President Joko Widodo expressed deep regret on Wednesday over gross human rights violations during Indonesia’s tumultuous post-colonial past, going back to the mass killing of communists and suspected sympathizers in the mid-1960s.
At least half a million people died, according to some historians and activists, in violence that began in late 1965 when the military launched a purge of communists who they said were planning a coup.
A million or more people were jailed, suspected of being communists, during the crackdown, and in 1967 Gen. Suharto ousted President Sukarno, Indonesia’s independence leader, and went on to rule the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country for three decades.
Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, recently received the report from a team he had commissioned last year to investigate Indonesia’s bloody history, having promised to take up the issue when he first came to power in 2014.
He cited 11 other rights incidents, spanning a period between 1965 and 2003, including the killing and abduction of students blamed on security forces during protests against Suharto’s autocratic rule in the late 1990s.
“I as a head of state acknowledge that there were gross human rights violations that did happen in many events,” said Widodo.
“And I strongly regret that those violations occurred.”
There were also around 1,200 people killed during rioting in 1998 often targeting the Chinese community, a minority that is sometimes resented for its perceived wealth.
Jokowi said the government would seek to restore the rights of victims “fairly and wisely without negating judicial resolution,” though he did not specify how.
He also cited rights violations in the restive region of Papua and during an insurgency in Aceh province.
Victims, their relatives and rights groups have questioned whether Jokowi’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, have 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.
Usman Hamid of Amnesty International said victims should receive reparations and serious crimes of the past need to be resolved “through judicial means.”
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.
“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,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Jokowi’s administration has faced criticism about its commitment to human rights after parliament ratified a controversial criminal code last month that critics say undermines civil liberties.