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JAKARTA - ABDUL Latief unsteadily enters the office of a Jakarta human rights group with a young man at his elbow. He struggles to mouth an intelligible greeting, the consequence of a stroke he suffered some years ago. Latief, a retired colonel, is a member of a dwindling generation to have an intimate recollection of the rise of modern Indonesia. He was witness to, and a crucial participant in, the events that produced the regime of former president Suharto.
On September 30, 1965, Latief was among the leaders of an internal army putsch that resulted in the murders of six generals. The so-called September 30 Movement proved to be the catalyst for then-president Sukarno's downfall and the springboard for the presidential ambitions of the low-profile Major-General Suharto.
What followed the failed September 30 coup ranks as one of the great horrors of the 20th century. The coup leaders were accused of plotting a grab for power with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In a bloody purge, hundreds of thousands of people, many with little involvement in active politics, let alone association with the PKI, were killed or jailed.
Some, like Latief, were to see out Suharto's New Order from behind bars. The scars of the coup and his incarceration mark his body: his left knee shattered by a bullet and his abdomen crisscrossed with the scars of a surgeon's knife. For Latief, for others who directly suffered from the anti-PKI purge, and for Indonesians who lived through these times, the effects were more than just physical. The bloodbath that started Suharto's rise to power cast a shadow over the 32-year New Order.
The story of the regime's origins became its central myth. Suharto was portrayed as having saved the nation by stamping out a communist coup. The dead and the vanished and the imprisoned were erased from the history books. These abuses set a pattern for how Indonesia would be ruled: critics were marginalised, jailed and assassinated. To insult the president, form an unauthorised political party, hold a public rally or publish an article critical of government policy was an invitation to prison.
Almost 40 years after the events that brought Suharto to the presidency, Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission is reopening the story. It has ordered a study into human rights abuses under the entire New Order, starting with the events of September 30, 1965.
The purpose will be to answer a question that might seem obvious, but that for Indonesian human rights activists is nonetheless important to have publicly acknowledged. Was Suharto himself directly responsible for a long history of crimes against humanity?
Latief, although unable to give oral testimony, expresses his satisfaction at the prospect of history being rectified. "It's very good," he mumbles. The 15-member team set up by the Human Rights Commission has divided its work into four periods: 1965-75, 1975-85, 1985-95 and 1995 to Suharto's downfall in May 1998.
In the five years since Suharto fell, he has been investigated for corruption and had his case brought before an aborted trial. But this is the first time the former president is to be investigated for authorising human rights abuses.
"Our mandate is very limited. It is to prove there were gross human rights violations and to prove Suharto was directly responsible for that," says M.M. Billah, a University of Indonesia sociologist who heads the Human Rights Commission inquiry.
His task is to reach a determination within three months based mainly on analysing existing reports and other documentary evidence and some interviews with witnesses. Although the conclusion is predictable, the consequences of stating it are not.
If the team concludes Suharto is responsible for crimes against humanity, the Human Rights Commission will have to make the still politically sensitive decision of whether to move to a more formal legal inquiry, which would have the power to recommend prosecution. This might be largely symbolic, as the government would have to decide whether to convene a Human Rights Court.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri has shown little inclination to seek justice for abuses even in the recent past. Moreover, Suharto's lawyers successfully used the argument of ill health to prevent the 81-year-old from facing his corruption trial. But the symbolism matters. Generations of Indonesian high school students have learned an anodyne version of their own history. The deaths of as many as half a million of their countrymen in the 1965-66 purges have been smudged out.
Students know little of the abuses that occurred in the years afterwards. Says the National Human Rights Commission chairman Hakim Garuda Nusantara, an old campaigner for justice and greater rights: "If we want to prevent it happening again and if we want to build a good system, then we should know precisely what happened . . . and the mistakes of the system."
The study team headed by Billah has a wealth of material to work with. It will review the evidence of the 1965-66 massacres and the imprisonment without trial of about 10,000 people on Buru Island in the eastern archipelago; the killing of hundreds of suspected criminals and gang members on Suharto's orders during an upsurge of crime in the early 1980s; the massacres of Muslims in Jakarta and South Sumatra opposed to the state-imposed political ideology of Pancasila; and the military repressions in Aceh, East Timor and Papua.
The task will be to link evidence of human rights crimes back to Suharto. Here, Suharto occasionally helped make the case himself. In his 1989 autobiography, the former president admitted a state role in the extrajudicial killing of criminals in the 1980s, known as the Petrus case, an Indonesian abbreviation for "mysterious shootings".
Suharto recounted: "There was no mystery to these events. The criminals had gone beyond a sense of humanity. They had not only violated the law but had gone past the limits of human reason. Of course we had to take drastic action and give these people treatment commensurate with their conduct. But how drastic? Well, we had to use force. But this did not mean that we just shoot them, 'bang, bang' and were finished with it. No! Those who resisted, yes, they were shot. There was no other choice because they resisted."
Many of the bodies were left where they had been shot in public places, in what Suharto termed as "shock therapy" to other would-be criminals. According to the Human Rights Commission's Nusantara, the shock therapy also took its toll on the rest of Indonesian society.
He argues such abuses dulled the country to basic notions of right or wrong; abuse became part of the social fabric. It meant that with the fall of Suharto, the institutions that had been the instruments of such crimes continued as before. "I don't know that anything really changed," he says.
A new elections law about to be passed by parliament prevents anyone connected with the events surrounding the September 30 coup or the PKI from standing as a candidate, even those never convicted in a court. Former public servant Gustaf Dupe, who was jailed between 1968 and 1972 for complaining to local officials about the unfair distribution of food aid, says his fight now is for the rehabilitation of the rights of victims of that era.
To that end, he is pressing for the Government to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For the past five years, Indonesia has periodically debated whether to form such a commission, along the lines of the body set up after the end of white minority rule in South Africa. With chances of achieving justice through the courts regarded as slim, the appeal of such a mechanism is that it at least allows for public acknowledgment of past wrongs.
The recent trials over human rights abuses committed in East Timor have confirmed a suspicion that the creation of a Human Rights Court and promises of justice are no more than a pretence to deflect international demands. "The military openly state that they are committed to uphold legal supremacy but in many human rights cases that are brought to trial the outcome is disappointing," says Nusantara. "The suspects are either released, as you can see in the human rights trials over East Timor, or the sentence is light."
Most supporters of the National Human Rights Commission's latest attempt to shine a light into the dark recesses of Indonesia's past are realistic enough to have limited expectations of what can be achieved. But they won't resile from the effort. Says Asvi Warman Adam, a historian assisting with the study of Suharto's rise: "The goal is to state that Suharto committed human rights violations so that it is recorded in the history of Indonesia. I think understanding our history is more important than whether he is tried in court or not."

Posted in History @ 10 February 2003 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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