Unlearning Impunity — Indonesian Civil Society Efforts Aimed at Truth-seeking

Asia Justice and Rights
7 min readOct 1, 2020

by Dodi Yuniar, Indonesia Program Manager of Asia Justice and Rights

Throughout President Joko Widodo’s second administration, we cannot help but wonder whether his commitment to human rights, which narratives benefitted him greatly in the 2014 and 2019 elections, rings true to his actions today. These narratives swayed voters supportive of democracy and human rights his way, providing him with an upper hand against Prabowo Subianto, who was allegedly involved in human rights violations during the New Order. In his campaign program, called Nawacita or Nine-Ideals, Jokowi promised to investigate and resolve gross human rights violations.

The Indonesian government can no longer avoid discussion about this issue. The Indonesian youth, who showed their spirit for democracy in the late September student-led mass protests, are unlikely to be persuaded by words without active commitment and policies to directly address their concerns. The government’s trajectory on the matter over the past five years has made it difficult for them, and in turn for us as well, to not be sceptical.

Having a thorough view, the waning political will in addressing past human rights violations became a blatant pattern of transitional justice process in Indonesia. Preceded with the euphoria of democracy in the right after the fall of authoritarian regimes, policies and mechanisms related to human rights violations in the past have been compromised and then stalled. For more than a decade after Reformasi, we can trace the gradual denial of justice in 3 phases:

1) Momentous Change (1998–2000): This period marked critical changes, including the amendment of the constitution to include a bill of rights, and resolutions by the upper house (MPR) acknowledging the nation’s dark legacy in the past, calling for a just solution for the long-term conflicts, and the establishment of a national truth and reconciliation commission. Also, passing legislation with the intent to prosecute serious crimes, which gives the national human rights commission (Komnas HAM) the power to conduct pro-justicia inquiries of past crimes, and refer cases to the attorney general. The official truth-seeking inquiries also took place in this period, including fact-finding teams to violations in 1998, Aceh and East Timor.

2) Compromised Mechanisms (2001–2006): The momentum for real change did not last long. The human rights trials were never given a real chance to uphold justice. It tried 34 persons and then acquitted or their convictions overturned on appeal. This failure to deliver justice reflects a much deeper problem of systemic weakness in Indonesia’s judiciary and lack of political will in the administration.

On the right to truth, a law establishing a national truth commission was passed by parliament in 2004. However, it was then annulled by a decision of the constitutional court in 2006. This annulment raised a debate whether it would block the establishment of the local truth commission in Papua and Aceh, as provided by their respective special autonomy laws.

3) Stalled Reform (2007- now): This period is characterised by the continuing failure of the AGO to follow-up referrals by Komnas HAM. Violation continued to be spreading in Papua. Although the parliament made a recommendation to establish an ad hoc human rights court for the case of the 13 disappeared pro-democracy activists in September 2009, the president did not establish it.

However, the atrocities committed in 1965–1966 still clouded by uncertainties. For more than 50 years, survivors continue to be discriminated. The atrocities left deep scars among victims and their families. They have never received an official acknowledgement.

After many decades of being silenced and excluded, the demand for truth is echoed by victims throughout Indonesia which have been expressed in various ways. However, not all elements in our society desired this truth. Some continue to fight for a collective forgetting. Impunity for mass crimes in the past contributes to truth deficit. It leads to on-going everyday crimes and persecutions by the majority, sometimes sponsored by the authorities. It also leads to social exclusion, corruption, unsustainable practices in development, and the practice of torture in law enforcement.

This is a picture of Hartini, the daughter of a teacher and a housewife. She was six years old when her father was arbitrarily arrested because he was suspected of being involved in the 30 September movement. And then, her father was sent to Buru Island. Hartini dropped out of school because she could no longer stand being humiliated. When she was 15, she and her family ordered by the government to travel to Buru Island to join her father. At the age of 18, Hartini was one of a dozen brides, young women who married their father’s fellow prisoners in 1977, at a mass wedding organized by the military. Hartini could not escape the discrimination they experienced, particularly because her husband’s status as prisoner was written into their marriage certificate.

“There is one thing that still sticks in my heart, namely what is written for my husband’s occupation on our marriage certificate: ‘Prisoner G30S/PKI’. These words are a lasting PKI stamp in our lives.”

Discrimination and violence continue to haunt victims and their family members, years after the mass violations occur. The work to unravel the legacy of violence is long-term and complex. In Buru Island, we discovered that former political prisoners and their family members are often referred to as “eks-warga” (former citizens). Literally, it refers to “warga eks-tapol” i.e. citizens who are former political prisoners. But it also indicates the forms of discrimination that infiltrate under the consciousness of social relationships among society. Many of them live in very poor conditions, still residing in the wooden houses built by fellow prisoners in 1972.

Listening to their story, we cannot assume that governments have the political will to implement transitional justice mechanisms. Even in contexts where there are official initiatives, for some victims, those mechanisms relatively affected them in a short period only. Therefore, civil society and community-based approaches must be strengthened. Some of them showed various significant breakthroughs.

Since 2013, AJAR has been conducting a project with the recognition that most women victims live in a context where there are continued discrimination and total impunity. It is an approach that acknowledges that there are deeply cultural, political, and social-economic roots of the poor being alienated from justice; that these barriers are not merely due to legal practice. After decades of impunity, victims and communities believe that they cannot contest violations against the poor by the powerful. This approach also looks at the link between poverty and victimization: that many of the poor become victims of human rights violations because they are struggling to protect their basic rights; and that many victims become poor because of the continuing socio-economic impact of the violation they experienced.

In our approach, we propose victims and survivors to unlearn the impunity by empowering them to understand their rights and to strengthen their capacity to participate in the process of documenting the violations and advocate for change. To unlearn the impunity, we commit to a long-term investment in strengthening actors of change and create ‘learning centres’ at the local level.

The methodology integrated healing, documentation, solidarity-building and critical analysis, in order that the survivors could take part, be empowered, and benefit from this process of gathering knowledge. As part of the methodology, AJAR developed grassroots tools that reflected our commitment to involve women survivors as active agents for change.

Through the seven tools, we explore and share their experiences to gain a broader perspective. We use the timeline of the event to understand the violence experienced by women and try to build collective history. Borrowing from the women’s health movement, we used body mapping as an opportunity for women victims to speak about how the violations they experience impacted their bodies. We asked victims to fill a box with objects that hold sweet or bitter memories, as well as write a story about their life experience on postcards. Also, we invited the participants to discuss whether the rights to truth, justice, healing, and a life free from violence existed in their personal, family, and community life.

In contexts where impunity is long, we need new tools and processes that can be used for a long time. Truth commissions are ad-hoc in nature. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousand survivors still suffered immensely yet they also possess deep wellsprings of strength and resourcefulness, including exclusion that caused deep scars in their lives and the lives of their children. The most perfect forms of impunity are when victims or survivors forbid themselves from speaking out about the violence they experienced and deny any hope for justice.

Therefore, it was time to think out of the box and shift from mechanism to process. We could no longer rely on only legal-based methods of taking statements from victims nor only help amplify these suppressed voices, but needed to develop a methodology that integrates trauma healing sensitive methods to the way we try to document and understand violence and lessen their burden to survive.

At the same time, we must find creative ways to better serve their needs in daily lives, and aspirations for truth, justice, healing, and also recognize and remedy violations of socio-economic rights. Only through a long-term intergenerational dialogue, a safe space for youth and survivors to interact and share narratives meaningfully can be created. Through this space as well, we sincerely hope youth’s role to be the agent of change can influence the possibility of cancelling the very cycle of impunity – even when prospects for justice were not very promising. We are learning that reconciliation can only take place in the wake of truth, which is deeply rooted in our communities and ourselves.



Asia Justice and Rights

A regional NGO working to strengthen accountability & human rights in Asia-Pacific | Confronting mass violations & combatting impunity