‘Old guard’ blocking human rights reform in Indonesia

Author: Ken Setiawan, University of Melbourne

To many, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) election represented a break with the past as he had no ties to existing military or political elites. The new president was also different from his predecessors in other ways. He had humble beginnings as a furniture seller and began his career in politics at the local level as mayor of Surakarta. In Indonesia and abroad it seemed clear that Jokowi was different and his lack of ties to previous regimes was considered to be an advantage.

Indonesian police stand guard in front of a prison during the transfer of death row prisoners in Bali, Indonesia, 4 March 2015. (Photo: AAP).

One area where it was expected Jokowi would enact change was in civil and political rights. Promised reforms in Nawa Cita, the nine-point priority agenda put forward by Jokowi and his running mate Jusuf Kalla, included combating the narcotics trade as well as ending impunity for those involved in past human rights violations. During the 2014 elections, Jokowi received much support from Indonesian activists who sought in part to counter the rising popularity of Jokowi’s main rival, retired lieutenant-general Prabowo Subianto.

Yet while Indonesia has made some steps forward in the area of civil and political rights, it has also seen disappointments, including the resumption of capital punishment. In 2015, Indonesia executed 14 people, all narcotics offenders. While this gained Jokowi bipartisan support in Indonesia, international criticism was fierce. The Jokowi administration has explained its stance on capital punishment by arguing that the country is facing a drugs crisis. But the statistics used to justify this claim are questionable.

Several observers have pointed out that Jokowi’s support for capital punishment is driven by a quest for popularity, not least within conservative elements of Indonesia’s political elite, which has been exerting pressure on the president to accommodate them. But Jokowi and Kalla’s hopes of appealing to both reformists and the ‘old guard’ are pulling their law enforcement agenda towards two seemingly contradictory stances. On the one hand, they intend to combat impunity for past human rights violations. On the other, they support the death penalty, which is a clear violation of international human rights norms.

A step was made in the first direction in May 2015 when the administration announced the establishment of a ‘reconciliation committee’ tasked with investigating past human rights abuses. The committee brought together a number of state institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), the attorney-general’s department, the military and the national police.

But just how effective this committee will be is open to question. In the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the 1965 killings in 2015, it became apparent that many political and societal forces remain unwilling to openly discuss these events, let alone apologise or offer reparation for them. For the many human rights activists who have long campaigned for a judicial process, the establishment of a reconciliation committee — a non-judicial body — is yet another attempt by the Indonesian state to avoid responsibility for past violations.

During his election campaign Jokowi also showed genuine interest in West Papua. In May 2015, he announced the lifting of restrictions on journalists reporting on and visiting the province. But this announcement was quickly rescinded by Jakarta — including by the head of the armed forces General Moeldoko — who reiterated the requirement of permits for reporters. In any case, the significance of lifting restrictions could be questioned when the legal protection of journalists in Indonesia remains structurally weak.

In the same month, Jokowi granted clemency to five political prisoners. But many others remained behind bars including Filep Karma, West Papua’s most prominent political prisoner. When Karma was eventually released in November 2015, it was the result of a sentence reduction rather than an amnesty. Other largely unaddressed human rights violations in West Papua, including the Paniai killings in December 2014 when security forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, raise further questions about the Jokowi administration’s commitment to peace in the province.

Jokowi’s image as a promoter of human rights has been complicated further by questionable cabinet appointments, such as the appointment of Ryamizard Ryacudu as defence minister. A military hardliner, Ryacudu has been linked to allegations of human rights violations in Papua. Following a cabinet reshuffle in August 2015, Luhut Panjaitan was appointed coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs. Regarded as one of Jokowi’s closest advisers, Panjaitan served in the Kopassus Special Forces group. He has been outspoken in his opposition to addressing past abuses. Activists and legal experts also doubt the willingness of the new attorney-general, Muhammad Prasetyo, to address severe human rights violations.

But it was never going to be easy for Jokowi and his administration. Beyond the inherent intricacies of human rights protection and implementation in Indonesia, the new president was faced with three major challenges from the outset: his lack of control over the legislature, internal struggle within his own party and high expectations for his presidency.

Jokowi’s cabinet appointments and the competing discourses surrounding human rights issues in Indonesia reveal the challenges reformers face. While members of the ‘old guard’ and their supporters remain in positions of power, approaches to the implementation of human rights continue to be ambivalent. Even if Jokowi has the right intentions, it remains to be seen what leverage — if any — he has in a constraining environment where he has limited authority.

Dr Ken Setiawan is a McKenzie research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute.

A version of this article was first published in Asian Currents, the newsletter of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.

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