INDONESIA: Indonesia’s Fearful Reluctance to Fight for the ‘End of Impunity’

Thursday 18 September 2014

Date: 15 September 2014

Type: Commentary

Source: The Jakarta Post

Keywords: Oppenheimer, Indonesia 1965 massacre

In “The Act of Killing,” also known as “Jagal,” Joshua Oppenheimer and his anonymous co-director have received praise and notable International awards for their ingenuity in documentary film making.

In addition to displaying their advanced skills and techniques, they brought one of Indonesia’s most disastrous periods, the 1965-1966 mass killings, to global public attention.

In early September, “The Look of Silence” (“Senyap”), Oppenheimer’s latest documentary, won the Grand Jury Prize from the Venice Film Festival and four others awards, including one from the Fipresci, the European Film Critics association. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote that “‘The Look of Silence’ is piercingly and authentically horrifying as its last film, ‘The Act of Killing.’”

Last Monday, together with fifteen other individuals, I watched a limited screening of “The Look of Silence.” For 98 minutes, Oppenheimer brought emotional turbulence through the heartbreaking truth of what happened in Deli Serdang, North Sumatra, in 1965-1966. The period marked a time when civil militias worked together with the military under strongman Suharto’s regime to arrest, torture, and slaughter suspected communists throughout Indonesia.

Unlike “The Act of Killing,” which features testimonies from the perpetrators of mass killings in 1965-1966, “The Look of Silence” used a different approach: the film focuses on the life and struggles of victims and survivors of the massacre. The film also captures the complexity of initiatives for reconciliation between victims, survivors and perpetrators at the grassroots level.

Adi Rukun, an optometrist, is the central figure of this documentary. Through his skills, together with Joshua Oppenheimer, he visited the perpetrators of the killings and checked their eyes. While he examined their eyes, Adi asked a series of questions about their past — the reason behind their murder of innocent people, including their own neighbors. Shocking answers were revealed.

The audience witnesses the different reactions from these perpetrators and their family members when Adi reveals his older brother was a victim of their massacre. Pain and sorrow pour out from both sides.

In this documentary, Adi’s mother Rohani, shows viewers what it means to be a true warrior. A strong woman who lost her son and witnessed barbaric acts of violence, she manages to maintain her sanity. Rohani is not alone. Thousands of mothers lost their children, husbands and parents in the atrocities committed in East Timor, Aceh, Papua, Tanjung Priok, Talang Sari Lampung, the May riots of 1998 and the Semanggi protests.

Some of these survivors refuse to abandon their plight to act as voices of the dead by standing in front of the Presidential Palace every Thursday in a demonstration known as the “Kamisan” act. They have only one demand: justice.

The end of impunity

There is a scene in “The Look of Silence,” when Adi Rukun asks one of the former commanders of a civilian militia, MY Basrun, about the killings.

He is currently a member of a local legislative council from the Golkar party in Deli Serdang, North Sumatra. He tried to justify all the killings committed in 1965-1966 by claiming the political situation had driven him to it. He added that if he was guilty, he would not have been elected as a councilor by his neighbors.

His statement is partly true. The decade proved to be a politically chaotic period of Indonesian history. However, the act of killing millions of people is not a political act; it is a crime against humanity. Politics should not be used to legitimize an act of brutality.

Perhaps MY Basrun forgot that he was able to serve as councilor simply because he still received benefits from remnants of Suharto’s New Order regime, and also because this nation’s cowardice is preventing its people from admitting the horrible truth.

It is terrifying to imagine a future where there is a possibility that certain groups have the power to repeat history; people who will not hesitate to wipe out entire villages or “disappear” their opposition, because the past has shown they will only receive impunity.

It has to be acknowledged that some efforts to address past human rights violations have been made, but they have mostly been organized by civil organizations. Some progress has been made here and there, mainly through foreign intervention and grassroots efforts.

A step forward worth noting, was a public apology given two years ago by the mayor of Palu, Central Sulawesi, Rusdi Matura. In his statement, he begged forgiveness to 1965 victims of Palu. He then took steps to rehabilitate the survivors. Progress did not come instantaneously through the guilt-stricken conscience of the perpetrators; it was the result of the continuous battle for justice waged by survivors and their family members.

However, until this day, the fight to bring past human rights cases to the next level — into the courtroom — continues to fail. In 2012, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) rejected a plea made by the National Commission on Human Rights to conduct an official investigation on alleged human rights abuses committed in 1965. In addition, the AGO has also failed to look into the 1998 enforced disappearance of several activists. Justice is not being served.

Next month, President-elect Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, and Vice President-elect Jusuf Kalla (JK), will be sworn into office. The issue past human rights violations was mentioned on several occasions in the 42-page document outlining Jokowi’s platform. In it, the president elect stated that he would uphold and respect the principals of human rights — a vow he and JK must commit to during the five years of their presidency.

The task of solving past human rights violations is not an easy one; it is a grueling challenge that needs the continuous support of different stakeholders. Jokowi will likely encounter resistance, not only from those outside his circle, but also from the very people he calls his coworkers. The issue is indeed political.

Recently, several human rights champions have started to question Jokowi’s commitment to their plight, particularly when Indonesia’s new president chose to recruit Hendropriyono as an advisor for his transition team.

Nicknamed “the butcher of Lampung” for his role in the 1989 Talangsari killings in the province, the former chief of Indonesia’s intelligence agency is believed to have been a key figure behind human rights activist Munir Said Thalib’s assassination. However, he was never questioned by authorities.

Meanwhile, to rely on JK is not a strong option. People who have watched “The Act of Killing” may vividly remember the scene where the vice president-elect gave an honorary speech in front of the Pancasila Youth congress in Medan, North Sumatra, during which he praised the group, calling them “preman,” the Indonesian word used to describe thugs. Moreover, JK recently gave a disheartening comment about Munir’s case, saying the case was closed.

It is during moments like these that Jokowi’s commitment to bring justice to past human rights violators is tested.

Only time will tell whether Jokowi will pass this test or fail, just like his predecessors. Who knows, perhaps in five years time, with great pride, Indonesians will be able to produce a documentary entitled, “The End of Impunity.”###

See online : The Jakarta Post

Tejiendo Redes.
C/ Hermanos García Noblejas, 41, 8º. 28037 - MADRID.
Tlf: 91 4084112 Fax: 91 408 70 47. Email: