Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is there a uniquely Indonesian approach to human rights?

By Warren Doull
The book Menangani Konflik di Indonesia (Handling Conflict in Indonesia) was published in 2013. It contains insights into numerous conflicts and the way human rights were handled by the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission in the early post-Suharto years. The book’s author is Dr Bambang W. Soeharto, M.Si, a former official of the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission. 

A westerner might assume that much of the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission’s work would be similar to that of Amnesty International or the UN’s OHCHR - exposing human rights abuses. A westerner might also think that ‘Handling Conflict‘ would include seeking justice for victims of abuse. However, after just a few chapters of the book, the reader is left wondering whether the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission, or at least Dr Bambang W. Soeharto, has prioritised a certain kind of peace-building ahead of exposing human rights abuses.

Some of the conflict hotspots included in the book are East Timor, the Moluccas, Central Sulawesi and Kalimantan.

East Timor
A whole chapter is devoted to ‘Post Referendum Conflict in East Timor’. Dr Soeharto explains that prior to the August 1999 referendum, the Indonesian security forces commander had believed the referendum results would favour Indonesia, though he pointedly notes it was unclear upon what reasons or reports this belief was based. Unlike some other Indonesian officials, Dr Soeharto does not question the accuracy of the referendum results, which showed only 21.5 % voting to remain part of Indonesia.
So far, this seems consistent with the western version of events. However, he then describes the post-referendum situation as one of ‘quarreling and conflict’ between pro-integration and pro-independence supporters. Dr Soeharto does not mention that the ‘quarreling and conflict’ in East Timor in September 1999 had results that were one-sided and extreme: of the six biggest massacres of September 1999 (in Dili, Suai, Maliana, Passabe, Maquelab, and Lautem), all were commited by armed pro-integration groups against unarmed pro-independence supporters. The representation of one-sided massacres as ‘quarrelling and conflict’ echoes western history textbooks referring to ‘quarrelling and conflict’ as indigenous tribes right around the world were set upon by more lethally armed colonials.

Dr Soeharto’s creative even-handedness continues. He describes how a group of pro-independence supporters at Dili harbour on 4 Sept 2013 (ie. probably trying to evacuate) had a ‘quarrel’ with pro-integration supporters and fled to a nearby Catholic diocesan building. This had  ‘angered’ the pro-integration supporters, who subsequently burned down the building. The following day, another diocesan compound in Dili was attacked by pro-integration supporters, who bashed many people taking refuge there, burned several buildings down and murdered 15 unarmed pro-independence supporters. Dr Soeharto even tries to describe this murderous event in a detached way, referring to it as a ‘violent incident’ in which ‘many people died’. This unwillingness to identify killers and victims echoes current American references to ‘collateral damage’ from their own murderous attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The reader is beginning to realise, as the book title suggests - that the author is concerned with handling conflict, perhaps in a uniquely Indonesian sense, rather than with justice. He notes with pride that ‘establishment of the KKP HAM (the Truth and Friendship Commission) was able to water down the calls of some countries for an International Criminal Tribunal for East Timor’. The Truth and Friendship Commission emerged as a political compromise, with a mandate only to find the truth about human rights violations in East Timor but not to recommend punishments. The writer acknowledges the Truth and Friendship Commission therefore could not find justice for human rights victims. Justice, he seems to suggest in the next paragraph, was being subverted to something that was more important in a democracy: political stability! 

Dr Soeharto explains that East Timorese leaders Jose Ramos Horta and Mari Alkitiri had opposed the Truth and Friendship Commission as a whitewash. But these elites had lived overseas during the Indonesian integration years so, the author says, Xanana Gusmao had wider support from the Timorese public. And  Xanana was in favour of the Truth and Friendship Commission.

The Indonesian National Human Rights Commission
The reader gradually starts to wonder about the author’s role with the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission. If the author is not particularly interested in ensuring justice for victims, could this also be said about the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission?
Dr Soeharto’s job seems, from the stories in the book, to have been more about political trouble-shooting. His book reveals that among the dignitaries attending the book’s launch in 2013 were no fewer than three former heads of the Indonesian armed forces: Try Sutrisno, Djoko Santoso and Wiranto. Moreover, the writer in 2013 served a brief period as a senior official in Wiranto’s political party, Hanura. This association suggests Dr Soeharto had no qualms about being associated with former heads of the Indonesian armed forces and they had no qualms about his approach to human rights.

The Moluccas
The book has a chapter on conflict in the Moluccas. This chapter includes an observation that peace-building solutions must be bottom up. They must be found by understanding local context and listening to locally proposed solutions. 

This is indeed mainstream peace-building theory, however it may have been useful for the writer to acknowledge that there are many simmering local tensions in the world, including in Indonesia, that only erupt into violent conflict after being manipulated by external parties. He could have noted that such externally manipulated conflict is well documented in the case of East Timor, where ‘pro-integration militias’ were organised and funded by Indonesian military elements to conduct looting and murder in 1999. Similarly, external elements are suspected of inciting violence in other conflicts such as the Jakarta riots of May 1998 and the Ambon ‘sectarian conflict’ of 1999-2002. Dr Soeharto could have mentioned that resolving such conflicts could be dealt with promptly if links to external organisers and financiers could be cut. But he doesn’t.

Central Sulawesi
This chapter includes an interesting analysis of terrorism in post-Suharto Indonesia. Dr Soeharto says terrorists perceive their group to be in competition with followers of another belief system.

This competition becomes clearer when he draws on the thoughts of Asad Said Ali, who is a former Deputy Head of Indonesia’s Intelligence Service and now a senior official in one of Indonesia’s main two Muslim movements.  Ali viewed ‘Neoliberalisme’ and ‘Social Democratic reform’ as a foreign ideology that was limiting the Indonesian government’s control over the Indonesian economy and mass media, and was also weakening the influence of religious and traditional values on Indonesian society. This same ideology, Ali apparently argued, was promoting decentralisation and the subsequent rise of parochial rather than national interests. This view is not explored in detail but it does explain the suspicion with which many Indonesians viewed the socio-political changes occurring around them.

The author goes on to mention Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order, which similarly identifies competing ideologies. In Huntington’s interpretation, the competing ideologies have a religious base. Dr Soeharto seems to argue that this interpretation is more relevant to the Central Sulawesi context, where religious tensions have existed since Dutch colonial times.
Presumably Dr Soeharto’s visits to Central Sulawesi were as a member of the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission. But the focus of the chapter again suggests that the writer’s work in Central Sulawesi was less about identifying human rights abuses and more about building peace.

Two chapters are devoted to ethnic conflict between Dayaks and Madurese in Kalimantan in 1997-2001. When reading of the Madurese offending the feelings of Dayaks and subsequently having their heads cut off, a westerner might expect conflict resolution to involve identifying perpetrators. Instead, Dr Soeharto talks in detail about his efforts to get the two parties into peace talks so they could live in harmony once again, rather than what they did to lay the groundwork for criminal proceedings and better law enforcement to protect human rights. 

In the province of Central Kalimantan alone, Dr Soeharto notes 419 people had been murdered, 1,304 houses destroyed and 88,164 people forcibly displaced. Though he doesn’t say it directly, the overwhelming majority of victims were Madurese.
Dr Soeharto is not focused on the victims. I recall photos from this conflict showing the corpses of beheaded children littering the streets, yet this indiscriminate violence is only hinted at through such references as ‘Dayaks who couldn’t control their emotions because of previous incidents chased and killed Madurese” and a video the author saw ‘of Madurese being massacred by a Melayu group’. The writer is preoccupied with ending the conflict ahead of seeking justice for victims of human rights abuses.

In fairness, Dr Soeharto does identify a solution - stricter law enforcement - to this and other conflicts. Moreover, he identifies specific human rights violations, like the killing of four civilians by police trying to disperse demonstrators in Palangkaraya on 8 March 2001. However, on the whole, the book on ‘handling conflict’ seems far more concerned with political trouble-shooting than upholding human rights.

Perhaps imposing justice in an Indonesian context is not as easy as in a western context, and likely to lead to more trouble. In Indonesia’s fragile new democracy, the risks of protests spiralling into violence are higher. Perhaps, in some cases and in some periods, the most urgent priority is political trouble-shooting. 

Certainly, Indonesia’s post-independence history is full of examples of mass crimes that have gone unpunished, including the annihilation of communists (and many others labelled ‘communists’ just for convenience), the killing of 15-25% of the East Timorese population in the 1975-1999 period, and the killing of pro-democracy activists in Jakarta in the 1990s.
But then again, many crimes committed by western governments or their proxies in recent years have also gone unpunished, like the fire-bombing of many thousands of peasants in Vietnam and execution of thousands of democracy activists across Latin America. Indeed Western governments, by taking action against human rights abuses committed by some governments and not by others, could be accused of using human rights as a political tool.
In 2014, the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission is certainly more focused on seeking justice but the slow progress in prosecuting cases leads us to question whether more powerful bodies in the Indonesian Government might still be stuck in the old paradigm of focusing more on political trouble-shooting than seeking justice. In Indonesia, ‘discussing’ human rights is a post-Suharto concept. ‘Enforcing’ human rights is still a foreign concept.

Warren Doull is a writer and ex-UNTAET staff member

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