Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 8 (Spring 1997): Transitional Justice in East Asia and its Impact on Human Rights: Articles: The Sensitive Question of Transitional Justice in Indonesia

Mar 5, 1997

When in 1987 South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan handed over power to his confidant, Roh Tae Woo, Indonesian President Suharto reportedly told his vice president and close aide Sudharmono that the Korean power transition could be a model for Indonesia. Ten years later, and after having ruled the world's fourth most populated country since 1965, the aging Suharto is now facing serious decisions about whether (and how) to hold on to power or simply retire.

Suharto has almost certainly changed his mind about the Korean model of succession. He watched as Roh, in a bid to strengthen his power base and calm the opposition in South Korea, tried to distance himself from the human rights abuses that took place under Chun and prove that he was not merely under the thumb of his predecessor. Later he watched as Roh lost power to Kim Young Sam whose government set about prosecuting Chun and Roh and sentencing both to lengthy prison sentences. This was definitely not the model Suharto had in mind.

Even the tightly controlled Indonesian press headlined the trial and printed pictures of the handcuffed former Korean presidents on their front pages. These images had ominous implications for Suharto: perhaps one day he, too, would face such a trial if he ever steps down from power.

Indonesia's government, intellectual, and military elite believe that any justice brought about in the coming transition will be tied to the democratization process itself. Political players in Indonesia's democratization can be divided into three camps: the nationalist movement, whose main figure and founder was the charismatic former president Sukarno; the politically-involved military leaders, who have Suharto as their figurehead; and the Muslims, who are heavily divided among different religious sects, some of which have demonstrated political ambition. Will the next leader represent the Muslims, whose influence has significantly increased since the establishment of the influential Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals under technology-czar B. J. Habibie? Or will the next leader represent the young military officers currently gathered around Suharto's powerful son-in-law, Major General Prabowo Subianto? Or will the nationalists return to power under opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter? Predicting who will succeed Suharto and what form of justice they would seek, if any, remains a complicated and difficult issue. For that matter, the whole concept of transitional justice is extremely new to Indonesia.

In private, the different political groups are discussing who will rule post-Suharto Indonesia and what kind of legal reprisals the next government might take against its predecessor. Some of the transitional justice scenarios whispered about consider action against Suharto and his family members, whose business empire has grown tremendously under their patriarch's influence. Charges of human rights abuses and corruption could result in trials, isolation, or seizure of their property. But some leading pro-democracy and opposition figures are rumored to have told their inner circles that they are ready to offer generous pardons to Suharto and his supporters. The implications of pardons could be nothing, or it could seal Indonesia's fate as an explosive divided nation—a sort of Asian Yugoslavia—which would have disastrous consequences for human rights.

Establishing the criteria by which transitional justice is implemented is highly complex. The reality, as one observer said, is that "the winners will dictate with their own values. The truth is exercised by those in power." Some of the more problematic questions are as much related to te change in power as to the complexities inherent in transitional justice. Justice under transition can be arbitrary: Who will be deemed a friend or an enemy of the new regime? Who can be trusted and who cannot? Who can be held directly accountable for the abuses committed under Suharto's rule and who was just following orders? What charges can be leveled against the past regime? Can laws be applied retroactively? And there is the difficult dilemma of judgment: If a judgment is made on moral grounds, those who are in political favor but are guilty of wrongdoing may still be punished; but if a judgment is made on political grounds, those who are innocent may end up being punished. The latter occurred in Indonesia when Suharto came to power and has taken place in other countries, such as China and Burma.

In prosecuting Sukarno and his followers in the late 1960s, Suharto created his own form of justice. During the massacre of some 500,000 alleged communists in 1965-66, the army-backed Suharto administration also jailed thousands of people deemed to be enemies of the state. Those who were regularly active within the banned Indonesian Communist Party—which was blamed for a failed coup attempt and the killing of several army generals in 1965—were categorized as "Group A" and subject to execution or life imprisonment. Many of those still imprisoned today claim that they are being unfairly punished because they acted on political orders. Those who were less involved but not above suspicion were categorized as "Group B" or "Group C," and jailed or exiled on Buru Island, mostly from 1966 to 1979. Those who were released in the 1970s lost political and other rights, including the right to travel. Today, their children and relatives are not allowed to join the ranks of the civil service or military, or work as educators. Ironically, Indonesia s best novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote about Indonesia s liberation from the Dutch, is among these "second-class citizens," as one Indonesian columnist described them.

In a number of cases of massive human rights violations the need for justice is clear. It is widely accepted in Indonesia that the involvement of government and military officials in the mass murder of innocents requires some form of justice. Indonesia under Suharto has suffered many such incidents, including the 1984 Tanjung Priok massacre in Jakarta, where dozens of Muslim protesters were gunned down, and the 1991 Dili massacre, when more than 200 East Timorese were brutally killed.

However, when it comes to the massacres of the 1960s, according to polls conducted by the Jakarta-based Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information, most average citizens, many of whom lost relatives to these vicious mass murders, view retribution for them as an obstruction to justice and reconciliation in Indonesia. In fact some intellectuals believe that the retroactive application of justice must not be allowed to go back as far as the massacres of 1965–66. Why? Many argue that all groups were involved in the fighting and violence of the 1960s; whereas the more recent massacres in Timor and Jakarta were a case of government soldiers attacking citizens.

"If Suharto does step down, he wants firm guarantees that his successors will not turn on him in the way that is happening now in South Korea," said Juwono Sudarsono, vice governor of Indonesia's National Defense Institute, in a recent interview. The big question is whether Suharto could step down in such a manner. Perhaps, observers say, he would rather wait it out and die in office.

You may also like

JUL 9, 2024 Article

The Rise of Preemptive Bans on Human Microchip Implants

As the impact and influence of chip implants increases in the U.S., it's time to raise ethical and legal questions about this technology.

JUL 2, 2024 Podcast

Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

JUN 27, 2024 Podcast

AI, Military Ethics, & Being Alchemists of Meaning, with Heather M. Roff

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen and Heather Roff, senior research scientist at the The Center for Naval Analyses, discuss AI systems, military affairs, and much more.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation