Joko Widodo’s Administration Should Apologize for Past Rights Abuses

The Indonesian government happily accepted a Dutch apology for the Rawagede massacre, but seems to have forgotten its own human rights track record

by Johannes Nugroho on 08:25 pm Dec 16, 2014

Vice President Jusuf Kalla told the media last week that an official apology by the government over past human rights abuses was unlikely. Given the high hopes human rights activists had of the new government, the remark was disappointing. Kalla added that some of the cases were still so shrouded in mystery that it was difficult to discover who was responsible.

This explanation is again surprising, considering that no independent committee has been formed by the current government to carry out investigations into the mysterious cases the vice president alluded to. Pending such official enquiries, it is hasty to declare reluctance to apologize for past government-sanctioned transgressions against human rights.

Kalla’s cavalier attitude shows that the new government is going to deal with human rights cases in the same way all previous governments have. The prevailing mood is that such cases are best relegated to history and need not be raked to the surface.

Indonesian conventional wisdom has it that we must always forgive and forget the past mistakes of our predecessors. But even history needs accountability and only through free yet responsible debate of our past mistakes can we hope to avert their repetition.

In 2011 the Dutch government issued an official apology to the Indonesian people for the 1947 Rawagede massacre in which 430 men were executed during the independence war. The Indonesian government was happy enough to accept the apology, while completely forgetting it also needs to apologize for its own human rights track record.

The government’s stubborn refusal to apologize suggests two things.

One, it is possible that raking up past human rights cases may pose problems for supporters of the current administration, especially those with military backgrounds. It is more or less an open secret that some of the president’s close advisers were involved in human rights transgressions while they served under previous governments.

The government’s lack of commitment to solving cases of human rights abuse may also mean that the military is again in the ascendancy. Evidence for this conclusion is that Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander Gen. Moeldoko was confident enough to have announced a “Gerakan TNI Masuk Desa” program (TNI Into the Village), an outright clone of the New Order’s “ABRI Masuk Desa” program.

In light of the government’s increasing reliance on the TNI to enforce the nation’s maritime sovereignty, the military may have enough reasons to be optimistic about its prominence under the new administration. TNI Masuk Desa will definitely help restore its former privileged position under the New Order regime.

Secondly, the unwillingness of the government to apologize also points to a psychological malady that is common in Indonesia today.

We readily apologize for imaginary trespasses and trivial matters. At every public function, the compere will apologize unfailingly for any mistakes in the announcement of names and titles during the event, as well as any lapses in services.

And how many times do we hear the word “maaf ” (pardon) before someone wishing to be flawlessly polite starts to speak to us?

Such courteous utterances are de rigueur for social occasions, but they are in stark contrast to occasions when an apology could mean an admission of guilt.

For example, we usually don’t apologize when we graze somebody’s vehicle on the road; for apologizing in such cases means admitting guilt.

Guilt admission is not an Indonesian habit. When we knock a glass off the table, we say, “gelasnya pecah” (the glass got broken), instead of “saya nggak sengaja memecahkan gelasnya” (I accidentally broke the glass).

We refuse to apologize for the substantial errors in life; we compensate this with the trite apologies we parrot incessantly for things that matter the least. Or else, we prefer to apologize in an unspecific manner for all our unspecified mistakes. This understandably entails the least loss of face.

Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for example, never apologized specifically for any of his policies that might have hurt the people or the country. Indeed he defended every policy of his government. Yet as he was about to leave office, he graciously offered us his apology for all the unspecified mistakes and shortcomings during his tenure.

As the rightful successor to Yudhoyono’s government, the current administration is responsible for all the past wrongdoings of any Indonesian administration and its apparatus, in the same way that the Dutch government in 2011 acted on behalf of its 1947 predecessor.

The 2008 official apology to the indigenous Australians was carried out in the same spirit, although the recognition of Aboriginal rights in Australia started way back in the 1970s. It was not sufficient for the Australian government to cede back land and enforce non-discrimination laws for its indigenous population. It was still important to apologize.

So it is far from right and proper for President Joko Widodo’s government to absolve itself of responsibility for the human rights offenses committed by past governments. There is a backlog of cases awaiting resolution, such as the 1965 communist purge, the 1974 Malari Incident, the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, the 1998 riots and the continuing crimes against the Papuans by the state apparatus.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. Contact him at [email protected].