Before Indonesia’s former President Suharto was forced to stand down in 1998, many Western and local media described him as his country’s first democratically elected leader. This was done simply because most journalists were scared of him and his nepotistic regime.
Once gone, and no longer a threat, correspondents immediately changed their tune and referred to the nation’s accepted face of democracy as the “former dictator Suharto” or “the strongman”.
It was an inglorious flip-flop but one that recognized the realities of his 32-year rule.
Fourteen years since his forced retirement, a landmark investigation has determined just how mean Suharto could be, finding he had committed a “gross violation of human rights” when conducting the communist purges of the mid-1960s.
It’s the stuff made famous by Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously, an 840-page report into the massacres of hundreds of thousands of people after an alleged failed coup by the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) against then President Sukarno.
The plot to overthrow was never fully proven.
Nevertheless, Suharto, a major-general at the time, led a military response that wiped-out perhaps half a million PKI and others with suspected links to the communists, including family, sympathizers and people simply caught on the sidelines of a paranoid and nasty regime.
Suharto replaced Sukarno with his role in the pogroms hushed-up and quietly ignored until after his death in 2008.
A draft bill for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was attempted but failed in 2006. Legal action brought by survivors has also failed while a personal apology by former President Abdurrahman Wahid was considered by many as inadequate.
Authors of the latest report by Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) are recommending that Jakarta embark on a national reconciliation process including compensation for the survivors and legal action against those responsible for the killings.
“Komnas HAM is a serious outfit and their work is solid,” said Greg Barton, the Herb Feith Research Professor for the Study of Indonesia at Monash University in Australia. “Their reports represent some of the most significant critiques of the Suharto regime to be published in the post-Suharto era.”
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has told Indonesia’s Attorney General to follow up on the report which maintains that military officers from that period should stand trial.
However, finding justice for crimes committed almost 50 years ago will prove difficult if only for the logistics required to build a case for the prosecution. Previous governments have also been accused of going slow on follow-up investigations into findings of previous cases made by the commission.
“I don't have any strong expectations that we will see either prosecutions or payment of compensation. Nothing over the past 14 years gives us reason to hope that we will see concrete outcomes,” Barton said.
“Nevertheless, if this process results in profound and serious public reflection then whatever the legal outcome something substantial will have been achieved.”
That said, victims of a much less known incident might have better luck. Komnas HAM has also conducted a separate inquiry into the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, in what became known as the petrus killings of the early 1980s.
Petrus is an Indonesian abbreviation meaning mysterious shootings.
They died in another Suharto crackdown, this time on known criminals between 1982 and 1985. Suharto has admitted to the unilateral killings, designed to remove thugs and lower an escalating crime rate. People were singled out by security forces and killed, some simply because they had a tattoo.
The commission found that people who had not committed any crimes also died.
“Based on our analysis, there was evidence of attacks committed by a group of people who were actually part of law enforcement,” Komnas HAM Commissioner, Yoseph Adi Prasetyo told journalists at a recent press conference.
“There were also cases of wrong targets, where the victims were never involved in any crimes but became victims because they happened to have the same names,” he said.
Komnas HAM said corpses related to the petrus killings were found across the country’s main islands of Java and Sumatra while related incidents were reported from Bandung, Makassar, Pontianak, Banyuwangi and Bali.
Suharto was forced to stand down in May, 1998, after anti-government riots left 1,000 people dead, many more injured and thousands of buildings destroyed. Attempts to try him for corruption and genocide failed amid a lack of support and claims that ill-health meant he was not fit to stand trial.
Another Indonesian analyst, who declined to be named, added the recent re-emergence of Maj. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law of Suharto, onto Indonesia’s political landscape could prove a further hurdle in finding justice for victims of past crimes.
“Over the last 14 years Prabowo has traded in his military greens for tailored suits and re-invented himself as a businessman-cum-politician and is expected to contest elections in 2014,” he said.
Prabowo used his troops to organize gangs of thugs during the 1998 riots that attacked and razed scores of Chinese businesses in Jakarta while publicly urging Indonesians to help him in confronting "traitors to the nation."
As leader of the Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra), Prabowo’s chances of victory at the next poll remain a distinct possibility, and that in itself will cause investigators hoping to find some closure for Suharto’s victims much concern.
Such concerns will no doubt be shared among Indonesia’s local and foreign press corps who would prefer not to recycle old cliché’s dating back to Prabowo’s in-laws.