Unburying the Past

While some nations in Southeast Asia turn away, Indonesia looks back on a tortured past.

Lost in the slow news of summer, the Olympics, and the conflict over the South China Sea, last week Indonesia released a report that was truly groundbreaking for Southeast Asia, in its willingness to examine serious past human rights abuses. In Thailand, the killings of 2010, in the streets of Bangkok, have not been properly examined, in a way that clearly assigns blame and ends controversy. In Burma, despite the promising political reforms, there has of yet been no real effort to analyze the vast abuses committed over the past fifty years by the military and the ethnic armies. In Cambodia, the Hun Sen government has for years stalled serious investigation of past crimes by the Khmer Rouge (KR). Cambodia under Hun Sen also has not included the KR period in most textbooks for Cambodian schools.

But last week the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) released a more than 800-page report that analyzes the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians that took place in the mid-1960s, during the time that Suharto and the army took over the country and pushed out Sukarno and the communist PKI. Luke Hunt has a fine overview of the new report.

For four decades, even after Suharto’s regime fell in the late 1990s, the mid-1960s bloodletting, which tore apart society and led to neighbor-against-neighbor and family-against-family killings, the Indonesian government essentially buried any discussion of the era, the famed “Years of Living Dangerously.” But now this is a dramatic reversal. The report has been heavily covered in the Indonesians media, and should open up a more thorough discussion of the period, as well as a more accurate assessment of Suharto’s time – polls taken last year showed that many Indonesians have a more positive view of the Suharto era than they do of the post-1990s democratic era. In addition, the government of current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to its credit, has vowed to push forward with analysis and potential prosecutions based on the report. However, many Indonesian legislators have responded by saying that the country should just forgive and forget the past.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @JoshKurlantzick