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How should Indonesia resolve atrocities of the 1965-66 anti-communist purge?

Resolution and reconciliation following major conflicts takes time, has many dimensions, and takes place at all levels of society. shutterstock

More than 50 years after the arbitrary killing, torture and imprisonment of more than a million communists and their sympathisers in Indonesia, the government has for the first time hosted a two-day national symposium on the 1965-66 violence.

After the November 2015 hearings of the International People’s Tribunal on the 1965 Crimes Against Humanity in The Hague, the Indonesian government repeatedly stressed it wanted to take a national approach to past human rights violations. The Co-ordinating minister for legal, political and security affairs, Luhut Panjaitan, took the initiative to organise a national symposium.

The government acted as a mediator between academics, survivors and the military using a historical approach to look at the political and social factors that led to the violence, which happened at the height of the Cold War.

The symposium comes as Pandjaitan targets national reconciliation for past human rights violations, including the 1965-66 massacres, to be resolved by next month.

That’s ambitious, considering the police allow vigilantes to terrorise survivors to this day. Days before the symposium, instead of protecting survivors gathering to prepare for the event, police disbanded the meeting following threats by vigilante groups.

The goals of post-conflict resolution

The anti-communist pogroms began after Major-General Suharto rounded up a group of leftist soldiers calling themselves the September 30th Movement. They had kidnapped and killed six right-wing army generals on October 1, 1965.

Post-conflict resolution and reconciliation following major conflicts such as occurred in Indonesia takes time, has many dimensions and takes place at all levels of society.

The goals of the resolution should include the following (the order does not indicate hierarchy):

  1. To fight impunity. Exemption from punishment for perpetrators of past serious crimes against humanity poisons a society and breeds new violence.

  2. To rehabilitate the victims.

  3. To establish the truth about what happened so future generations can learn from their society’s violent past.

  4. To build a society that is more peaceful, tolerant and democratic in which human rights and the rule of law are guiding principles.

Transitional justice

Transitional justice plays a major role in establishing a more democratic and peaceful post-conflict society. Linked to the concept of transitional justice are retribution and reparation or restoration.

Retribution deals with punishment, usually via a judicial process. The advantages of trials are that perpetrators are punished and impunity is ended. It is often difficult, however, to find enough proof as in the case of Cambodia’s trials of Khmer Rouge leaders, and even the Nuremburg trials and other post-Holocaust court cases.

Trials may have destabilising effects when powerful groups feel they are attacked (such as the hardliner Muslim groups in Bangladesh). A judicial process is also often prohibitively expensive and slow. Where it operates, generally only few cases have been tried.

Reparation or restorative justice recognises that the whole society has to heal. Perpetrators, victims and the society are all parties to this process. The success of this model depends on the willingness of the perpetrators to accept their guilt or complicity, and on the willingness of the victims to forgive and to accept the help they get to heal. The society must do all it can to compensate the victims and help them face their loss and pain.

Recommendations for reconciliation of 1965-66 atrocities

The International People’s Tribunal, to which the authors belonged, was held last year in The Hague. We advocate a mix of retributive and restorative ways for the reconciliation of the post-October 1 crimes against humanity. This mix includes but is not limited to the following elements.

1. Truth finding

The number of victims of the massacres must be determined. A nationwide effort is required to investigate and document the identities of those murdered or disappeared.

The voices of the victims must be heard and their memories preserved. The archives of Kopkamtib (Operations Command to Restore Order and Security) and other institutions, both civil and army-related, involved in the mass crimes against humanity must be opened and made available to researchers.

Archives from the CIA and all countries that supported the Suharto regime must be opened. Universities all over the country must be encouraged to teach and research the history of the post-October 1 massacres and/or set up departments of genocide studies.


The Indonesian attorney-general’s office must accept the 2012 report of the National Commission on Human Rights and take appropriate steps to prosecute cases for which sufficient proof can be found. Prosecution can start quickly for well-documented cases, such as the concentration camps on Buru island.

3. Reparation

Offenders to acknowledge that they engaged in crimes against humanity. This includes perpetrators, who were directly involved in these crimes, and supporters, who abetted, facilitated, profited from or failed to prevent such crimes against humanity.

The government should facilitate dialogues between victims and perpetrators and supporters in which a common understanding is sought.

Victims may grant forgiveness for the crimes perpetrated against them and/or their family members. Victims should receive compensation to secure them a decent livelihood, including medical care.

The government should revise history textbooks. Students and other members of civil society should be given intensive courses on the post-October 1 massacres.

4. Rehabilitation of the victims

The state should acknowledge that victims were innocent via an official apology by the Indonesian president. This can be carried out following Indonesia’s law on Amnesty and Rehabilitation.

Relevant places such as mass graves should be memorialised. The state should allow reburials or cremation of victims in mass graves, or give them the last honours in other ways, taking into account proper procedures for autopsy.

The government should establish a national-level memorialisation. This might include, for instance, a human rights museum.

These actions must be seen in combination with each other. Even if not all measures can be taken up immediately, it is not sufficient to select just one or two items.

Victims’ voices and interests must guide all discussions on reconciliation.

The state is obliged to facilitate and organise this process and to ensure that the security of participants in any of the above activities is not endangered.

This means the government should provide the budget, set up the infrastructure to carry out these actions and provide other means necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of all activities related to this process of reconciliation.

Saskia Wieringa co-wrote this article with the human rights lawyer and co-ordinator of the International People’s Tribunal 1965 organising committee, Nursyahbani Katjasungkana.

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