapping, torture and disappearances of student activists in 1997-98; and the May 1998 riots, murders and rapes in Jakarta, Solo and elsewhere. Former President Soeharto admitted, in his autobiography, to ordering the extra-judicial "mysterious killings"; but the other cases have until recently been covered by a cloak of official silence. Recently, however, in the atmosphere of "reformasi" following the resignation of Soeharto, the evidence has come tumbling out. A reluctant government has begun to acknowledge responsibility and to apologise for its past conduct. President Habibie on 15 July expressed deep regret over the violence against women, particularly in mid-May 1998. In his Independence Day speech of 17 August 1998, he condemned the kidnappings, burnings, violence and rapes of women, especially the Chinese. "As a cultured and religious people, we denounce these barbaric acts". Two weeks earlier, General Wiranto, the head of the Armed Forces, apologised to the people of Aceh for the violation of their human rights by the armed forces over an extended period of time. Indeed, the reputation of the Armed Forces was in tatters following revelations of their role in human rights abuses in Aceh, East Timor and Irian Jaya; in the kidnapping of student activists (12 of whom are still missing, presumably dead); in the shootings at Trisakti University; and apparently in the riots of May 1998. The anti-Chinese focus of the May riots, and of incidents in many cities and towns during the preceding year, perpetuates a pattern of scapegoating Chinese-Indonesians, which has deep roots in Indonesian political life. The Chinese business community plays a powerful role in the economy, and under the Soeharto regime the wealthiest Chinese business interests received special favours which fuelled popular resentment. But to terrorise the Chinese and drive part of their capital out of the country, in the midst of the current economic crisis, was an act of economic near-suicide as well as being indefensible on human rights grounds. President Habibie has set up a joint fact-finding team to investigate what happened in the May riots. The team has wide representation and is led by the respected Marzuki Darusman, of the National Commission for Human Rights. The President has also set up a National Committee on Anti Violence against Women. The credibility of the government and the Armed Forces will depend crucially on what is done to prosecute those found to be responsible for the various cases of human rights violation under investigation - not only those who directly performed the human rights abuses, but also those in positions of authority who orchestrated or approved of the violations. This is much more than a domestic matter. Governments of China, Taiwan and Singapore, among others, will be watching closely. The inflow of much-needed investment from these countries will be influenced by the outcome.

WATCHPOINT: How will the Habibie government redress Indonesia's Human rights record? How will a failure to do so impact on the economy?

 

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