Indonesia’s president prepares a mysterious apology

Indonesia’s president prepares a mysterious apology

When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono leaves office in 2014, one legacy he hopes to leave behind is an Indonesia that is truly committed to upholding and observing human rights, now fully enshrined in the nation’s constitution.

His chief legal advisor, Albert Hasibuan, recently disclosed that the president has asked a team to prepare the text of a formal public apology for all the human rights violations that the state has committed against its own citizens. While he did not give any specific details, Hasibuan said the apology, to be issued before 2014, would cover all the tragic events in which the state was the main perpetrator, going as far back as the 1960s.

Given Indonesia’s poor record in upholding human rights, at least until the departure of dictator Soeharto in 1998, this is a noble presidential gesture. A public apology will not only send a powerful message that the state will no longer commit such atrocities but will also bind future administrations to respect and observe human rights. And Indonesia’s own citizens are not the only ones who will take note.

A public apology will also give Indonesia a clean slate after so many years of being haunted by its ugly past. The state has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens — if not millions — because of their political beliefs.

Although it is rare for the state to apologize for past misdeeds against its own citizens, it is not totally unprecedented. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology in 2008 for the decades of atrocities committed by the state against the Aborigines.

It is unclear whether President Yudhoyono took his cue from Rudd, but the reaction of the Indonesian public when Hasibuan announced the plan for a public apology has been largely indifferent. A few responses came from human rights activists who welcomed the plan, while victims of past atrocities (or their traumatized relatives) postponed any judgment until they heard more about it.

There is good reason for the cold public reception to the plan. Most, if not all, of the atrocities have never been acknowledged by the state. Since there are no official records, they never happened. So, what exactly is the state apologizing for?

The military’s massive purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965-66 — of its members, supporters and even their relatives — reached genocidal proportions, with estimates ranging from 300,000 to 1.5 million deaths, but these horror stories have largely been erased from the nation’s collective memory. No official has ever gone to jail for what today would clearly fall under the UN category of a crime against humanity, if not outright genocide.

The country’s official history and school textbooks make no mention of the wholesale killings of people suspected of having even a hint of linkage to the communist movement. Though many of the victims and perpetrators are still alive today, most people are simply too traumatized to revisit the events and reopen old wounds.

Nor has Indonesia officially come to terms with the atrocities the state committed in dealing with insurgencies in Papua, East Timor (now Timor Leste), and Aceh. As the state fought armed rebellions in these territories, systematic killings and tortures against unarmed civilians were part and parcel of official policy. And in between these episodes, there were the killings, kidnappings, and disappearances of pro-democracy activists and Islamists during the three-decades of Soeharto’s dictatorship.

In 2004, the House of Representatives came up with legislation mandating the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission modeled on the post-apartheid South Africa. Yudhoyono, however, scrapped the plan as soon as he moved into the presidential office the same year, arguing that the plan had too many constitutional loopholes for it to be implemented.

All of which raises some fundamental questions: Why is the president now considering a public apology? Is he willing to go the distance in reopening the cases, thus reliving the national trauma with all the political and legal consequences? Or how far will he allow the investigation to go before it leads, almost inevitably, to the role played by his father-in-law, the late General Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, in leading the military campaign to crush the communist movement in 1965-66?

It could be, of course, that President Yudhoyono is intending to issue a blanket apology that avoids getting bogged down in specific details, and hopes that this will suffice as his legacy. But if the declaration bypasses establishing painful truths about tragedies in which the state was the chief perpetrator, this would not only make the apology sound hollow, but would also deprive Indonesians of valuable lessons they might otherwise learn. Finding the truth could also help to stop the seemingly endless cycle of violence that has continued to plague modern Indonesia decade after decade.

It was George Santayana who said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Coming to terms with the past may be painful, but it’s hard to imagine how Indonesia can become a genuinely healthy society without it.